Open Zion

08.21.12

The Settlement Movement and The Environmental Card

I spent four days talking to about two-dozen settlers earlier this month, in their homes and their places of business in the West Bank, hoping to get insight into how they see their future.  Because many of us in America are quick to stigmatize them, I wanted to hear from their own mouths how they feel about annexation, occupation and territorial compromise. 

Sadly, I got an earful of triumphalism (they feel they have “won the battle” for Judea and Samaria) as well as hateful views of “Arabs” (most of them refuse to call them “Palestinians”). But there was also a recurrent theme that was entirely unexpected— the claim that Arabs in the West Bank are engaging in “environmental terrorism,” dumping raw sewage into streams, polluting the water supply and refusing for their own shortsighted political reasons to cooperate with Israel to save the earth. Here comes Environmental Zionism.   

The threats to the environment in the West Bank are dire.  “Most of the rivers that originate in Palestine and cross into Israel are polluted, resulting in cross border pollution that has an impact on both sides. Aquifers, which are also shared, continue to be degraded from excessive pumping and seepage from domestic, agricultural and industrial sewage, causing massive damage to the drinking water consumed by both peoples,” according to David Lehrer and Dr. Clive Lipchin of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. In another example of the wreck and ruin of the occupation, settlers and Palestinians blame each other. 

I begin my four-day tour in Ariel in the northern West Bank—Samaria—which sits right on top of the Mountain Aquifer upon which the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank and the major Israeli population centers depend.  The view from the road to Ariel from the West, along the spine of the watershed, is beautiful.  The land seems vast and empty.  “Look at this,” Ron Jager, a strategic advisor to the Shomron District, enthusiastically exclaims.  “There is plenty of room for everybody!”

Miri Maoz-Ovadia of the Yesha Council who lives in Neve Tsuf, about 25 miles to the south of Ariel, is my driver.  Neve Tsuf was the site of weekly demonstrations that began in 2009 when the Palestinians of the neighboring village of Nabi Saleh, aided by Israeli activists (Maoz-Ovadia called them “anarchists”) protested the theft of their land along with their spring. (The seizure of this particular spring sticks in the craw of Palestinian activists—see the “infographic.”) “It’s a nature preserve,” Maoz-Ovadia insists, “and now we are preserving it.  Water doesn’t belong to anyone.”

Actually, it does. Under Oslo II, even though the Mountain Aquifer is supposedly “shared” by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel exploits its effective control by extracting up to 80 percent of the water while Palestinians extract some 20 percent. “Over-pumping threatens the long term viability of the groundwater, resulting in the drying up of springs,” according to Friends of the Earth Middle East.  (Many settlers tell me that Israel gives more water to Palestinians than is required by Oslo but no one could give me any data to substantiate this claim.)

A few minutes after my conversation with Maoz-Ovadia, I am in the office of Yaakov Anker, a Ph.D. environmental researcher at Ariel University who tells me, “eighty percent of the pollution in the region (Shomron and Ariel) is from Palestinian villages.” He mentions a conference that took place the week before at the university entitled “Environment Without Borders” and complains that virtually no Palestinians came.  (Friends of the Earth also refused to attend.) “They won’t cooperate with us even when it is for their own good,” he says.  I ask why the conference was held in a settlement, a symbol of occupation, rather than a neutral location, if the Israelis wanted Palestinians to attend. “I am not political,” he says.

Anker is not alone in blaming Palestinians. No one mentions, however, that many Israeli settlements do the same, as substantiated by Friends of the Earth Middle East. And it is not uncommon for Israelis to hire Palestinians to dispose of solid or construction waste on public land,” says the official governmental report for the Ariel conference. They don’t have wastewater treatment plants because they are broke; poverty also leads them to co-operate with illegal dumpers in return for payment, according to the head of a Samarian regional council, Eliezer Hisdai. 

Yehudit Tayar of Beit Horon, among others, also blames European donors for enabling Palestinian waste, suggesting that EU support is literally being poured down the drain.  Israel’s Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan goes further and says “donor countries should agree to only continue giving the [Palestinian] villages financial support if they agree to [cooperate with Israel by] connecting to its sewage lines.” 

Palestinian activists say the sewage issue is being used as a pretext. “When 60% of West Bank is deemed area C and off-use to Palestinians, when Israel controls where we are allowed to dump our trash, when a well requires IDF permission, which does not come, you better believe people will act out of a rational context, just like we build without permits in Jerusalem where permits are used as a weapon to depopulate our neighborhoods there,“ says Ramallah-based Palestinian businessman Sam Bahour. 

Where were these newly minted settler environmentalists in the last 20 years when the settlements were being sited for strategic and political reasons, environment be damned? “The very establishment of the settlements was a political act almost completely disconnected from environmental concerns or long-term planning,” says Haaretz environmental writer Zafrir Rinat. “The settlements were built in order to grab land for Jews by establishing many dozens of residential points and small outposts, requiring the extensive - and expensive - dispersion of infrastructures and roads,” he says.  “The cost of the race to put facts on the ground by Israeli settlement activity was paid by nature.” 

It is hard to imagine a resolution to the environmental disaster in the absence of an end to military occupation and freedom and security for all. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of both sides gets hotter and the environment pays the price.