CC Blog

CC Malayalam Blog

Join News Letter

Iraq War

Peak Oil

Climate Change

US Imperialism











Gujarat Pogrom



India Elections



Submission Policy

Contact Us

Fill out your
e-mail address
to receive our newsletter!




Environmental Justice For Palestine

By Alice Gray

23 March, 2007

With the formation of a new Palestinian Unity government opening up the possibility of a shift in Palestine's diplomatic relations, both with Israel and with the wider international community, there has been much focus in recent weeks upon the willingness of the new Palestinian government to submit to international pressure (particularly from the 'Quartet' which includes the US, the EU, Russia and the UN) to "acknowledge Israel, renounce violence and abide by past peace agreements". These are the conditions for relaxing the international aid embargo that has been in force for the last year, throttling the Palestinian economy and causing widespread hardship throughout Palestinian society; and for resumption of peace negotiations with Israel, which could bring about an end to the military occupation of the Palestinian Territories, and the formation of a Palestinian State.

However, there has been no focus on the content of past peace agreements and hence the implications of adhering to them; neither has there been any similar pressure placed on Israel, or any examination, indeed scarcely even a mention, of Israel's track record in keeping past agreements. With regard to the content of the agreements which it is demanded that Palestinians must abide by, this is a particularly serious omission. The pervading attitude in the international media appears to be a somewhat simplistic interpretation that unwillingness to honour the letter of past agreements implies unwillingness to make peace.

This is a totally misguided interpretation. The peace agreements in question, principally the Oslo Accords and the Road Map to Peace, cover not just undertakings to bring about the cessation of violence but also access to and control over natural resources and land, which are pivotal both to the daily lives of Palestinians and to the viability of a future Palestinian State. There are extremely good, practical, sensible reasons for a Palestinian government to avoid committing themselves to abiding by the letter of past agreements with Israel. Namely that currently the agreements preclude Palestinians from effectively accessing resources that are vital for life, and from exercising effective environmental management, causing serious and potentially irreversible degradation of their homeland.

Oslo and the Palestinian Environment

In 1993, the year of the first Oslo Agreement, the World Bank published a report entitled "Developing the Occupied Territories: An Investment in Peace" in which it described the provision of public services and infrastructure in the Occupied Territories as 'highly inadequate'. Water, solid waste and wastewater infrastructure were practically non-existent; hence the standard of living in Palestinian localities lagged way behind that enjoyed within Israel and also in other Middle Eastern countries; and poor waste management threatened the environment with serious pollution and degradation. The reason for this was essentially neglect and underinvestment during the Israeli Administration from 1967 to 1993. It is pointed out in the report that the investment in Palestinian infrastructure by the Israeli Civil Administration was not equal to the amount payed in taxes by Palestinians. Thus from its inception, the Palestinian administration had a gargantuan task in front of it to develop Palestinian infrastructure and implement programs of environmental protection. Despite high investment by many international donors, progress on the ground has been much slower than it ought to have been. This is due to the deficiencies and ambiguities in the Oslo Agreement, and the way in which it has been interpreted and implemented (and violated) by successive Israeli Administrations. More recently development has been as good as halted by escalating violence and the international aid boycott.

Oslo and Land:

The key to understanding how the Oslo Agreement has prevented Palestinians from exercising effective environmental management is the division of control of land under Oslo. According to the Oslo Interim Agreement (1995) the West Bank was divided up into three zones: Areas A, B and C.

In Area A, which comprised 4 % of the land area of the West Bank, complete authority was granted to the PA. In Area B, which comprised 25 % of the West Bank, civil authority was given to the PA and military authority retained by Israel; whereas in Area C, some 71 % of the West Bank, Israel retained total control [1]. Under the Oslo Interim Agreement (1995) it was envisaged that Israel would gradually withdraw its military presence in three phases starting with Area A (major Palestinian towns to be evacuated before elections could take place), then Area B, followed by most of Area C, excluding settlements and military bases, over a period of 18 months:

"The two sides agree that West Bank and Gaza Strip territory, except for issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations, will come under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Council in a phased manner, to be completed within 18 months from the date of the inauguration of the Council." (Oslo Interim Agreement, Article XI, Paragraph 2)

However, the exact nature of the redeployment of Israel's military presence after withdrawal from Area A is not specified, nor is the amount of land they will withdraw from quantified. Today Area A comprises 17.8 % of the West Bank's land area (up 13.8 % from 1995), Area B comprises 18.3 % (down 6.7 % from 1995), Area C comprises 61.5 % (down 9.5 % from 1995) and 3 % is classified as Nature Reserves. Thus whilst there has been some redeployment and some transfer of authority over some areas, the ability of Palestinians to control and develop their environment has been and continues to be extremely limited and has not lived up to the spirit of the peace agreements, which envisaged a transition from an occupied territory to a viable state. Instead, the Palestinian Territories are becoming a series of rotting Bantustans, without adequate access to resources to sustain themselves.

Urban centres in Areas A and B are becoming increasingly crowded as people migrate from the countryside, forced off their land by settlement expansion, land confiscation, military closures, lack of security and deteriorating socioeconomic conditions. The urban economy is not robust enough to absorb the influx of people and unemployment and poverty are escalating. Population density in Palestinian cities is among the highest in the world, exceeding 6000 people per square kilometre [2]. Provision of public services, already inadequate in the early 1990s, lags behind population growth. Sewage systems are strained and overflowing, and unmanaged dumping and burning of waste is an endemic problem in urban landscapes. This causes soil, water and air pollution; which in turn threaten public health. Access to land is needed to develop sanitary landfill sites and sewage treatment facilities. However, this access is frequently delayed by cumbersome beaurocratic procedures or outright denied by Israeli authorities, who cite security concerns as a reason to prevent development from going forward. Closure of large tracts of land has increased pressure on the remaining open areas, encouraging intensive farming practices and overgrazing; which cause soil degradation and erosion, and loss of biodiversity. Since 2002, these problems have been exacerbated and escalated by the construction of the 'Security Fence' (as the Israeli Administration calls it) or 'Segregation Wall' (as Palestinians prefer to call it), which snakes deep inside Palestinian Territory, escalating land confiscation and environmental destruction, imposing worse movement restrictions, decreasing access to land, ghettoizing urban communities and isolating and impoverishing rural ones.

Oslo and Water

When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, the second military order passed declared all water resources in the region to be 'Israeli State Property'. Several subsequent military orders essentially froze water development in Palestine, fixing pumping quotas and prohibiting rehabilitation of wells or drilling of new wells without a permit. Additionally, all Palestinian pumping stations on the Jordan River were destroyed or confiscated, and Palestinians have had no access to the river since then. At the same time, Israel moved to exploit the water resources of the West Bank for its own ends, drilling 38 wells deep wells, largely to supply settlements. Between 1967 and 1990 only 23 permits were issued for drilling wells in the West Bank, of which 20 were for domestic use only[3] . The number of working wells in the West Bank decreased from 413 in 1967 to 300 in 1983 [4]. This was due to drying out of wells caused by the dropping water table and the drilling of deeper wells by Israel and also because owners could not obtain permits to rehabilitate wells or equipment.

By 1993, Palestinians had access to only 20 % of the water of the Mountain Aquifer system underlying the West Bank and no access to the Jordan River. Average water supply totalled just 60 litres per person per day [5], way below World Health Organization recommendations of 150 litres per person per day; and many Palestinian towns and villages were not even connected to the water network. Israel was utilizing 80 % of the Mountain Aquifer, both to supply settlements and communities in Israel. Disastrously for water starved Palestinian communities, the Oslo Interim Agreement did nothing the redress this inequality, and in fact reinforced it. Annex III, Article 40 of the agreement states that Israel "recognizes the Palestinian water rights in the West Bank" but that "these will be negotiated in the Permanent Status Agreement relating to the various water resources". In the meantime, it was agreed that "existing quantities of utilization" were to be maintained; although Palestinian were to be allowed to develop some additional water resources from the Eastern part of the Mountain Aquifer system (a total of 70-80 MCM per year). Israel's exploitation of 80% of the Mountain Aquifer water was formally endorsed in the Oslo Agreement, until such a time as the Final Status Negotiation should take place.

It was further agreed that development of water and sewage systems would be coordinated by a Joint Water Committee a management institution containing equal numbers of Israeli and Palestinian representatives. All development of water resources in the West Bank must be approved by the JWC before it can go ahead. This includes rehabilitation of wells, drilling of new wells and increasing abstraction from any source. Furthermore, construction of pipelines in Israeli controlled areas and areas under joint control (Areas B and C) cannot go ahead without approval. Absolute authority over water resources is retained by the Water Officer of the Israeli Civil Administration, who has the power to veto JWC decisions.

There has been much criticism of the JWC since it began work, with accusations from the Palestinian side of obstruction and lack of cooperation by the Israelis [6]. It is undoubtedly the case that, despite appearing to be egalitarian in structure, containing as it does equal numbers of representatives from each side, the JWC in fact confers a large advantage to the Israelis for the simple reason that the Palestinians stand in much greater need of developing their water resources and distribution systems. The Israeli settler population of the West Bank number between 0.2 and 0.25 million (not including East Jerusalem settlers) and have access to ample water supplies – possibly up to 9 times as much per capita as an average West Bank Palestinian [7]. Therefore the capacity for Israelis to obstruct desperately needed Palestinian water developments is much greater than vice versa. In fact, what has ensued is a modus operandi whereby Palestinians have been forced to agree to new water infrastructure for illegal Israeli settlements in return for Israeli agreement to water developments for water starved Palestinian communities.

To date the Oslo Agreement on water has not been fully implemented. However, even if it was, the quantity of water allotted to the Palestinians (including additional quantities) is not enough to meet the basic needs of the current population; and takes no account of population growth and economic development. Currently 13 % of the population of the West Bank remain unconnected to the water network [8], and only 46% of communities who are connected receive 100% coverage [9]. Lack of access to water is crippling the agricultural economy and decreasing overall food security. There is only one functioning wastewater treatment plant to serve a population of more than 2 million people, and wastewater collection infrastructure is far from adequate. In addition, construction of the Israeli Segregation Wall has caused the destruction of 29 wells and 32 springs and 35 km of water pipes as well as many cisterns and reservoirs [10]. Furthermore, 50 wells and 200 cisterns have been isolated behind the wall or confiscated for 'security reasons' [11]. Thus the growing Palestinian population's access to water is ever more restricted and present per capita availability of water is the lowest of all the countries in the Middle East.

Oslo and Settlements:

Since 1993, Israel has expanded civilian presence in the West Bank, creating a series of 'facts on the ground' which make eventual withdrawal seem increasingly unlikely. Existing settlements have been expanded, new settlements built, and a network of roads for the exclusive use of Israelis put into place, further fragmenting the Palestinian environment, and causing the destruction of thousands of acres of farmland. Furthermore, the construction of the Segregation Wall to protect these settlement blocks will annex 10 % of the West Bank to Israel (555 km2), and has already directly caused the destruction of over 1 million trees, thousands of acres of farmland and over 50 wells; causing a serious downturn in the rural economy and the quality of life in rural areas.

Besides this, the Settlements themselves constitute a serious environmental hazard as few of them implement any form of waste management or wastewater treatment; and in many cases both solid waste and untreated sewage are discharged into the surrounding Palestinian environment. In addition, over 160 Israeli industrial sites are attached to settlements, taking advantage of the lack of enforcement of environmental standards in the West Bank. These discharge industrial waste and effluents into the Palestinian environment, causing pollution of soil, water and air [12]. Damage to Palestinian farmland in the form of soil pollution from industrial effluents and untreated wastewater has further harmed the already struggling Palestinian agricultural sector [13].

The failure of the Oslo Accords to explicitly ban Settlement growth in the Occupied Territories is a serious flaw in the agreement. Article XXXI, Clause 7 of the Interim Agreement states that: "Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations." It has been argued by Palestinians that Settlement expansion is a direct contravention of this provision; however, Israelis have argued that expansion is due to 'natural population growth' (although in reality it far exceeds it), and that settlements do not constitute a 'change in the status of the West Bank', as they are not permanent structures. Although the Wall clearly does alter the status of the West Bank, it is justified by Israel under Article XII Clause 1 of the Oslo Interim Agreement which states: "Israel shall continue to carry the responsibility…..for overall security of Israelis and Settlements, for the purpose of safeguarding their internal security and public order, and will have all the powers to take the steps necessary to meet this responsibility." Settlements are essentially a tool used by Israel to appropriate land and resources in the West Bank, whilst systematically undermining the viability of the Palestinian State: fragmenting and degrading the Palestinian environment and turning it into a dumping ground for Israeli industries.

The Road Map to Peace

Following the collapse of the Oslo Process and the outbreak of the Second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in September 2000 (largely as a result of the failure of Oslo to deliver promised improvements in standard of living and continuing Israeli Settlement expansion), the Road Map to Peace was drawn up by the Quartet in 2002, and implementation began in 2003. In its own words the Road Map is a "performance based and goal driven [agreement], with clear phases, timelines, target dates, and benchmarks aiming at progress through reciprocal steps by the two parties in the political, security, economic, humanitarian, and institution-building fields….. The destination is a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict by 2005".

The Road Map was to be a two phase process, in which the first phase sought to create the conditions for Final Status Negotiation to take place in the second phase, which would conclude in the creation of an independent Palestinian State, living in peace with Israel. The first phase was to include a cessation in all terrorist activities by the Palestinians, and a freeze in all Settlement activity (including natural growth) by Israelis. Phase II was scheduled to begin between June and December of 2003, and was to include an International Conference to promote Palestinian economic recovery, a revival of multi-lateral cooperation on issues such as water, environment and arms control, and eventually, creation of an independent Palestinian State. Essentially it was an attempt to revert from the violence of the Intifada to the 'peace process' that had been in force before it broke out, and with the exception of banning settlement expansion, addressed none of the problems which had made Oslo such an unsatisfactory agreement in the first place. Like Oslo, it deferred resolution of these issues to 'Final Status Negotiations', which would take place at the end of the second phase.

The second phase of the Road Map never came about, and the timelines and target dates of the first phase are all long surpassed. The Hudna (ceasefire) that was called in 2003 has well and truly broken down, and settlement expansion in the West Bank continues apace, both on an official (Israeli government approved) and unofficial basis. For example, in February this year it was revealed that Israeli government bodies are currently promoting a plan to build a neighbourhood of 11 000 housing units in Arab East Jerusalem [14]; and in October 2006, a Haaretz exposé revealed that "a secret, two year investigation by the [Israeli] defense establishment shows that there has been rampant illegal construction in dozens of settlements, in many cases involving privately owned Palestinian properties", as well as 107 new settlement outposts. [15]

Environmental Justice and the viability of the Palestinian State

While peace negotiations stall and the international community continue their aid boycott, environmental and humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian Territories are steadily worsening; and the dream of a viable, independent Palestinian state is receding further and further into the distance. Soil degradation, pollution of groundwater and air pollution are all consequences of poor waste management practices in Palestinian towns and Israeli settlements. Palestinians are hampered in dealing with these problems by the conditions imposed under past peace agreements, the ongoing conflict, Israeli obstruction and economic hardship. At the same time, Palestinian access to environmental goods and services is being eroded by land closure, settlement expansion, construction of Israeli by-pass roads and construction of the Segregation Wall.

Viability is intimately intertwined with sustainability and environmental justice. In order for a Palestinian State to be viable it must exist within an environment that allows it to sustain itself, with sufficient access to environmental goods and services to allow a decent standard of living for the Palestinian people. Environmental justice has been defined as: "a condition….when environmental risks and hazards and investments and benefits are equally distributed with a lack of discrimination, whether direct or indirect, at any jurisdictional level; and when access to environmental investments, benefits, and natural resources are equally distributed; and when access to information, participation in decision making, and access to justice in environment-related matters are enjoyed by all." [16]

No past peace deal between Israel and Palestine has successfully incorporated this concept, and the situation in the Palestinian Territories today encapsulates environmental injustice. All past agreements have deferred definition of environmental rights to elusive 'Final Status Negotiations' which have never taken place. In order to address pressing environmental problems, which are also impacting severely on public health it is vitally important that these negotiations take place without further delay. A return to the status quo of Oslo is not adequate. A new deal is needed, that recognizes and addresses contemporary conditions in the Palestinian Territories, confers sufficient sovereignty on the Palestinian Authority to manage and develop the Palestinian environment and recognizes the environmental rights of the Palestinian people.

Suggestions that Final Status talks should take place at a recent US brokered tripartite summit in February this year were dismissed out of hand by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. [17] Currently the Israeli government refuses to recognize the Palestinian Unity government, and is calling on the International Community to continue the aid boycott which is stalling many desperately needed development projects and causing widespread economic hardship in the Palestinian population. In the meantime, Israeli settlement expansion continues, expanding Israeli control over Palestinian land and resources, and eroding the viability of the future Palestinian State. By turning all the focus on the Palestinian Unity governments' willingness to abide by past agreements which are essentially obsolete, recognize an Israeli State which has not yet declared its borders and renounce armed struggle against an oppressive military occupation, the International community allow this blatant injustice to persist, whilst simultaneously imposing communal punishment on the Palestinian people for voting the wrong way in a democratic election. It is up to the International community to demand Israeli participation in final status negotiations with the Palestinian Unity government. If current trends are allowed to continue, the establishment of a viable Palestinian State will become impossible, and Palestinians will be locked into a series of rotting ghettoes within a matrix of Israeli control.
Alice Gray is a researcher at the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem (, a Palestinian environmental NGO based in Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestinian Territories, and a columnist for News from Within, a publication of the Alternative Information Centre (

[1] Avi Shlaim, 2001. Peace confounded. In: Index on Censorship 1, pp 50-55.

[2] Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem, 2007. Status of the Environment in the Palestinian Territories. (In press)

[3] Yousef Nasser, Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, 2003. . Palestinian Water Needs and Rights in the Context of Past and Future Development. In: Water in Palestine: Problems – Politics – Prospects.

[4] Ibid.

[5] World Bank, Washington DC, September 1993. Developing the Palestinian Territories: An Investment in Peace.

[6] Directorate General of Resources and Planning, Palestinian Water Authority, 2003. Status of Wells in the Drilling Sub-Committee.

[7] Foundation for Middle East Peace, Washington DC, 1998. The Socioeconomic impact of Settlement on land, water and the Palestinian Economy

[8] Directorate General of Resources and Planning, Palestinian Water Authority, 2005. Quantities of Water Supply in the West Bank Governorates.

[9]Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Monitoring Project, Palestinian Hydrology Group, 2005. Water for Life: Continued Israeli Assault on Palestinian Water, Sanitation and Hygiene during the Intifada.

[10] Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem, 2006. Database on the Palestinian Environmental Conditions.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Foundation for Middle East Peace, 1998

[13] Applied Redearch Institute – Jerusalem, 2007

[14] Meron Rapoport, Haaretz Correspondent, February 28th, 2007. Government promoting plan for new Ultra-Orthodox East Jerusalem neighbourhood.

[15] Amos Harel, Haaretz Correspondent, October 24th, 2006. Settlements grow on Arab land despite promises made to US.

[16] Wikipedia,

[17] Gil Ronen, Arutz Sheva – Israel National News, February 13th 2007. Israel – No Final Status Talks at Summit.


Click here to comment
on this article


Get CC HeadlinesOn your Desk Top


Search Our Archive

Our Site