Long before the ‘intractable conflict’ between Israeli Jews and Palestinians gets resolved, through the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state, a single apartheid state or a multi-ethnic federation of some sort, climate change will have thrown everything up for grabs – literally. The ensuing crisis will either accentuate inequity and conflict, or prompt solutions for once and for all, for everyone’s benefit.
The crisis is here. Worst case scenarios forecast a four degree rise in mean surface temperature in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Predicted warming “will significantly affect ecosystems, human health and socio-economic aspects,” a Tel Aviv University research team reported in March 2018.
And four degrees is just an average. This past summer, in Sodom, on the southern edge of the Dead Sea, the mercury climbed to 49.9 C (122 F). People die under such conditions. I was in Jericho at the end of May, when the average temperature is 25 C. I didn’t have a thermometer on hand, but boy it was hot – hotter air than I’d ever known, outside of a clothes drier set to high. It was easily 45 C, twenty degrees above the monthly average. Walking around Aqbat Jabr refugee camp for more than ten minutes was more than I could bear. A bloody furnace.
As Earth warms, killer heat waves will get hotter and more frequent, climate scientists warn. Assuming business as usual scenarios, where atmospheric CO2 continues to rise through the 21st century (scenario ‘RCP8.5’, in climate jargon), the Israeli researchers’ model predicts 49% longer dry summers by the end of the century (25% by 2050) and 56% shorter rainy winters. Climate models reveal similar shifts under the more optimistic RCP4.5 scenario, where CO2 concentrations peak at 2040.
Among the conflict-rife outcomes: reduced potential for dry farming and grazing, increasing fires, and a rise in the prevalence of insect-borne viral human and animal infections. Water will grow scarcer, and the timing and pattern of precipitation will change. With a worst-case thirty percent drop in rainfall by 2100, drought, extreme rain events, flash floods and sand storms will become more frequent.
Zeroing in on crop responses to warming, another group of Israeli researchers warn that rising aridity “may seriously impact the carrying capacity” of grazing lands. “Grazing may need to be concentrated in more productive areas (i.e. wadis or stream valleys) during drought years to prevent overgrazing,” they wrote. “The higher vulnerability of primary production in arid sites will necessitate adaptive management of these ecosystems in order to maintain them as viable rangelands.”
Adaptation under Apartheid
Anyone familiar with the plight of Bedouin shepherds in the Jordan Valley or South Hebron Hills, constantly harassed by soldiers and settlers (who receive copious water supplies for cheap), will either laugh or cry at the thought of Palestinians moving to more productive areas, or cooperating on ‘adaptive management’ with soldiers and settlers who simply want them gone.
Their challenge is all the more unjust, given their contribution to the problem. Palestine’s greenhouse gas emissions are vanishingly small — 3.2 mega (million) tonnes in 2011; 0.8 per capita. (Israel’s emissions are almost twenty-five times higher; ten times higher per capita.) In its ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), shortly after acceding to the treaty in March 17, 2016, the Palestinian Authority (PA) committed to a thirteen percent cut by 2040, under continuing Israeli occupation, and to a twenty-four percent cut by 2040 if Palestine is independent, and in full control of its land base and natural resources.
Palestine outlined two reduction pathways, the first without condition, the second with financial support. In the absence of major financing, cuts would be achieved through small-scale urban design and carbon sequestration projects (e.g. solar panels on public buildings; reforestation). With financial aid, Palestine would generate a third of its electricity through solar photovoltaics; twenty percent of the coal it currently uses to produce cement would be replaced by incinerated municipal waste, generating a megawatt of electricity in the process; fourteen thousand tonnes of landfill gas would be diverted from the atmosphere, into power generation plants; municipal buildings would undergo energy retrofits; tax credits would be issued to hybrid vehicle drivers; a network of compressed natural gas stations would fuel 20% of Palestinian trucks and buses by 2040.
Perversely, the deal that was supposed to liberate Palestine now poses the biggest obstacle to achieving these goals. Under the 1994-95 Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into three areas. Areas A and B, under full or partial Palestinian control, constitute forty percent of the West Bank. An archipelago of some 170 enclaves, autonomy there is largely a fiction.
Area C, under full Israeli military and civil control, constitutes the remaining sixty percent. Dotted with Jewish settlements and military bases, crisscrossed by settler-only roads, Area C is essentially off-limits to Palestinian energy and water infrastructure. The 150,000 Palestinians living there have no rights, other than those guaranteed under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel ignores.
With no control over their land and water, Area C Palestinians are largely incapable of adapting to climate change. Shepherds are driven from the most productive land, denied access to Israel’s National Water Carrier, Mekorot, and to springs seized by settlers. Their water collection and conveyance systems are destroyed. Solar panels on structures built without permits – virtually impossible to obtain in Area C – are demolished along with the unlawful structures. Denied power, shepherding communities cannot refrigerate their food or medications, preserve their dairy products, pump water or charge their phones.
In Areas A and B, ostensibly under PA control, the situation is only marginally better. Virtually all electricity is provided by Israel. Those segments of the grid under Palestinian ‘control’ are as disconnected as the Area A/B archipelago itself. Requests to run transmission lines from enclave to enclave, through Area C, face routine delay and denial.
The Israelis are even more opposed to wind turbines. They disturb settlers and kill birds, Israeli authorities say. “The PA [is] trying to develop wind power, but the Israeli side keeps impeding the development of this sector, citing the security aspect as a main reason,” says Basil Yaseen of the Palestinian Energy and Natural Resources Authority. According to Nedal Katbeh-Bader, Palestine’s representative to the UNFCCC, the Palestinian Energy Authority is “always in touch” with its Israeli counterparts,” but “It is not cooperation; it is some kind of coordination … The reality is that Israel is controlling everything.”
Still, the Palestinians soldier on. A 30 MW solar project has been launched in Hebron, with Chinese financing. Transmission lines to Hebron’s hinterlands, through Area C, have yet to be approved. In northern Tubas, the Palestinians want to install five hundred solar panels on school rooftops, with financing from the Palestinian Investment Fund (PIF). Thirty have been installed to date.
More ambitious projects for Gaza have been pitched to the World Bank and affiliated Green Climate Fund (GCF). A four billion-dollar solar energy scheme, in partnership with the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company, would generate eighty percent of Gaza’s industrial needs and 800 jobs. Palestine’s 45 million Euro pitch to the GCF would involve pumping Gaza wastewater back into the coastal aquifer, for subsequent irrigation withdrawal. The proposal will be considered this November, PA officials say.
The European Union and EU member states, meanwhile, have contributed over 700 million Euros to PA energy projects, some of them involving solar-based rural electrification. Twenty-six installations, worth 49 million Euros, have been demolished by the Israelis.
The Noor Solar Park, in the Nuwimeh desert outside Jericho, is Palestine’s largest renewable energy project to date. Owned by the Palestinian company Masseder, with financing from the Palestinian Investment Fund, the twenty-thousand-panel facility has the capacity to generate 7.5 MW of power, that gets sold to the Palestine Electricity Transmission Company. PETC, in turn, supplies the Jerusalem District Electricity Company (JDECO), which purchases over 95% of its power from Israel, for delivery to East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jericho.
Independent Palestinian and Israeli entrepreneurs have also been at work, promoting energy self-sufficiency and climate resilience under military occupation. The Israeli-registered NGO and “mini-utility” Comet-ME installs hybrid wind-solar systems in off-grid communities from Bethlehem down to the South Hebron Hills. Their single-family setups and community “micro-grids” generate up to 2.5 kilowatts of power per day, enough for lighting, refrigeration, pumping water, churning butter and phone charging. Smart metering helps cash-strapped communities pay their own way. Over the next decade, Comet-ME aims to provide universal energy access throughout Area C – a tall order, given Israel’s opposing quest to expel Palestinians and expand settlements.
The distance between settlement power lines and the seventy villages Comet-ME serves – home to some 6000 Palestinians – “is not geographical, but political,” says Comet-ME. Jewish settlers receive cheap, continuous power (and water), through lines running above the Palestinians’ heads, or beneath their feet. Settlers are known to fly drones over Palestinian dwellings, in search of illegal connections to report to the IDF. Although none of Comet-ME’s systems have been demolished, one set-up was confiscated (subsequently returned, with legal aid), and eighteen are under demolition order.
Another Palestinian energy entrepreneur who wishes to remain anonymous also installs solar panels and mini-wind turbines in Area C. Armed with an entrepreneurship award and promises of financial aid, he had originally dreamed of generating a quarter of the West Bank’s energy needs from wind. The Israelis refused to fork over wind speed data, so a Jewish-Israeli friend got the data for him. Trial runs had to be staged in Area C, though, something the Israelis wouldn’t allow. “They do not want Palestinians to be independent in any way,” the entrepreneur says. “We have a huge percentage of young men and women who’ve studied engineering and science who are unemployed, who would work for a very cheap price to build up and produce this type of sector, with export potential to Egypt and Jordan and Tunisia. Israel is opposed to this.”
The Palestinian Authority was also uncooperative. Give us fifty-one percent of your company and all your data, or we won’t give you licenses and permits, the entrepreneur says the PA told him. Reportedly in the midst of negotiations with Israel over natural gas supplies from the Leviathan fields, off the coast of Haifa, the PA thinks he and other independents “would ruin their whole business plan,” the entrepreneur says. Big dreams on hold, he is now focusing on small-scale installations around Jenin and Tulkarm. (The PA does provide funding support and tax exemptions for solar panel and meter installations, an official with the Palestine Energy and Water Resources Initiative told me).
As temperatures rise and water grows scarce in the eastern Mediterranean, renewable energy and climate adaptation projects of the sort the independent entrepreneur and Comet-ME are advancing will undoubtedly ease the lives of Area C Palestinians. So will the more ambitious projects of the Palestinian Authority, in illusory control over the disconnected enclaves Israel lets it manage. Given Israel’s ambition to control all lands between the river and the sea — Palestinians squarely under its thumb — none of these amount to more than band-aid solutions.
To be sure, climate change threatens to overtake the world’s richest, most technically capable and equitably governed nations. At the other end of the spectrum, rising sea levels place hundreds of millions of impoverished South Asians and Pacific Islanders at risk of extinction.
In the world’s only settler-colonial apartheid state, though, where forcible transfer and climate adaptation denial are the name of the game, climate futures promise to be especially dystopic.