With this campaign, Al-Haq brings into focus the environmental exploitation and devastation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) wrought by Israel’s occupation, and provides evidence to illustrate that these unsustainable practices not only exacerbate the conflict on the ground, but can pose a greater threat to the Palestinian demands for self-determination than the physical violence of militarisation imposed by the occupation. Al-Haq also highlights the systematic barriers to hold responsible actors of the Israeli occupying forces accountable for environmental injustices (an “environmental justice lacuna”), as Palestinians are compelled to resort to the imposed jurisdiction of the Israeli courts, and are effectively denied appropriate domestic channels through which to seek justice for environmental violations perpetuated in the territory.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), at least 40 percent of all internal conflicts have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources such as land, water, oil and high-value resources such as gold, oil and diamond, over the last 60 years. A 2007 statement by the President of the Security Council acknowledged the role of natural resources in fuelling the conflict. The statement noted that “in specific conflict situations, the exploitation, trafficking, and illicit trade of natural resources have played a role in area where they have contributed to the outbreak, escalation or continuation of armed conflict,” and called for the “transparent and lawful management of natural resources, including the clarification of the responsibility of the management of natural resources” to prevent the illegal exploitation of natural resources.
Throughout its nearly 50-years of belligerent occupation, systematic steps have been taken by Israel as the occupying force to undermine the possibilities for environmental protection in the OPT. In the Gaza Strip, for example, as a result of the deteriorating environmental conditions, the United Nations predicted in 2012, that the Gaza Strip will not be a “liveable place” by 2020, unless “provisions of basic infrastructure (particularly water/sanitation and electricity) and improved social services (particularly health and education)” are delivered.
Rights to Water and a Healthy Environment in Gaza Systematically Denied
One of the underlying humanitarian and environmental issues affecting the Gaza Strip is the water crisis. The Coastal Aquifer, a shallow aquifer that runs under the coastal plain of Gaza (shared with Israel), is the only source of natural fresh water available in the Gaza Strip. The extraction of water from the aquifer is not coordinated between the Gaza Strip and Israel, resulting in the over-extraction from the aquifer by both authorities. As per the UN General Assembly Resolution on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers, the principle of “equitable and reasonable utilization” of shared water resources, is largely understood as customary. However, as the “downstream users,” people in Gaza are subjected to the implications of over-use by the Israeli state (as the upstream user). Over-extraction from the Coastal Aquifer has been taking place for over two decades, and as far back as 1995, it was recognized that the aquifer in Gaza had considerable environmental problems. Currently there is a serious deterioration in both the quantity and quality of the water in the aquifer. The groundwater levels have fallen below sea level and saline and sewage have infiltrated the aquifer, rendering 90 to 95 per cent of its water supply unfit for human consumption. Damage to the Coastal Aquifer will be irreversible by 2020, unless “immediate remedial action” is taken.
Additionally, water infrastructure facilities in the Gaza Strip are inadequate and largely non-functional. This is the result of destruction due to Israel’s systematic and deliberate targetting of infrastructure - including water pumps and water treatment plants - during military attacks, along with the nearly nine-year-long illegal Israeli closure which prevented the entrance of many materials necessary for the creation and rehabilitation of water and sanitation infrastructure. The consequences are borne by Palestinians in Gaza who end up suffering from waterborne diseases caused by the contamination of fresh water with sewage.
Highlighting the environmental effects of Israel’s occupation, Al-Haq together with Al Mezan Center for Human Rights recently submitted information to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Hazardous Substances and Wastes for their upcoming joint report to the Human Rights Council in March 2017. The submission focuses on farmers in Gaza who have had their vegetable fields and crops destroyed by chemicals aerial sprayed by Israeli aircraft, and are, as a result, seeking damages to hold responsible actors legally accountable. This is not an isolated case, as rural communities in the West Bank also report aerial spraying of chemicals by Israeli aircraft. Accordingly, one of the conclusions of the submission is that Israeli should be called upon to disclose information on chemicals used during aerial spraying; locations around Gaza and the West Bank where aerial spraying takes place; frequency of spraying; and whether any health or environmental impact assessments (including assessments of potential spray drift and transboundary implications) have been done in relation to such spraying.
The submission also notes the violations of fishing communities' rights to livelihood and food, as they are subjected to attacks by Israeli forces using live fire, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the destruction and confiscation of fishing boats and equipment - even within the permitted fishing zone according to Israeli policy of six nautical miles (as opposed to the 20 nautical miles designated under the Oslo Accords). The submission can be downloaded here.
On 27 May 2016, the United Nations Environment Assembly of the UNEP adopted a resolution on the protection of the environment in conflict affected areas, which recognizes that sustainable development and the protection of the environment “contribute to human well-being and the enjoyment of human rights” and correspondingly that there is a need to mitigate environmental impacts of the illegal exploitation and trade of natural resources. The resolution also calls on all Member States to “implement applicable international law related to the protection of the environment in situations of armed conflict”. In this regard, Al-Haq calls on Israel to uphold it responsibility towards the protection of the environment within the occupied territory, including its natural resources, and comply with international law. Al-Haq also urges the international community to take immediate steps to sever links with this illegal activity, including through the implementation of sanctions.
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