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'Some of us couldn't leave Gaza': The Palestinians fighting for climate in face of Israel's 'violations'

“We had lots of initiatives from youth and from women who were going to talk about their work here – but they can’t leave Gaza.”

IMG_18802 Hadeel Ikhmais, the head of the climate change section of Palestine's Environment Quality Authority Lauren Boland / The Journal Lauren Boland / The Journal / The Journal

TUCKED AWAY AMONG the dozens of pavilions at COP28, a major international climate conference taking place right now in Dubai, Palestine is hosting a pavilion for the first time – under very different circumstances than what it expected when it started planning for the summit last year.

“We had lots of initiatives from youth and from women who were going to talk about their work here – but they can’t leave Gaza,” said Hadeel Ikhmais, the head of the climate change section of Palestine’s Environment Quality Authority.

Palestine is a member of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the overarching international treaty governing climate action. It submitted its national climate plan to the UN in 2017, followed by an updated version in 2021, committing to mitigate its emissions – which are already very low – and adapt to reduce the impacts of climate change.

But those efforts are seriously hampered by environmental damage caused by Israel.

A report by the UN Environment Programme in 2020 identified “substantial evidence of environmental change and degradation in the occupied Palestinian territory”.

The 186-page report said Israeli settlements and security measures have caused environmental degradation in Palestine, citing examples such as the uprooting of trees to clear land for military bases. 

In an interview with The Journal , Hadeel Ikhmais of the Environment Quality Authority described Israel’s environmental impacts on Palestine and the challenges of getting to COP28.

“The environmental violations by the Israeli occupation started a long time ago. They didn’t start with the latest genocide in Gaza,” Ikhmais said. “It exacerbates the problem of climate change.”

“The first basic human right is water,” she said.

We have limited access to water because of the Israeli occupation’s control of water resources. Most of our water is purchased from the Israeli occupation at high prices.

People in Gaza rely on something coastal aquifers for drinking water and agriculture, which are rock formations that hold water underground. Gaza’s coastal aquifer is more than ten metres below sea level and is severely polluted.

“In Gaza, they have very polluted aquifers. There’s over-extraction, there’s wastewater contamination, and there’s water salination,” Ikhmais said.

She outlined how the practice of confiscating land from farmers damages Palestinian society and environment.

“They go to the farmers and take and confiscate their lands from them. They uproot the olive trees, which is the national tree of Palestine. It is a national treasure, the number one economy in the agriculture sector, and also our culture,” Ikhmais said.

“There’s uprooting and burning by the settlers to these farms, especially during the harvest season, and the atrocities of the Israeli occupation soldiers and settlers to the people in the fields who are planting their roots and their trees or harvesting. A lot of atrocities and a lot of violations to the environment.”

Illegal dumping and the treatment of electronic waste are serious problems for Palestine’s environment, with uncontrolled treatment of e-waste is releasing carcinogens affecting people in both Palestine and Israel, according to the UNEP report.

“The settlements are well known for their economic activity and industrial activity regarding chemical waste, the heavy metals industry, and all of these products and byproducts are disposed to the Palestinian environment,” Ikhmais said.

gaza-palestine-05th-oct-2023-palestinian-women-harvest-olives-from-a-tree-during-the-harvest-season-in-khan-yunis-in-the-southern-gaza-strip-photo-by-yousef-masoudsopa-imagessipa-usa-credit Two women harvesting olives in southern Gaza on 5 October 2023 Sipa US / Alamy Live News Sipa US / Alamy Live News / Alamy Live News

Projections suggest that average temperatures will increase in Palestine by between 1.2 and 2.6 degrees Celsius by the middle of the century.

Hazards like heatwaves, droughts, floods, storms, and sand and dust storms are expected to become more frequent and more severe.

“The challenging environment in Palestine is exacerbated by climate change and climate change is exacerbated by the challenging conditions of having the Israeli occupation,” Ikhmais said.

“We have a very challenging environment to climate change and transformation. Every city or every region has its own challenges. Gaza is under siege since more than 20 years ago. It has a coastal city, so it has the risk of flooding due to the high level rise of sea water.

“Also, Gaza suffers in energy. The energy situation of Gaza is worse than the situation of energy in the West Bank, although both of them are challenging. We don’t generate electricity, we buy it from Israeli companies at a very high charge, and there are outages in summer and in winter.

“In the Gaza Strip, the amount of electricity is much less because it is under siege, so they have to depend on fuels that are so limited.

“This is what happened through the last war and during this continuous genocide. The genocide is now continuing in Gaza after a few days of ceasefire. The situation in general, [even] before the last incidents, was very challenging to the environment and in the state of Palestine, from the presence of the occupation that hinders all the aspects of life in Palestine.” 

7be1a7ad9fb04837bc052a9c0c341714 Destruction in Gaza after a strike by Israel PA PA

The major business of COPs happens in negotiating rooms, but governments, NGOs, campaigners, universities, businesses, and other organisations use it as a chance to hold meetings on the side about important climate matters, host talks and events, and to highlight domestic climate action.

Many of them do that through hosting a pavilion, which is typically half event-space, half-exhibition.

Palestine’s environment officials first started planning to host a pavilion at the conference around this time last year, when countries met in Egypt for COP27.

“It was at the COP27 we had the idea that Palestine should be there as a pavilion to speak up and to participate with the other countries and to be in close contact with the international community regarding climate action, because we were well recognised at many conferences as being an active player,” Ikhmais said.

“We want to implement the climate action plans that we developed. We are looking for implementation and more stakeholder engagement, because there is a lot of support Palestine for regarding many projects in water, environment, energy, renewables. solar panels – different components being supported by development projects and environmental projects. We wanted to expand this kind of participation and engagement with stakeholders for further acceleration of implementation on the ground.”

However, those plans changed after 7 October, when Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 240 hostages, and Israel declared war, launching an offensive on Gaza and killing at least 15,500 people in the weeks since.

Israel has blockaded the Gaza Strip since 2007, with entry and exit possible at only three crossings – two to Israel and one to Egypt. On 9 October this year, Israel ramped up the blockade to what its defence minister described as a “complete siege”. 

“The military’s hideous attacks made us drop a lot of our plans,” Ikhmais said. “We had participation from colleagues on the Gaza Strip who were coming to COP28. We had lots of initiatives from youth and from women who were going to talk about their initiatives here and all of that here – but they can’t leave Gaza.

Also for participants who come here from the West Bank, it is so challenging for us. We felt so scared to leave.

“Because of the checkpoints between the cities, I cannot go to the border easily. There was a lot of stopping and checkpoints and we had to take dangerous shortcuts to be able to reach to the borders. When we were there, it was a very long hours waiting that we experienced.

“The agenda is totally different – climate action, and also what is happening on the ground, in Gaza and also in West Bank.”

1IMG_1261 Palestine's pavilion at COP28 Lauren Boland / The Journal Lauren Boland / The Journal / The Journal

Speaking to Irish reporters at COP28, Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan said he had been “very worried” ahead of the conference that tensions between countries with conflicting stances on Palestine and Israel would impede decisions on climate action.

“I thought with the Gaza war, surely, how could you debate anything when there’s a war in the Middle East?” he said.

“But there’s also a strong sense towards consensus because the world is burning and flooding and the evidence of climate change is everywhere.”

The EU’s Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevičius expressed the same sentiment before the conference, saying he expected that the world’s “geopolitical situation” would “inevitably” impact the negotiations.

In some ways, it has. The Iranian delegation walked out of a set of negotiations on Friday in protest at Israel’s presence and the leaders of a few countries that support Palestine mentioned Gaza in their speeches to the conference. But for the most part, official delegates at COP seem to want to avoid talking about Gaza.

“On the world leader side, it was so weak. The presence of the Gazan case and the Palestinian case, it wasn’t so strong,” Ikhmais said, speaking about speeches delivered by heads of states and governments in the opening days of the conference.

“From the high-level summit, it wasn’t as it should be. But from the community level, a lot of people came and showed their support,” she said.

All of us as a team were surprised by the amount of support and solidarity from people who came here, crying and giving their support, wearing keffiyeh, and saying positive words about how they feel and how they are participating in protests in their countries to push their governments to call for a ceasefire.

A protest demanding a ceasefire in Gaza drew a considerable crowd yesterday afternoon, while a press conference held earlier in the week by climate justice campaigners expressed solidarity with Palestine.

“As the world is gathering, we cannot ignore something like this that is happening in our midst and not speak out,” Lidy Nacpil of the Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development said at the press conference.

53372665434_b50d54406e_k Protesters at COP28 call for a ceasefire in Gaza Walaa Alshaer / UNFCCC Walaa Alshaer / UNFCCC / UNFCCC

Israel has expanded its offensive in Gaza in the wake of a days-long truce ended on Friday, with the Israeli military saying it has carried out around 10,000 air strikes since the start of the war. 

“This is very hard, on the psychological level, on the spiritual level, because I’m sitting here thinking of my people who are being attacked and are under this genocide,” Ikhmais said.

“But this is our job and we have to be here. Palestinians should be in every international attendance and speak up and say the truth about the Israeli occupation and that the atrocities of this occupation and the genocide they are making, and also all of the the horrible actions that we are experiencing in our daily lives.

“We are here under very challenging situations back home and very challenging situations on the international level because we need more pressure, we need more action on the ground to have a ceasefire and to be able to have a life in Gaza and in Palestine after all these actions of the Israeli occupation.”