Climate Catastrophe and Israel’s Denial of Palestinian Access to Water

Two aspects of contemporary barbarism …

by Javier Sethness

Amnesty International has recently released two reports on Israeli water policy that present a rather thoroughgoing indictment of the Zionist colonization project broadly conceived. Entitled “Thirsting for Justice: Palestinian Access to Water Restricted” and “Troubled Waters: Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water,” the reports join many other studies of both more and less recent memory that have provided similar perspectives critical of Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinian people.

In the reports, Amnesty finds the Israeli state to be fundamentally violating the right to water of the 4 million Palestinians living under its ongoing military occupation, and hence also to be massively violating Palestinians’ right to an adequate standard of living. It seems important to consider that this aspect of Israel’s active deprivation of the Palestinian people in many ways mirrors and previews the acute deprivation of much of the world’s population that capitalist societies are enacting through their contributions to dangerous anthropogenic interference with the Earth’s climate.

For those familiar with the present situation in Palestine, Amnesty’s reports may not prove to be terribly surprising; they are, however, no less offensive and shocking for all that. Amnesty finds that Israelis consume over 80 percent of the water available in the so-called Mountain Aquifer that lies beneath the West Bank, leaving the remaining 20 percent for the 2.3 million West Bank-residing Palestinians. Indeed, it is claimed that these 2.3 million consume a total amount of water equal to or less than that consumed by the 450,000 Israeli settlers living illegally in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Amnesty’s reports further find that Palestinians are totally barred from accessing the waters of the Jordan River, and that some 200,000 rural-dwelling Palestinians go without access to running water in the present day. Palestinian daily per capita consumption of water, we are told, stands at 70 liters, some 30 short of the minimum daily amount recommended by the World Health Organization. According to Amnesty, furthermore, between 90 and 95 percent of the water available to Gazan Palestinians is contaminated and hence “unfit for human consumption.”

The two reports explore this systematic life-denial in detail. Though the reports caution that recent episodes of drought in the region are to account in some way for these bleak statistics, Amnesty also make clear that discriminatory Israeli policies bear far more of the blame for the general situation. It examines some of the various military orders imposed by Israel following the capture of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 that relate to the problem of water in the occupied territories—one establishes complete control by the Israeli military over water resources in the region, and another requires that any construction by Palestinians of new water installations be authorized by an Israeli-issued permit.

Amnesty tells us that only 13 such permits were issued in the nearly 30 years that the Israeli military handled water permits prior to transferring such responsibilities to the Oslo-created Palestinian Water Authority. The reports further explore the rendering-inaccessible to Palestinians of several water-rich areas of the West Bank designated by Israel as closed military zones in addition to the destruction on several occasions of existing Palestinian water infrastructure in both Gaza and the West Bank as well as the forced displacement of a number of Palestinian communities whose water resources have been confiscated by Israeli occupation forces.

Amnesty also examines the implications of the Israeli separation barrier for Palestinian access to water: it finds that the wall’s route within the West Bank, together with the settlements it protects, affords Israel access to the areas deemed best for the extraction of water from the Mountain Aquifer. It hardly need be said that such privileged access comes by means of the denial of the same to Palestinians, many of whom have seen their former access to wells entirely cut off. Amnesty’s reports also focus on the decidedly detrimental effects of the Israeli blockade of Gaza for the water situation there, as restrictions on the movement of goods constrain Gazans’ ability to maintain existing water and sanitation facilities and rebuild those destroyed by Israel during its attack of December 2008 and January 2009.

Amnesty’s reports find Israel’s water policies to flagrantly violate several extant tenets of international law, most notably the Fourth Geneva Convention and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Beyond such condemnations, though, comes rhetoric deeply critical of the Zionist project in general: Amnesty complements the findings of its reports by claiming Israel’s policy as a whole to be “to limit the overall amount of water (and land) available to the Palestinian population, while preserving for itself privileged access to most of the water and land in the OPT.”

The water situation in Palestine, then, is monstrous, just as is much else related to the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine. Indeed, Israeli water policy is reminiscent of what Salih Booker and William Minter refer to in a different context as global apartheid,[1] and in this sense parallels many similar horrors of the contemporary world. One of the most pressing such parallels that bears mention here is that of climate change.

Climate change, or global warming, refers to the looming catastrophic atmospheric changes that have accompanied the historical rise of industrial capitalism. As is well-known, the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases for which industrial-capitalist societies have been responsible threatens to radically deprive the access of much of currently existing humanity and many of its potential descendants to water. It is in the destruction by Israel of Palestinian cisterns and water-treatment plants as in its rendering of entire Palestinian communities into environmental refugees through the wholesale cutting-off of their access to water that can be seen a few of the likely realities of the totality toward which the world is moving as a result of climate change.

The likely future of access to water in such a world is dark, indeed. George Monbiot of The Guardian writes that an increase in average global temperatures of 1.5° C — that is, a mere 0.7-0.8° C beyond the level relative to pre-industrial temperatures that has already been achieved due to historical emissions — exposes some 400 million humans to what he refers to rather drily as water stress, while an average global temperature increase of 2.1° C is estimated to place between 2.3 and 3 billion people at risk of outright water shortages [2].

Monbiot’s compatriot Mark Lynas finds a 2° C rise in average global temperatures to nearly eradicate the mountain glaciers on which the millions who currently reside in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia depend upon for their water, and he claims a 3° C such rise to imply a drastic reduction in the Himalayan glaciers that today provide life for more than half of humanity [3].

Without serious action aimed at mitigating the consequences of climate change in the near term, these average temperatures increases—to say nothing of even more apocalyptical ones—will likely come to pass. A poll conducted in April found nine out of ten climatologists to believe that humanity would fail to limit global warming to 2° C [4], while the UK Met Office recently concluded that a 4° C average-temperature increase — a temperature increase that Met scientists claim would threaten the water supply of half the world’s population—could well occur by the year 2060 [5].

Just two weeks ago, in fact, scientists with the Global Carbon Project found the prospect of a 6° C average-temperature increase by the end of the century — an eventuality that would problematize the existence of the vast majority of currently existing humanity — to be entirely within the realm of possibility [6].

With regard to climate change then, present reality seems far worse than even the most pessimistic observers could have imagined some time ago. Both the present concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as well as their current rates of emission are far higher than they should be if much of humanity is to have a chance of flourishing in the foreseeable future.

The world’s leaders, especially the most powerful among them, have decidedly failed to address this emergency with the sense of urgency it requires. The climate legislation proposed by the lawmaking body of the society most responsible for climate change — the United States — calls for reductions in carbon emissions on a scale entirely inadequate for preventing catastrophic climate change, and Barack Obama has recently expressed that no binding treaty should be expected from the decidedly critical Copenhagen climate summit that will take place next month.

Parallels with other examples of imperial arrogance — the recent overwhelming rejection by U.S. legislators of the Goldstone report, for example, or the Obama administration’s caving on the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — could be made.

Reflection on the active deprivation of Palestinians by Israel highlighted in Amnesty’s recent reports on water may help to illuminate the deprivation of humanity generally considered that is being prosecuted by capitalist societies’ contributions to climate catastrophe and their concurrent lack of action aimed at mitigating such.

The racist monstrousness implicit in both these projects must surely be resisted as such; indeed, resistance to the suffering inflicted by the Zionist project should be complemented by resistance to the suffering brought about by climate change, for, as the German social critic Max Horkheimer writes, it is crucial that people come to oppose injustice not just in the particular, as in Palestine, Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan, or Tibet, but instead in general, as a whole [7].

It is imperative that opposition to the totality somehow be effectively realized rather soon, for the overturning of currently prevailing trends — of barbarism — may not only help the Palestinians in their struggle to reverse the ordeals that have been imposed upon them; debarbarization, in the words of Horkheimer’s friend and colleague Theodor W. Adorno, may indeed constitute “the immediate prerequisite for survival” [8].

(published originally on December 4 in Dissident Voice)


[1] “Global Apartheid.” The Nation, 21 June 2001.
[2] Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning (Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press, 2007), p. 15, 6
[3] Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008), p. 102-107, 159-167.
[4] David Adam. “World will not meet 2C warming target, climate change experts agree,” The Guardian 14 April 2009.
[5] David Adam. “Met Office warns of catastrophic global warming in our lifetimes,” The Guardian 28 September 2009.
[6] Steve Connor and Michael McCarthy. “World on course for catastrophic 6°C rise, reveal scientists,” The Independent, 18 November 2009.
[7] Sociedad, razón y libertad (Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2005), p. 126.
[8] Critical Models (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2005), p. 190.

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