Israel’s Environmental Apartheid in Palestine

November 03, 2022

Environmental apartheid refers to Israel’s systematic exploitation of the environment in Palestine/Israel and the discriminatory system by which Palestinians are dispossessed of their land, water, and other natural resources while being disproportionately impacted by ecological damage caused by Israel. 

Israel’s environmental apartheid is harmful to the climate and violates the human rights of Palestinians, and is part of Israel’s broader system of apartheid against Palestinians, both inside Israel’s internationally recognized borders and in the territories it has militarily occupied since 1967 (the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza). To detract attention from its abuses of Palestinian human rights, Israel engages in “greenwashing,” promoting itself as an eco-friendly country even as its policies and actions cause tremendous harm to the environment and to Palestinians.

According to the United Nations Development Programme: "So pervasive are the effects of the Israeli occupation on the climate vulnerability of Palestinian communities that the occupation – in and of itself – is considered here a ‘risk’, alongside environmental risks such as sea-level rise and altered rainfall patterns."



For countless generations, Palestinians have lived and worked sustainably and in harmony with the natural environment in Palestine, maintaining the indigenous landscape, sharing common resources, and growing a wide variety of crops, including watermelon, wheat, citrus, grapes, and olives, the latter of which form a central part of Palestinian culture and identity. 

Since 1948, when the state of Israel was established on 78% of Palestine and 3/4 of all Palestinians were expelled from their homes, Israel has been damaging and destroying the environment in order to exploit its natural resources; to pressure Palestinians to leave their land, as part of its repeated military assaults and 15-year-old illegal siege and blockade of Gaza; and to erase evidence of Palestinian existence and connection to the land. 

Under international law, it is illegal for Israel as the occupying power to exploit Palestinian natural resources in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza for its own purposes.

Israel’s theft of Palestinian water

  • Israel systematically denies Palestinians in the occupied territories and parts of Israel access to clean and safe drinking water. Israel steals more than 80% of water in the occupied West Bank and expropriates it for use in illegal settlements, denying Palestinians access to water while supplying Israeli settlers with enough water to fill swimming pools, irrigate crops, and wash vehicles. 
  • Because of Israeli restrictions, Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are restricted from drilling water wells and installing water pumps, and are denied access to the Jordan River and freshwater springs. The Israeli army also regularly destroys Palestinian pipelines and water tanks, blocking Palestinians from even collecting rainwater. As a result, Palestinians are forced to live on an average of just 19 gallons of water per day—well below the WHO minimum.
  • In 2017, Amnesty International released a report entitled, “The Occupation of Water.” It concluded: “50 years on, it is time for the Israeli authorities to put an end to policies and practices which discriminate against Palestinians in the [occupied Palestinian territories] and to address their desperate need for water security. The Israeli authorities must lift the restrictions currently in place which deny millions of Palestinians access to sufficient water to meet their personal and domestic needs as well as to enjoy their rights to water, food, health, work and an adequate standard of living.”        
  • Israel’s theft of Palestinian water causes severe environmental damage. Since 1967, Israel has consolidated complete control over all Palestinian water sources in the occupied territories. Israel’s over-extraction of Palestinian water sources has caused a drop in the water table and a distortion in the natural flow of groundwater, increasing vulnerability to extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, which damage Palestinian agricultural and residential areas. Over time, Israel has also degraded the water quality of the single largest source of freshwater, the Sea of Galilee, by clearcutting 25,000 acres of native wetlands and draining Lake Hula to make room for farming settlements.


Israel’s theft of Palestinian land
Inside Israel

  • During its establishment in 1948, the new state of Israel expropriated more than four million acres of land belonging to the approximately 750,000 Palestinians who were driven from their homes and made refugees, denying their internationally recognized legal right to return along with the thousands of others internally displaced inside Israel. 
  • Palestinians who remained inside what became Israel were granted Israeli citizenship but stripped of most of their land and placed under martial law until 1966, their freedoms severely restricted. Despite lifting martial law in 1966, Israel has continued to dispossess Palestinian citizens of Israel, destroying their homes and entire communities, and taking their land. Palestinian citizens of Israel, who comprise more than 20% of Israel’s population, also face systematic discrimination when it comes to their ability to access state-owned lands—about 93% of all the land in Israel—for residential, agricultural, or commercial purposes.

In the Occupied Palestinian Territories

  • Since 1967, Israel has expropriated huge tracts of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. More than 247,000 acres of Palestinian land have been appropriated by Israel over the past 55 years to build over 280 Jewish settlements and a massive wall that have both been condemned as illegal by the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, and human rights organizations, in addition to destroying over 50,000 Palestinian homes and other structures such as farm buildings and water tanks. 
  • Israel severely limits Palestinians’ right to access land in the occupied West Bank. Under the terms of the supposedly temporary Oslo Accords signed in the 1990s, Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank has been fragmented into three areas: Areas A, B, and C. Over 60% of the land in the West Bank—encompassing the majority of residential and development reserves as well as key natural resources like water and oil—has been classified by Israel as Area C, making it subject to full Israeli civil and military control. Through a discriminatory zoning system, Israel prohibits Palestinians from using the land in Area C, refusing to approve requests for building permits and thus destroying hundreds of “unauthorized” Palestinian homes each year. Seventy percent of the land in Area C has been appropriated for the use of illegal settlements, leaving only 1% to Palestinians; in East Jerusalem, 35% of the land has been expropriated for the construction of illegal settlements, restricting Palestinians to only 13%. 


Israel’s destruction of Palestinian trees & agricultural land

See here Palestinian Food Sovereignty


Environmental destruction caused by Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise

  • Israel steals Palestinian land in order to build illegal settlements, destroying the natural environment in the process. Israel has clear-cut and uprooted tens of thousands of trees in order to build settlements on Palestinian agricultural and grazing lands, leading to increased soil erosion. In 2021, the Israeli army uprooted, destroyed, and burned approximately 19,000 trees. Some settlements have also been built on nature reserves in the West Bank. 
  • In building an extensive network of roads connecting settlements to each other and to Israel, and other settlement infrastructure for the exclusive use of Israelis, Israel has bulldozed huge areas of Palestinian land; the Israeli military regularly destroys any trees or buildings within 75 meters (246 feet) of these roads, which dissect the occupied West Bank, isolating Palestinian communities from one another and the outside world. 


Impact of settlement pollution on Palestinian health & the environment

  • Israeli settlements release dangerous pollutants into the environment and nearby Palestinian communities. Israeli settlers produce twice as much solid waste per capita than Palestinians, and Israel dumps approximately 90% of the wastewater generated by illegal settlements into the West Bank, discharging 52 million cubic yards of untreated sewage each year in addition to other hazardous materials such as infectious medical waste, metals, batteries and electronic industry byproducts. Many settlements are strategically located on hilltops above Palestinian towns and villages so polluted settlement wastewater and other contaminants run directly into the Palestinian communities below.
  • Pollution and pesticides from illegal Israeli industrial settlements also have toxic effects on the air and water in nearby Palestinian villages, leading to an increase in serious diseases like asthma, cancer, and eye and respiratory health issues, as well as genetic health disorders causing miscarriage and congenital birth defects. The Israeli government provides financial incentives that make it more profitable to build waste treatment plants in the West Bank, encouraging industrial settlements to exploit Palestinian land while polluting the earth and water supply with little to no regulatory oversight.
  • As noted by a 2017 report by B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories: “Israel’s environmental policy in the West Bank – including situating polluting waste treatment facilities there – is part and parcel of the policy of dispossession and annexation it has practiced in the West Bank for the past fifty years.”


Environmental impact of Israel’s West Bank wall

In 2002, during the second Palestinian uprising against Israel’s military rule, Israel began constructing a wall to separate Palestinians in the occupied West Bank from Israel and occupied East Jerusalem and from Israeli settlements built inside the West Bank. In addition to restricting Palestinian freedom of movement through the use of military checkpoints, settler-only roads, and other physical impediments, the wall has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on the environment. 

  • Both the construction process and the physical presence of the wall have had detrimental effects on the natural environment in the West Bank. 85% of the wall has been built on Palestinian land, taking up 10% of the West Bank and carving up Palestinian communities; cutting off farmers from their lands; and harming local ecosystems. The construction of the wall—which has been deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice—has meant uprooting thousands of trees and bulldozing thousands of acres of Palestinian farmland. Some of the environmental effects of the wall include deforestation, soil erosion, ecosystem fragmentation, loss of biodiversity, and flooding. 


Environmental impact of Israel’s siege and blockade of Gaza

Along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Gaza has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. Since 2007, Israel has imposed a crippling siege and naval blockade on Palestinians in Gaza that has been condemned by human rights organizations and the UN as illegal collective punishment of the whole population. The siege and blockade have inflicted enormous hardships and suffering on the more than two million Palestinians trapped in the tiny coastal enclave, and caused an environmental disaster.

  • Israel’s occupation and blockade have caused catastrophic pollution in Gaza. Israel’s blockade has led to widespread environmental degradation in Gaza, affecting the water, air, and soil. The Israeli government severely limits the materials and supplies that are allowed to enter Gaza, and years of Israeli military attacks on Gaza have destroyed pipelines and sanitation facilities, making it impossible to develop adequate water and waste infrastructure. As a result, tens of thousands of cubic yards of wastewater are poured into the ocean every day, seeping into the groundwater and contaminating agricultural production and air quality.
  • Israel’s occupation and blockade have created an environmental health disaster. Over 96% of water in Gaza is undrinkable because of Israel’s blockade. As a result, Gaza’s water supply is slowly poisoning Palestinians living there. Twelve percent of deaths among young children and infants in Gaza—and more than 25% of all diseases—are linked to poor water quality. Palestinians in Gaza have also seen a dramatic increase in kidney problems in recent years due to contaminated water, and high cancer rates are likely the result of the Israeli blockade’s negative impact on the quality of air and soil.
  • Gaza’s coastal wetlands and natural aquifer are shrinking because of Israel’s blockade. The Wadi Gaza is considered one of the most important coastal wetlands in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin, providing the main source of water for Palestinians in Gaza. But Israel’s blockade has led to extensive pollution and overuse, harming the natural ecosystem and causing a continuous decline in the water supply. As extreme weather events brought on by global warming threaten the long-term availability of groundwater globally, Israel’s blockade exacerbates matters by degrading Gaza’s only natural aquifer. 

See here Gaza Water Undrinkable


Greenwashing Israeli apartheid

Promoting itself as an eco-friendly country, Israel uses false and misleading claims about its environmental impact to detract attention from and avoid accountability for its human rights violations against Palestinians. Israeli apartheid is not eco-friendly; Israel’s violent oppression of Palestinians is making climate change worse and its sustained damage to the natural environment is a war crime.

See here Between a Rising Tide and Apartheid

Additional resources