Protecting Nature in Palestine – a meeting with Mazin Qumsiyeh

Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh is a Palestinian scientist and author. He is the founder and director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History and the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability at Bethlehem University where he teaches. He is also a passionate advocate for justice and equality for the Palestinian people.

He was invited by the Green MENA Network to speak about the protection of nature in Palestine. During an online event he gave his audience three examples of the impact of colonization on the Palestinian environment.

Destruction of indigenous trees

The destruction of 530 Palestinian villages in 1948 primarily aimed to remove the local population. However, this act also led to the uprooting of surrounding trees, including oaks and carobs, as well as domestic trees like olives, figs, and almonds. The eradication of millions of trees altered the landscape significantly. By replacing these indigenous trees – which were well adapted to the climate – with pine trees, Israel transformed the land into a desert. Pine trees, which thrive in the wet European climates, devastated the local Palestinian biodiversity and are highly susceptible to fires in the dry climate. And: they do not bear fruit.

Diversion of waters

Another example is the diversion of water from the Jordan River basin, including Lake Tiberias, towards the west. Previously, the river flowed at 1,350 million cubic meters per year, but now it has been reduced to just 20 million cubic meters per year. What remains is essentially a shallow stream that one can jump across. This has had a devastating environmental impact on the Jordan River basin and has also contributed to the shrinking of the Dead Sea.

Draining of wetlands

A third example is the draining of the Hula wetlands in the north during the 1950s. These wetlands were a crucial habitat for migrating birds. Palestine serves as a land bridge between Africa and Eurasia, with over 500 million birds migrating through it annually. The drainage of these wetlands led to the displacement of local villagers and the extinction of 219 animal species. While the official explanation was that the wetlands were a breeding ground for mosquitoes, Qumsiyeh argues that the real reason was to deny water to the local population. This reasoning also applies to the diversion of waters.

These examples clearly contradict the Israeli narrative that claims ‘We made the desert bloom.’ In reality, Palestine has always been part of what was once the Fertile Crescent and has never been a desert. “Ramallah receives more rainfall than London. However, the indigenous population is denied access to water from local aquifers. This tactic, employed by colonial powers, has also been used in places like North America to force indigenous people to leave.”

Hula Wetlands between 1948 and 1951, @Wiki Commons

Acceleration

The examples mentioned above illustrate the gradual ecological impacts of settler colonialism. Since the most recent conflict in Gaza began on October 7, 2023, the rate of ecocide has only accelerated. We are witnessing the rapid environmental degradation caused by war and weaponry.

“Israel used depleted uranium and white phosphor when bombing South Lebanon and when bombing Gaza. We did studies on the environmental impact. We don’t have exact numbers on Gaza now, but certainly the majority of the green covers was destroyed, including agricultural fields and natural areas such as Wadi Ghaza with trees and plants. All of those were bombed or bulldozed into non-existence.”

Prior to October 7, 2023, water diversions had already depleted the Gaza aquifer. The Gaza Strip, densely populated with 2.3 million people, 70% of whom are refugees, faced overuse of its natural resources. Previous bombing campaigns and the imposed blockade caused malfunctions in Gaza’s power plants and a lack of proper sewage facilities. As a result, sewage has been dumped into the sea, adversely affecting marine wildlife in the Mediterranean Sea.

Nature protection as an excuse

Going back to the topic of protection of nature in the area that was historic Palestine: “Our studies, which were conducted together with the international organization IUCN, showed that areas that Israel declared ‘Green Areas’ were declared Green Areas not to protect nature, but to exclude the Palestinians. Again, this is not the first time in human history that colonizers use the protection of the environment as a trick to exclude indigenous people. In the United States, for example, the main reason to adopt a resolution on the establishment of Yellowstone Park, was to exclude Indians from the area”. ‘Nature protection’ itself is a narrative used to cover up for land grabbing, or for prohibiting local Palestinian population from access to certain areas”.

Qumsiyeh draws this conclusion about Israel from several lines of evidence: “First, who designates those areas in that state of Israel that are to be green? Is it biologists or environmentalists that know about nature? No, it is not even a national entity, it is a supra national entity called the Jewish National Fund, which has as its objective to transform the land into a Jewish country. No environmentalists are involved in the process.

Another line of evidence is to look at where the areas that are designated, like the Galilea and the Negev, where Palestinians still remained and needed to be excluded. And areas were designated in the Jordan Valley, which in this way forms an Eastern flank of the Zionist project. The third line of evidence is what happens to these areas after Palestinians are excluded from them. In more than half of the cases, the ‘green areas’ became used for industrial or residential settlements, or they became military zones.”

Socio-economic, political, and ecological issues in Palestine are interconnected. Qumsiyeh illustrates this by discussing Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus and Qumsiyeh’s home. The Bethlehem area is home to 260,000 Palestinians, including 70,000 refugees from 1948 living in and around three refugee camps. These 260,000 people have access to only 15% of Bethlehem’s land. The remaining 85% is occupied by approximately 250,000 Jewish settlers, roughly equal to the number of Palestinians, including refugees.

“In our district, 30 to 40 Jewish settlements exist, housing a quarter of a million settlers who have their own infrastructure. This includes segregated roads, walls, and checkpoints designed to protect the settlers and separate Palestinians from their land. The wall alone destroyed around two million fruiting trees in the Westbank. All this settler infrastructure negatively impacts wildlife and biodiversity in Palestine.”

Gilo settlement, Bethlehem region 2018, @Wiki Commons

Local resistance and international support

When asked what can be done to counter this process, Qumsiyeh refers to South Africa as an example of recent decolonization. He likens local resistance to the immune system of a people. From the first uprising in 1881, Palestinians have resisted the Zionist project to take over Palestine. “If it weren’t for resistance, I wouldn’t be speaking to you now. It would be like Australia, with very few Palestinians remaining. Thanks to 140 years of resistance, the Palestinian population now numbers 7.2 million in the historic space of Palestine, proving its success.”

In addition to local resistance, international support is crucial, as it was in ending apartheid in South Africa. The balance of power can shift. “I like the story of a bird counting snowflakes on a tree branch. To its surprise, the 200,000,442nd snowflake causes the branch to break. This is what will happen with global pressure: we will reach a tipping point. Individual snowflakes have an effect. Each of us has a role to play; teaching, writing, and demonstrating can all be forms of resistance. Eventually, the branch will break.”

“It is a joint existential struggle”

 

In the resistance against occupation, some Israeli Jews also stand up for Palestinian rights. “But we learned that Israeli environmental protection organizations often prioritize Zionist objectives over environmental protection. They consider the colonial system and a ring of settlements around Jerusalem more important than safeguarding the environment.”

“Our allies are those who consistently uphold international human rights and international environmental law. I cannot work with people that do not uphold these values.” Organisations in Israel that do work from these values are Zochrot, Btselem and Rabbis for human rights. Internationally, there are many more organisations to work with.”

There are many things you can do, Qumsiyeh shared a list of 75 ways to act for peace with justice, that includes a wide range of actions from peace education to civil disobedience, from tasting locally and Palestinian grown food to working with progressive political parties.

Qumsiyeh ends his talk on an uplifting note: “Follow your passion for activism and stay human. Embrace the joyful participation in the sorrows of the world because activism is a route to happiness in life. You might just be the snowflake that breaks the branch.”

You can watch the recording of our session with Qumsiyeh on Youtube.

 

For further reading on the topic, here are some recommendations:

Ripple Effects: Exploring the environmental impact of Israeli settlements’ wastewater discharge – Norwegian Refugee Council, March 2024

Waste Siege, The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine – Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, Stanford University Press, 2019

Settling Nature, The Conservation Regime in Palestine-Israel – Iris Braverman, University of Minnesota Press, 2023

Greenwashing in Palestine/Israel: Settler colonialism and environmental injustice in the age of climate catastrophe – Sage Journals, May 2022

Impact of the Israeli military activities on the environment – Mazin Qumsiyeh, International Journal of Environmental Studies, March 2024

Environmental Impact of the Conflict in Gaza: Preliminary Assessment of Environmental Impacts – UN Environment Programme, June 2024

Islamic environmental movement: a solution?

Change is desperately needed. Large parts of the Middle East are expected to become unliveable in the coming decades due to extreme heat or flooding. In Iraq, sixty percent of farmers are struggling with water shortages and reduced harvests due to drought. Afghanistan at the same time is facing floods. The country lost 130 people this year to unusual amounts of rain. Many countries in the region are grappling with shortages of clean drinking water and food.

The region suffers from the consequences of climate change, but many people see no connection between their own actions and climate change, according to anthropologist Hanane Benaddi, who researches the role of religion in tackling climate change. According to her, many Islamic countries are reluctant to impose Western concepts of environmental conservation on themselves, and have difficulty giving in to pressure from countries that are already industrialized. It is the historically accumulated emissions of that industrialization that other countries suffer from.

Green Islam

Using Islamic principles to start a dialogue among Muslims can provide a solution. Nouhad Awwad is a campaigner at Ummah for Earth, a partnership aimed at combating climate change with an approach based on the Islamic faith. She emphasizes that consciously dealing with your environment fits well with Islamic values. As an example, Nouhad quotes the prophet Mohammed: “Do not waste water even if you live next to a river.” The Quran contains about 200 verses about the environment, for example “the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of man”.

“Do not waste water even if you live next to a river.”

Ummah for Earth is a fast-growing alliance with 27 partner organizations that actively call on Islamic leaders to take climate action. For example, they developed a manual for a ‘green Hajj’, a sustainable version of the pilgrimage to Mecca, but they also encourage the use of fatwas. A fatwa is an opinion issued by a competent religious authority. This authority may be an Islamic scholar, such as a mufti, an imam, or an Islamic judge. These opinions are not binding, but have considerable moral weight among the Muslim population.

Nouhad Awwad, Ummah for Earth.

Nouhad was involved in the preparing of a special fatwa in Indonesia in 2023, by the highest authority in the field of Islamic law in the country. “It is a long process, during which you have to convince the religious leaders and other involved organizations, as well as arrange financing.” It is the first fatwa specifically on climate change. The advice has two main points: all actions that can harm nature and worsen the impact of the climate crisis are ‘haram‘, prohibited. The same goes for large-scale deforestation and causing forest fires and excess emissions. Nouhad says about the effect of the fatwa: “We are now measuring that. Only in a few years will we really be able to say anything about it.”

Climate summit

Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, the organization that issues fatwas in Egypt, also issued a ‘climate fatwa’ in the run-up to the 27th climate summit in Egypt in 2022. At the same time, the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Egypt published a Twitter and Facebook message. The Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb called for serious action against climate change.

These messages have a wide reach, Hanane Benaddi explains. If the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar says something, it is addressed to all Sunni Muslims. But this particular post received a lot of criticism. It is not the greenhouse effect, but the greed of people that leads to natural disasters. God punishes immediately. Twitter (X) is full of messages along these lines.

Other concerns

Hanane is less hopeful about the use of fatwas. “The regular imams of mosques issue a fatwa in response to a question from an ‘ordinary’ Muslim.” This is different from a Grand Imam who responds to broad developments in society. The regular imams she spoke with say they are not asked any questions about climate change. It doesn’t seem to be an issue. Many people have other concerns, for example how to put food on the table, or at most the moral question: “Have I been bad and does that cause droughts or floods?”

“They are not guilty of that carbon footprint”

Many people see no connection between their own behavior and the consequences for the climate. “It has to do with language, the idea that the consequences of climate change could mean the end for humanity is difficult for Muslims to accept. After all, that is in the hands of God.” Terms such as carbon footprint (carbon footprint) also do not appeal to the average Egyptian, who has never flown and does not own a car. The effect of such language is counterproductive. They are not to blame for that footprint, so shouldn’t the West take responsibility for the damage?”

 Better connection

Nouhad is more positive about the developments. “In a short period we see more fatwas being produced. Just a month ago, on May 18, a fatwa was issued in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. This imam can place climate change in relation to God and how important it is to guard the earth against damage. Religious leaders have the language that relates better to ordinary people.”

“Religion can play an important role in tackling climate change, but time is needed to ensure it is properly aligned with Islamic values,” says Hanane. “People do not deny climate change, but they do not feel morally responsible. With a good narrative, this moral religious view can change.”

Nienke Edelenbosch works as a freelance journalist and content creator in the Middle East. She is based in Beirut

Islamitische milieubeweging: een uitkomst?

Verandering is broodnodig. De verwachting is dat grote delen van het Midden-Oosten de komende decennia onleefbaar worden door extreme hitte of door overstromingen. In Irak worstelt zestig procent van de boeren met watertekorten en verminderde oogsten door droogte. Afghanistan heeft juist te maken met overstromingen. Het land verloor dit jaar 130 mensen aan ongebruikelijke hoeveelheden regen.  Veel landen in de regio krijgen te maken met tekorten aan schoon drinkwater en voedsel.

De regio zucht onder de gevolgen van klimaatverandering, maar veel mensen zien geen verband tussen eigen acties en klimaatverandering, aldus antropologe Hanane Benaddi, onderzoekster naar de rol van religie bij de aanpak van klimaatverandering. Volgens haar leggen veel islamitische landen zichzelf niet graag westerse concepten van milieubehoud op, en hebben moeite toe te geven aan de druk van landen die al geïndustrialiseerd zijn. Het zijn de historisch opgebouwde emissies van die industrialisatie waar andere landen last van hebben.

Groene Islam
Het gebruik van islamitische principes om een dialoog te beginnen onder moslims kan uitkomst bieden. Nouhad Awwad is campaigner bij Ummah for Earth, een samenwerkingsverband met als doel klimaatverandering tegen te gaan met een aanpak gebaseerd op het Islamitische geloof. Zij benadrukt dat bewust omgaan met je omgeving goed past bij Islamitische waarden. Als voorbeeld citeert Nouhad de profeet Mohammed: “Verspil geen water ook al woon je naast een rivier”. In de koran staan ongeveer 200 verzen over het milieu, bijvoorbeeld “de schepping van de hemel en de aarde groter is dan de schepping van de mens”.

“Verspil geen water ook al woon je naast een rivier”

Ummah for Earth is een snelgroeiende alliantie met inmiddels 27 organisaties die islamitische leiders actief oproepen tot klimaatactie. Zo ontwikkelden ze een handboek voor een ‘groene Hajj’, een duurzame versie van de pelgrimstocht naar Mekka, maar stimuleren ze ook het gebruik van fatwa’s. Een fatwa is een advies, uitgegeven door een bevoegde religieuze autoriteit. Deze autoriteit kan een islamitische geleerde zijn, zoals een mufti, een imam, of een islamitische rechter. Deze adviezen zijn niet verplicht, maar hebben aanzienlijk moreel gewicht onder de moslimbevolking.

Nouhad Awwad van Ummah for Earth.

Nouhad was in 2023 betrokken bij de totstandkoming van een bijzonder fatwa in Indonesië, door  de hoogste autoriteit op het gebied van Islamitische wetgeving in het land. “Het is een lang proces, waarbij je de religieuze leiders moet overtuigen, en andere betrokken organisaties en financiering moet regelen”. Het is de eerste fatwa die specifiek over klimaatverandering. Het advies kent twee hoofdpunten: alle handelingen die de natuur kunnen schaden en de impact van de klimaatcrisis kunnen verergeren zijn ‘haram’, verboden. Hetzelfde geldt voor grootschalige ontbossing en het veroorzaken van bosbranden en overtollige emissies. Over het effect van de fatwa zegt Nouhad: “Dat zijn we nu aan het meten. Pas over een paar jaar kunnen we daar echt iets over vertellen”.

Klimaattop
Het Egyptische Dar al-Ifta, de organisatie die fatwa’s in Egypte uitspreekt, kwam ook met een ‘klimaatfatwa’, in de aanloop naar de 27e klimaattop in Egypte in 2022. Tegelijkertijd bracht de prestigieuze Al-Azhar Universiteit in Egypte een twitter- en facebookbericht uit. De Groot-Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb pleitte ervoor om serieuze actie te ondernemen tegen klimaatverandering.

Deze berichten hebben veel bereik licht Hanane Benaddi toe. Als de Groot-Imam van Al-Azhar iets zegt, dan is dat dat tegen alle soennitische moslims gericht. Maar dit specifieke bericht kreeg veel kritiek. Niet het broeikaseffect, maar de hebzucht van mensen zou leiden tot natuurrampen. God straft meteen. Twitter (X) staat vol met berichten van deze strekking.

Andere zorgen
Hanane is minder hoopvol over het gebruik van fatwa’s. “De reguliere imams van moskeeën spreken een fatwa uit naar aanleiding van een vraag van een ‘gewone’ moslim”. Dit is anders dan een Groot-Imam die reageert op brede ontwikkelingen in de maatschappij. De reguliere imams die zij heeft gesproken zeggen geen vragen te krijgen over klimaatverandering. Het speelt dus eigenlijk niet. Veel mensen hebben andere zorgen, bijvoorbeeld hoe ze eten op tafel kunnen krijgen, of hooguit de morele vraag: “Ben ik slecht geweest en zijn er daardoor droogtes of overstromingen?”.

“Zij zijn niet schuldig aan die carbon footprint”

Veel mensen zien geen verband tussen hun eigen gedrag en het gevolg voor het klimaat. “Het heeft veel met taal te maken, het idee dat de gevolgen van klimaatverandering het einde kan betekenen voor de mensheid, gaat er bij moslims moeilijk in. Dat is immers in de handen van god”. Ook termen als carbon footprint (koolstof-voetafdruk) sluiten niet aan bij de gemiddelde Egyptenaar, die nog nooit gevlogen heeft en geen auto bezit. Het effect van dat taalgebruik is eerder averechts. Zij zijn niet schuldig aan die voetafdruk, dus waarom zou het Westen niet hun verantwoordelijkheid nemen voor de schade?”.

Betere aansluiting
Nouhad is positiever over de ontwikkelingen. “In korte tijd zie je meer fatwa’s ontstaan. Een maand geleden nog, op 18 mei, werd er een fatwa uitgesproken in de Libanese stad Tripoli. Deze imam kan klimaatverandering plaatsen in relatie tot God en hoe belangrijk het is om de aarde te bewaken tegen beschadiging. Religieuze leiders hebben de taal in handen die beter aansluit bij de gewone mens”.

“Religie kan een belangrijke rol spelen bij de aanpak van klimaatverandering, maar er is veel tijd nodig om deze goed aan te laten sluiten bij islamitische waarden” zegt Hanane. “Mensen ontkennen klimaatverandering niet,  maar voelen zich niet moreel verantwoordelijk. Bij een goed narratief kan deze morele religieuze kijk veranderen.”

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