Whilst the humanitarian costs of the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict are becoming harrowingly obvious, the environmental impact could spark another disaster.
Climate concerns slip down political agendas during times of war, and the damaging effects of warfare on the environment are substantial. Adding to the tragedy of the Israel-Palestine conflict is the vulnerability of the region’s climate. The Middle East and North Africa are expected to face higher rises in sea levels, temperatures and fluctuations in rainfall than other parts of the world. In fact, the European Commission’s INFORM Risk Index, ranks the Palestinian Territories in the top 25 of the most vulnerable regions.
Ongoing water shortages in the Palestinian Territories are already laying bare the impact of the mismanagement of climate issues in the area. An escalation of the conflict will only exacerbate these problems.
In January 2022, extreme flooding damaged key infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. It destroyed buildings and drainage systems displacing residents, disrupting agriculture and overwhelming healthcare provisions. This worsened the shortages in essential industries from which the area was already suffering. Ominously, flooding is becoming more likely due to climate change and the rainy season has just begun in Gaza. A looming crisis in times of relative peace, potentially disastrous with the ongoing conflict where thousands of Palestinians are living in makeshift shelters escaping the fighting.
The military blockade that has been in place since 2007 means the situation in the Gaza Strip is particularly dire. This has restricted the import of building materials, medical resources and fuel into the territory. Subsequently, building the infrastructure required for clean water, effective sewage processing and irrigation systems for agriculture is more expensive and challenging.
Since the October 7 attacks, and the subsequent military response from the Israeli Defence Force, restrictions have been tightened, further compounding these problems and aggravating the shortages the people in the Gaza Strip were already facing.
The environmental impact of the Israel-Gaza conflict could expand beyond the Levant region. Neither Israel nor Palestine are major oil producers but Iran, who support Hamas, are the seventh largest in the world. Iran taking a more active role in the conflict could send the oil market into shock, affecting the international economy.
However, Iran doesn’t need to actually get involved in the conflict to send ripples through global markets. Just the risk that Iran could get involved can increase the price of oil. For example, after the October 7 attacks, oil prices jumped to nearly $100 per barrel but have since fallen back down to around $80 per barrel.
This is the second conflict in as many years to have major implications for the global energy markets. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent Europe into a scramble to find alternate energy sources to Russian natural gas. The threat to oil prices caused by the latest round of instability in the Middle East could be the catalyst world leaders need to increase investment into green energy.
A May 2023 report by the International Energy Agency provides some evidence of this happening 15 months after the invasion of Ukraine. From 2021 to 2023, investment in clean energy sources increased by 24% compared to a 15% increase in fossil fuels investment. The conflict in Gaza is another reminder that investment in green technology can counter countries’ vulnerability to global energy markets.
Environmental issues have long been central to peacemaking efforts. Control of water resources were key parts of several agreements made in the 1990s, including the 1993 “Declaration of Principles” and the 1995 Oslo 2 Accord. These agreements offered hope that Israel and Palestine working together to overcome the shared challenge of climate change could aid the peace process.
Clearly, this hasn’t happened. However, despite the near continuous conflict in the region, environmental projects have had confined successes. Installing solar power in Gaza has helped Palestinians produce power more sustainably whilst also increasing air quality in southern Israel. A drop in the ocean compared to the infrastructure Palestine requires, but it highlights areas where Israel and Palestine can co-operate. These small first steps can build the path to a peaceful co-existence.
It wouldn’t be the first time that countries have recovered from fighting each other through undertaking shared projects. Prior to World War Two, France and Germany had been regional rivals since Germany’s foundation in 1871, following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.
After the two World Wars had decimated both countries, they initiated the building of a lasting peace between them. In 1950, French foreign minister Robert Schuman suggested joint governance of French and German steel and coal production. The the signing of the Elysee Treaty in 1963 declared a special relationship between France and Germany.
The end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany deepened the relationship to what it is today, where war between the two is largely unimaginable.
Closer to home, Northern Ireland, for most of the last century, also fought a conflict along nationalistic and religious lines. Following over 70 years of conflict, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has since seen levels of political cooperation between the two communities previously thought impossible.
Though the context of every conflict is different, Franco-German and Northern Irish history can illuminate possible routes to building peace in Israel and Palestine. Establishing partnerships between once-adversaries in important political and economic areas can create the foundations on which peace can be built. The challenge of climate change could be one such area.
A key part of building the Israel-Palestine relationship is garnering international support for co-operation, particularly from countries in the Middle East with a stake in the conflict. This will require direct discussions between Israeli and Palestinian officials, even if mediated by other regional or global powers at international meetings.
The October 7 attacks and the ensuing Israeli response threatened Israel’s place on the invitation list for such events, especially those hosted in the Middle East. Reassuringly though, since the attacks, there has been slithers of hope on this front as Israel was represented at the UN’s Middle East and North Africa Climate Week on October 8. That said, as Israel’s pursuit of Hamas escalates, diplomatic efforts between Israel and other Arab nations will likely need to keep a lower profile.
One Arab country peculiarly affected by the Israel-Palestine conflict is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). At the end of the month, it will host the COP28 summit and is eager to portray itself as a regional peacemaker. However, the presence of Israeli officials in the UAE is likely to be controversial amongst Emiratis as the Palestinian cause has largely united Arabs against Israel.
Having the global spotlight on the country creates the ideal conditions for demonstrations of dissent against the rulers’ decision to allow Israel to attend. This would risk the conflict overshadowing the conference which the UAE hope will demonstrate their ability to bring countries together to reach resolutions on important issues.
If Israeli officials can attend such a high-profile summit in the Middle East with little visible resistance it would offer hope that some diplomatic channels between Israel and Palestine can remain open. As with France, Germany and Northern Ireland, there must be some communication between adversaries, if the foundations for peace can begin to be built.
Talking about the climate whilst casualties pile up at an alarming rate in the Gaza Strip may seem trivial to some, but it could offer a path to peace. Israel and Palestine face the same climate and will both be affected by extreme weather — it benefits both to work together to overcome these challenges.
Not only would it address the scarcity of essential resources which drive the conflict, but it could provide the diplomatic channel necessary to renew peace talks. The idea of Palestinians and Israelis tackling climate issues or anything else together in partnership may seem far-fetched now but it was less than 80 years ago that France and Germany viewed each other as enemies; now war between the two is unthinkable. Unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland fought for over 70 years before the Good Friday Agreement led to them sharing political power.
Whilst the ongoing conflict in Gaza stifles diplomatic communications, COP28 will indicate the degree to which Israeli diplomacy can be visible in the Middle East. A climate-focused peacebuilding attempt may appear unrealistic but the consequence of an escalation of conflict is further deaths and destruction from fighting, disease and malnourishment. Climate change is at least a challenge they both share and tackle together.