The Occupation Has an Environmental Cost Too

Recently the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Israeli companies are entitled to profit from the natural resources of the West Bank. This follows a petition by Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din that mining activities in the West Bank, worth $900 to Israeli companies, is illegal under Articles 43 and 55 of the Fourth Hague Convention which require an Occupying Power to administer occupied territories to ensure public order, safety and the rule of law and to do so accordance with the long-standing principle of usufruct.

The usufruct rule of international law says that “The Occupying State shall be regarded only as administrator and usufructuary of public buildings, real estate, forests, and agricultural estates belonging to the hostile State, and situated in the occupied country. It must safeguard the capital of these properties, and administer them in accordance with the rules of usufruct.”[1]

Israel’s Supreme Court asserted that:

a. “the article requires the occupying power to ‘safeguard the capital’ of the occupied party’s natural resources” but “that Israel’s use of the quarries is limited and does not amount to destroying their ‘capital.’”[2]

b. “it is necessary to take account of the fact that the West Bank has been under a prolonged and continuing occupation, so the territory’s economic development cannot be put on ice until the occupation ends.”[3]

The Supreme Court has decided that the long-term nature of the occupation means that international law does not apply. Specifically in this case, the rules of usufruct as noted in the Fourth Hague Convention are considered obsolete. Not only is Israel ignoring international law but this ruling exposes how Israel already views the West Bank and its natural resources as its own to exploit. It is in situations such as this, where the nature of occupation is long-standing and therefore most open to abuse, that international law should be considered of the utmost importance.

This ruling is but one recent, glaring example of the impact of the occupation on the Palestinian environment. Over the past five decades, Israeli policies have had a huge impact on the Palestinian environment, depleting its natural resources and degrading the land, air and water. It’s a crisis which is often overlooked in the complex Middle East Peace Process despite its intimate connection to the problems in the region.

The environmental crisis both causes and perpetuates the humanitarian crisis in the West Bank inGazaby affecting the livelihoods and quality of life of the Palestinian people:

  • The poor management, over-use and pollution of the coastal aquifer now mean that 90-95 per cent of water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption.[4] This environmental disaster has become a humanitarian emergency.
  • Widespread attacks by Israeli settlers on ancient olive trees in theWest Bankare not only deforestation but also destroy the livelihoods of Palestinian farmers and families.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) says that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.” International humanitarian law prohibits many of the Israeli actions (see tables below) which are harming the environment and Palestinian life which depends on it.

The environmental impact of the occupation should not be overlooked because of this intimate nexus, which means that not only are environmental and human problems linked but so are the solutions. For example, joint cooperative water or energy initiatives could build trust between the parties and enable effective and equitable resource management. Tackling settler violence will not only save olive trees but also defuse high tensions between Israeli and Palestinian communities in theWest Bank.

The tables below looks at five environmental issues in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; energy and water, fisheries, olive tree destruction, quarrying, and pollution and toxic waste. It outlines the problem, cites the relevant international law, and notes projects and actors who are working on these areas.

Energy and Water

Problems International Law
  • Water and energy are interconnected problems as energy is required for water treatment and desalinization plants.
  • The aquifers and water sources whichIsraelandPalestineshare are being depleted by over-use, pollution and poor management.
  • The Joint Water Committee  (JWC) was set up after the Oslo Accords but there is much criticism that the JWC reflects existing Israeli-Palestinian asymmetries rather than encouraging cooperation.
  • There is a lack of energy and water infrastructure, particularly in Gaza and Area C of the West Bank. Building permits for Palestinians are almost always turned down by the Israeli Civil Administration and structures built without permits are frequently demolished.
  • Water and energy consumption is highly asymmetrical between Israelis and Palestinians. Gaza residents are restricted to an average of 91 litres of water per day compared to 280 litres used by Israelis.[5]

  • Article 25 of the UDHR says that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”
  • As the Occupying Power in the West Bank, Israelis responsible for the welfare of the civilian population under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, including maintaining health and hygiene standards, such as access to clean drinking water, sanitation and medical facilities (Article 56).

Actors and Projects



Problems International Law
  • Overfishing in the shallow and pollutedGazashore waters has led to a sharp reduction of the fish population and harm to the habitat of young fish, endangering the future fish population.
  • Under the Oslo Accords, Palestinian fishermen were allowed to fish up to 20 nautical miles out to sea. This limited has consistently been reduced and now the Israeli Navy prevent fishermen from going beyond 3 miles from the shore.
  • The fishing sector in Gaza has suffered a sharp decline, affecting over 20,000 people dependent on the fishing industry. Prices for fish have risen dramatically; sardine prices increased 100% between 2008 and 2009.[6]
  • There are documented cases[7] of Palestinian fisherman being fired at by the Israeli Navy, being forced to strip naked and swim to be detained, and the confiscation of boats and fishing equipment.
  • Israelis not respecting the Oslo Accords to which they are a party and which gives Palestinian fishermen a 20 nautical mile fishing limit.
  • Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and Article 50 of the Fourth Hague Convention ban collective punishment, which is effectively in operation with regards to the closure of Gaza.
  • Article 5 of the UDHR protects against  degrading treatment, while article 9  says that no-one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention.
  • Article 46 of the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907 protects private property, such as fishing vessels, from confiscation.


Actors and Projects

  • CPS Gaza (Civil Peace Service Gaza) is a coalition of NGOs that run an international observation boat called the Olivia which accompanies fishermen and monitors and documents human rights and legal violations.


Olive Tree Destruction

Problems International Law
  • Burning trees destroys the top soil and the deforestation of olive trees contributes to soil degradation and harms the delicate ecological balance of the land which has been used for olive farming for centuries.
  • In 2011, 10,000 Palestinian olive trees were destroyed by Israeli settlers. Centuries-old trees are chopped and burnt, or Palestinians prevented from reaching the trees during harvest causing the crop to spoil.
  • Produce from olives make up 25% of the Palestinian agricultural economy and the destruction of olive trees significantly harms the sector.
  • Settlers act with impunity in destroying olive trees. Whilst criminal complaints are filed, settlers are almost never charged.
  •  According to the World Bank, the uprooting of olive trees violates the trade policies of the Paris Protocols of 1954 which calls for “free access for Palestinian goods to the Israeli market and vice versa.”
  • Article 23 of the Fourth Hague Convention and Article 53 of the Geneva Convention says that it is illegal to seize or destroy property, as is the case with the destruction of the olive trees.

Actors and Projects



Problems International Law
  • Israeli companies mine stone from quarries in theWest Bank. The stone is used for building and three quarters of it is taken toIsrael.
  • The potential value of production fromWest Bankquarrying by Israeli companies is $900m. Profits from Palestinian natural resources are being used to finance their own occupation through taxes paid to the Israeli Government by mining companies.
  • The “dynamic” 2011 ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court regarding mining companies in theWest Banksays that the “usufruct” principle of international law does not apply due to the long-standing nature of the occupation. Not only does this set a disturbing precedent thatIsraelis entitled to profit from any West Bank resources, but it also exposes the de facto annexation of theWest Bankand shows how Israeli corporations are benefiting from the occupation.
  •  Article 43 of the Fourth Hague Convention also notes the Occupying Party’s obligation “to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety”, including the maintenance of normal life in the occupied territory for the benefit of the local population, which requires that the economic activities of the occupied territory be developed on the basis of the will of the local population and for their benefit.[8]
  • Article 55 of the Fourth Hague Convention or the ‘usufruct rule’ says that an Occupying Power acts as administrator and safeguard of the real estate and natural resources in an occupied land. The occupier is prohibited from taking action which will make permanent changes to the occupied territory or from actions which are to the detriment of the local population.

Actors and Projects

  • Human rights organisation Yesh Din is appealing against the Supreme Court’s decision.


Pollution and Toxic Waste


International Law

  • Soil and water is contaminated by weapons such as white phosphorus and depleted uranium which were used during the Gaza War and continue to pollute the environment and affect the health of the population.[9]
  • Article 3 of the Fourth Geneva Convention says that civilians should not be targeted in war.
  • Article 55 of the IV Hague Convention says that an Occupying Power must safeguard the real estate and natural resources in an occupied land.

Actors and Projects

It is clear that the Israeli occupation has had a significant environmental cost to the Palestinian land. Amongst both international institutions and NGOs there is a tendency to overlook the environmental problems or see them as separate to the humanitarian crisis in the OPT and the Middle East Peace Process. But by tackling environmental issues inPalestine, improvements can be made in the human situation and vice versa.

The Supreme Court’s ruling that the rules of usufruct no longer apply sets a dangerous precedent. Not only does it indicate thatIsraelalready views theWest Bankas de facto its own territory, but it also allows Israeli companies and the Israeli Government to continue to exploit and destroy the Palestinian environment that international law asserts it must hold in trust.

As part of the Quartet, the EU must speak out against the environmental cost of the occupation and it must take action to ensure thatIsrael complies with international law to protect both people and planet.

Recommendations to the EU:

  • High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton should issue a statement condemning the decision of the Supreme Court and demanding thatIsraelrespects international law. This issue should be taken up with the Israeli Government at the highest levels.
  • Ban the import of any stone quarried in theWest Bankby Israeli mining companies.
  • Fund projects for sustainable energy production and water management infrastructure, especially inGazaand Area C of theWest Bank.
  • Encourage the establishment of a new joint water management board, with equal representation and control for Israelis and Palestinians, to replace the JWC.
  • High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton and the European Parliament should speak out against the Israeli policy of preventing fishing beyond 3 nautical miles off the coast ofGaza.
  • The EU must demand that the destruction of olive trees and all other forms of settler violence should stop and that the settlers involved in such acts are brought to justice byIsrael.
  • The EU should invest in Palestinian olive oil production and encourage olive-tree replanting schemes.
  • The EU, in partnership with the international community, should holdIsraelaccountable for the use of toxic weapons inGaza.

[1] Article 55 of the IV Hague Convention 1907 and Article 55, Fourth Geneva Convention 1949

[2] Haaretz (28.12.2011) High Court says Israel can take advantage of West Bank resources. [21.02.12]

[3] ibid.

[4] United Nations Enivronment Programme (September 2009) ‘Enivronmental Assessment of theGaza Strip’

[5] Ewash/Thirsting for Justice (2011) Palestinian Rights to Water and Sanitation: An Activist’s Guide’

[6] B’Tselem (2012) ‘Restrictions on Fishing’ [21.02.12]

[7] See B’Tselem website and Palestinian Centre for Human Rights’ website

[9] Al Dameer (December 2009) Position Paper on Environmental and Health Risks in theGazaStrip [

[10] New Weapons Committee (2010) Press Release: ‘New weapons experimented in Gaza: Population risks genetic mutations’ [21.2.1]

About Hannah Slater

Hannah Slater is a former QCEA Programme Assistant who worked on EU relations with Israel and Palestine.
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