Escalating environmental degradation in the occupied Palestinian territories is largely a consequence of the continued conflict. A rapidly burgeoning population, enlarging refugee camps over limited stretches of land and water scarcity have together created long-term environmental challenges.
While the interim agreement of 1995 transferred partial responsibility for environmental management to the Palestinian side, the agreement also called for shared responsibilities through the formation of committees. The outbreak of the second Intifada led to a halt in activities of the Joint Environmental Experts Committee that had been established as part of the protocol concerning Israeli - Palestinian cooperative programs (Annex VI).
Over the years, political and socioeconomic problems have been prioritized over environmental protection. As a consequence both the natural and human environments have degraded considerably. Rapid economic development over the past few years has led to unchecked deterioration of natural resources.
The occupied Palestinian territories and Israel are a small geographical area. Yet they contain a huge range of environments and a rich variety of flora and fauna. Itszzz*z location at the junction of three continents, along with historical climatic change has encouraged great diversity. This biological variety is seen in some 2,600 plant species (150 of which are indigenous), seven amphibian, almost 100 reptile, over 500 bird and some 100 mammal species.
The main natural resources are water reserves, agricultural land, ecologically sensitive areas, cultural heritage sites and the general landscape. There are also the famous minerals of the Dead Sea, along with stone quarries, sand, and other natural mineral deposits.
Minerals identified in the Dead Sea include 21 salts, some of which are not found elsewhere. There are more than 250 working stone quarries in the West Bank. Other natural mineral resources include sulphur, bentonite, iron, raw cement material and dolomite. Sand in the Gaza Strip is also considered an important resource, as well as the natural gas fields identified off the coast.
The forest area in the occupied Palestinian territories is estimated at close to 0.5 percent of the total land area. Israeli authorities have prohibited wide-scale tree plantations to prevent legal obstacles when confiscating land.
Since 1967, the Gaza Strip has been fenced in, and crossing its borders is impossible for most of the population. Because of the tiny size of the Gaza Strip, with an average width of less than nine kilometers, its 40 kilometer stretches of beach are of high environmental importance.
The Palestinian Authority is aware that the economic well being of its people is dependent on the quality of the environment. However, the PA’s limited control over environmental issues under the Oslo accords has severely limited its ability to take action. Weak management structures and a lack of tools and expertise have also contributed to the problem.
Legal frameworks and procedures have been drafted by the PA, and some have been endorsed by the Palestinian Legislative Council or by cabinet decision – however many have never been implemented. No integrated policy of pollution prevention can be fully adopted today in the West Bank or Gaza Strip as long as Israeli pollution continues.
One of the most important official plans was the Ministry of Planning’s 1998 Emergency Natural Resources Protection Plan. This outlined and evaluated the major Palestinian natural resources, identified threats and outlined procedures for protection.
Many environmental activities and practices in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are still regulated by laws that existed before 1967: Jordanian and Egyptian legislation. Because of this haphazard approach, environmental responsibilities have been distributed among many different institutions. There has been a lack of coordination, management and coherent reporting.
The Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection has documented its environmental concerns in a yearly report, a monthly newsletter and on its website. Israeli environmental laws and procedures are considered more advanced than the PA’s, and protection within Israel proper is more likely to be enforced.
The Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection claims that most its activities have been carried out within the framework of the Mediterranean Action Plan (of the United Nations Environment Programme). In recent years, Israel has taken part in initiatives such as the 1995 Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, and in environmental projects funded by the European Union.
IN THE FIELD
Non-governmental organizations have played a vital role in environmental protection. More than 30 registered NGOs are active in the field. Most have directed their work towards awareness, education, small-scale infrastructure, advocacy and capacity building.
In 2000, a number of Palestinian NGOs joined forces to coordinate environmental protection, and PENGON was born with 21 members in the West Bank and Gaza. PENGON has a mandate to protect the Palestinian environment and coordinate local and international groups.
Pollution sources in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been identified in a number of documents. They include the tanning industry, mainly located in the district of Hebron. There one can find ten independent tanneries situated in one part of the industrial zone. Two other tanneries are located in the Nablus district.
Tanneries consume scarce freshwater at a high rate and release a corresponding amount of wastewater – often with significant pollution loads. This wastewater sometimes has extreme pH levels, and generally has a high organic pollution load (BOD and COD levels). In addition it contains considerable amounts of chromium salts, sodium sulfides, ammonium sulphide and formic acid. Some of these constituents are toxic or carcinogenic.
Olive oil production is focused in the northern parts of the West Bank, but the industry affects the entire territory and its impact on the environment is huge. One side product of the oil extraction process is a viscous, dark green/brown liquid, consisting of water, carbohydrates, proteins, olefines, phosphorus and potassium. This liquid has high biological and chemical oxygen levels (BOD and COD) and high a total suspended solids (TSS) pollution level.
This untreated liquid waste tends to be drained away into the sewage network, cesspits or open areas, with no consideration of its environmental impact on groundwater, surface water, soil or flora and fauna.
Israeli occupation authorities use over 80 percent of the water resources in the occupied Palestinian territories. Despite the efforts of the Palestinian Water Authority, most Palestinian towns and villages suffer from severe water shortages in the summer. At the same time, new wells, water networks and reservoirs continue to be built for Israeli settlements.
Waste water collection and treatment has also been largely neglected. Only a few towns in the West Bank had water collection systems or treatment plants as of the early 1970s. No Palestinian villages have any water collection or treatment facilities, other than soaking pits. This has affected the quality of most villages’ rain-fed cisterns.
Solid waste collection and disposal has also been neglected. This has led to the accumulation of rubbish, especially in the Gaza Strip, where widespread dumping is evident. This poses a big environmental problem as well as a health hazard. Management of specialized waste presents especially serious difficulties for the municipalities. Materials such as pumped septage, construction and demolition debris, hospital waste, slaughterhouse waste and industrial waste, each present unique problems to overcome.
In Palestine, as in other developing countries, waste disposal is one of the major environmental problems. Even though waste management presents many problems, these can generally be overcome. However, rehabilitation of former dumpsites is virtually impossible.
The West Bank has also become a dumping ground for the pollution of Israeli industries: factories, obsolete appliances and expired food and other products. This problem is exacerbated by Israeli settlements (illegal under international law) which dump their waste into streams, valleys and agricultural areas.
Each nation’s long-term planning affects the other, mainly in the field of industry. Unless development is well regulated, other countries in the region may yet suffer the consequences of environment pollution.