Students and tents on the lawn at the OA4P encampment

The elimination of Palestinian futures: What I learned at the OA4P’s environmental teach-in

If you’d asked me last week what I thought the most pressing environmental concerns were, I probably would have talked about the carbon output of global companies. It was not until I attended the OA4P’s Environmental teach-in on Palestine that I recognised how essential it was to highlight the environmental crisis that Palestinians are facing. The teach-in focused on the destruction of resources and the use of land, and how these impact Palestinian opportunities, contextualising them as tools of oppression used by Israel. 

Amongst my peers, discourse on Palestine tends to be concerned with the immediate threat to its existence within Israel’s ongoing assault. The shocking increase in Palestinian fatalities, the immediate need for food and water amidst starvation in Rafah after multiple invasions, and urgent calls for the University of Oxford to divest and disclose their investments and complicity in funding genocide are constantly discussed. The immediate impact on Palestinians, whilst under Israeli occupation is an imminent threat, however, amidst the urgency, the long-term threat to Palestinians’ future is often left unsaid.  

The teach-in, delivered by 4 panelists, outlined the settler colonial rule that Palestine faces, which “seeks to eliminate– not just through killings, but also to eliminate any possibility of a future”. Panelist A listed the contamination of land through pesticides, white phosphorus gas, sewage and more as tools used to prevent a future for Palestinians within Gaza. I had heard of these statistics already, read them daily across my social media platforms, but hearing them within the encampment, spoken out loud, was a different feeling entirely. I struggled to conceive of such mass destruction of culture, life and potential in such little time. 

 Panelist B also focused on how important it is to understand environmental concerns occuring in Palestine now, within the context of historic attitudes of colonialism and oppression. Their description of Gaza as a “sacrifice zone” helped me understand the broader intent of genocide and violence in attaining “profit” for the few, with the exclusion and exploitation of indigenous communities. Conversations with college peers and strangers at rallies, made me realise just how ignorant the majority were, to the broader context of 75 years of oppression Palestine has undergone which the teach-in helpfully explained. They described environmental injustice as “deeply violent”, citing effects like lower life expectancies, illnesses and high infant mortality rates, helping show me that consequences for indigenous communities would not simply end with a ceasefire, but would impact generations.

They described environmental injustice as “deeply violent”, citing effects like lower life expectancies, illnesses and high infant mortality rates

They also outlined the importance of power dynamics, between the occupied, indigenous community and the occupier itself, looking at the use of land and space. Indeed, the ability to decide “who has the power to eat, what is grown, where it is grown” dictates environmental control. However, the Palestinians within Gaza do not have this accessibility or autonomy. Panelist C explicitly mentioned that Israeli occupation has stifled Palestinian access to fundamental resources and use of their land. Environmental landmarks like “air, water, land ownership and the daily interaction we have with those components, are intentionally co-opted, sidelined, marginalised or erased as part of a very broad […] American funded, Zionist structure”, and hinder Palestinian existence.   

In an article exploring the “Ecocide” of Palestine, the Guardian reported that prior to October 7th, farms and orchards covered about 170 sq km, but that by the end of February it was estimated that Israel’s military activity had destroyed more than 65 sq km, or 38% of that land. As reported by the UN Environment Programme, the released asbestos, industrial chemicals and fuel from heavy bombardment can contaminate groundwater and soil in the long term. Israel’s assault on Gaza and Palestine, shows the destruction of livelihood, culture and future agricultural prosperity.  

Indeed, Israel’s extreme use of bombardments, in retaliation for the events of October 7th, has been reported to have exceeded the carbon output of over 20 nations. The Guardian’s exclusive access to a study shows that the “vast majority (over 99%) of the 218,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide […] can be attributed to Israel’s aerial bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza”. Israel’s response to October 7th, which occurred within the framework of over 75 years of occupation and the oppression of Palestinians, have irreparably affected the land and air.  

Indeed, as I mentioned at the start, most of the time, when my circles speak of Palestine they tend to talk about the atrocities, and the tragedies that Palestinians face, especially in Rafah. Most of the efforts in my experience, have foremost, and rightly so, been to condemn the genocide, to provide immediate aid to victims, and to engage in solidarity-working on motions within JCR’s and groups. For myself, the teach-in was a sobering experience, in recognising how the autonomy of Palestinians has been stifled not only by attempts to reduce their native ties to the land, but the physical, mass destruction of resources too. It is important to consider meaningful solutions for the long term in order to prevent the physical destruction of a future for Palestine, and safeguard its livelihood and culture.

Image credit: Cameron Samuel Keys

Image description: Students and tents on the lawn at the OA4P encampment