Meron Benvenisti
Haaretz (Opinion)
March 27, 2008 - 6:59pm

Ecological issues have become central in public discourse, with almost all activity in the fields of transportation, infrastructure, industry and agriculture spurring a lively debate on their environmental impact. The discussion long ago went beyond the limited themes of protecting nature reserves, wild animals and plants, and has begun to bite into sacred myths about the "conquest of the wilderness" and the dressing of the land "in a frock of cement and concrete."

Many people understand that the old Zionist slogans have become a tool in the hands of cynical real estate sharks and that continuing the cult of development will lead, if it has not already done so, to an environmental disaster that could destroy the health of Israeli society. Many activists who are worried about the environment's fate avoid radical statements about shattering the Zionist dream so as not to send the debate - harsh in any case - over to the political arena, which would make the environmental struggle even more difficult.

One way of confining the debate to areas ostensibly untainted by the question of the "future of the territories" is to completely ignore that not only Israel's citizens depend on the environmental resources, but also millions of Palestinians. The numbers that fuel the environmental debate in Israel - from population density to water and air pollution, from motorization to electromagnetic radiation - are examined only with regard to Israel within the Green Line.

This line, although some people still believe it has a geopolitical significance, is fictitious in terms of environmental considerations. This becomes apparent along the route of the security fence. The absurdity grows when one realizes that the Israeli environment includes the settlements, while the Palestinian population - about 4 million people - and their communities are not included in this "environment." As if they are on another planet.

"The environment" does not know ethnic fences. More than 10 million people living west of the Jordan depend on the same water resources and breathe the same air, swim in the same sea and use the same communication frequencies.

But including the Palestinians in the Israeli environment ostensibly means annexation, or at least recognizing that the occupation is not temporary; that is how political disputes become enmeshed in ecological discourse.

Only two issues are considered relevant in environmental discussions: demography and water. Both reveal a division of resources that Israelis consider reasonable: The Palestinians, who make up about 40 percent of the population in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, should have about 11 to 15 percent of the land, while per-capita consumption of water resources for the Palestinians should be about one-fourth that of the Israelis.

This extreme inequality comes to the fore in the huge gap in the per-capita Palestinian and Israeli gross domestic product, which is 1:10 in the West Bank and 1:20 in the Gaza Strip. Only the assumption that such gaps will persist in the future makes it possible to ignore the Palestinian factor. After all, the use of environmental resources is a function of income and living standards; if these rise, energy and water use and motorization will increase, and demand will grow for recreation services and trips to the beach.

The concern that the Palestinians will endanger the Israeli monopoly and will demand a more just distribution of environmental resources has led to the creation of a bureaucratic-economic-military system. This system ensures full control over every factor or process that might hurt the quality of life of Israel's citizens and the privileges they have accumulated during the Zionist enterprise.

This system - called in sanitized language "the occupation" - is not a military occupation, a takeover of lands and a temporary situation that will end when peace comes, but a permanent situation in which even those who are struggling to end it are partners in achieving its latent goal. The goal is for the Palestinians not to consolidate economic power that will "steal" environmental resources from Israelis.

That is the real goal of the regime of closures, the strangulation of physical planning and especially the prevention of Palestinians from working in Israel: to ensure that the Palestinians remain in their backward condition. This will not pry away the environmental resources, which will remain an internal Israeli matter.

It seems to Israelis that they have the power to maintain this monopoly on the environment indefinitely, but this is a dangerous illusion. After all, they do not have the power to stop Palestinian population growth or even the rise in their living standards, which will affect the bitter struggle we can expect over the distribution of environmental resources. Only if these influences become a part of public discourse will the way we deal with ecological issues be complete.


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