When Genocide Equals Ecocide: Climate Justice and Earth Day 2024

A Palestinian child harvesting olives in Gaza. (Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour, The Palestine Chronicle)

By Benay Blend

With Earth Day approaching, it is important to recall how Zionists developed myths relating to the land.

“Since October 7, Zionists have wielded atrocity propaganda to justify genocide,” Mary Turfah writes, “while Palestinians have shared testimony of the atrocities they have witnessed. The difference is not just in the truth of these stories, but also their function.”

Defined as “information about the crimes committed by an enemy, especially deliberate fabrications or exaggerations,” this form of misinformation has been the topic of rebuttals since the start of the war on Gaza. However, Zionist hasbara (propaganda) has a long history, beginning with the Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948.

With Earth Day approaching, it is important to recall how Zionists developed myths relating to the land. As Alan George observes, prior to 1948, the Zionists sought to justify unrestricted Jewish immigration to Palestine by claiming that it was “a land without a people for a people without a land.”

In the Americas, too, European invaders perpetrated the myth of technical superiority to exterminate the original inhabitants of the land. Reappropriating notions of manifest destiny, Zionists laid their claim to what they wrongly said was barren wasteland whose original inhabitants lacked the ability to make the desert bloom.

“Every Zionist accusation is a confession,” Dina Elmuti notes, a world view that relies on “lies, propaganda, and manipulation,” thereby ensuring that “everything that is ‘bad’ is projected outward” onto others. Thus when Zina Rakhamilova says that “anti-Israel ‘activists’” use Israel’s independence day to “hijack the narrative and attempt to rewrite history,” she is projecting what Zionists themselves have done.

It is a common myth that Palestine was once vacant land. In fact, it was once the home of a thriving agricultural economy in which Palestinians produced grains, melons, and olives, to name a few. Once Zionists razed the land for highways and homes belonging to the settlers, it was declared a military zone for Palestinians, thus reducing a once flourishing people to poverty.

Co-founder and CEO of Social Lite Creative, Rakhamilova reiterates the myth that when Jewish immigrants returned to their “ancestral land” they encountered there “a barren land that was sparsely populated, with few natural resources and limited water supply.”

Indeed, she might have copied these words straight out of Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Myth and Symbol (1950), a seminal American Studies text that ironically falls into the trap of mythologizing the West as vacant land while at the same time pointing out the mythologies of the region that form a part of the American psych.

As a child, I attended Sunday morning classes at our shul where we donated money to the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Not knowing then What I know now, that the JNF, disguised as an environmental NGO, planted over the ruins of former villages, I thought nothing of it. As the Zionist state continues to uproot olive trees, a symbol of the rootedness of Palestinians, they are replaced by non-native pine trees, which became the “quintessential symbol of Zionism.”

Israel’s force is not only employed by violence and displacement, it is also applied through environmental damage to the land. By replacing the long-rooted olive trees with non-native, fast-growing pine tree forests, Zionists hope to sever the Palestinian’s relationship to the land. Not only does this destroy the people’s livelihoods and kinship with the earth, it also creates ecological devastation.

“These foreign trees often cannot adapt to local soils as they demand a lot of water, causing droughts,” writes Taya Amit. They also “acidify the land, making the ground inedible for Palestinian shepherds to graze their flocks on; and the trees are vulnerable to wildfires,” creating a situation that needs to be highlighted on earth day.

These fires, like those in other parts of the Global South, are the product of colonizers who seek to impose their own imprint on the land.

This Earth Day, amid genocide in Gaza, JNF bills itself as a leader of “eco-Zionism—The Jewish people’s movement for the earth,” thus wrongfully equating Zionism, a political movement, with Judaism, a religion. Touting the many trees that JNF has planted since its founding, it neglects to mention the many olive trees that it has destroyed in perhaps as many years.

By telling only half the story, JNF creates a cover to Israel’s abuse of Palestinian people and their land. For example, JNF claims that the entity instructs other countries how to deal with issues related to water pollution and waste management, yet glosses over the reality that the current siege on Gaza is crippling its water systems so that clean water and sanitation are not available for most people.

Other organizations have contributed to this support of colonialism through means that are less obvious but equally detrimental to Palestinians. In the past, the Sierra Club has touted tours entitled “Wings over Israel: Birding, Nature, and Culture.

Outings that focused on biodiversity and historical sites in the region, these trips were eventually challenged by members of the Sierra Club’s unit of the Progressive Workers Union (PWU who passed a resolution in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Dated June 26, 2023, their statement recognized that colonialism not only contributed to the climate crisis, but had for many years oppressed Palestinians in their struggle for freedom from Israel’s occupation. While the Sierra Club’s administration appeared content with “greenwashing” the entity’s abuses, its workers apparently were not.

In contrast, Friends of the Earth defines “environmental justice” as “fight[ing] for the planet and its people too.” In order to meet the challenges of climate change and climate crisis, they contend that strength comes through solidarity, even if that means losing donors.

April is also Arab Food Month, writes Morgan Cooper Totah in her blog. While living in Ramallah with her Palestinian husband, American-born Morgan is raising her two children to be good stewards of their land. Appropriate also for Earth Day, her most recent column highlights not only the importance of food sovereignty but also the impossibility of achieving it due to checkpoints that make it difficult to access locally grown produce from one city to the next.

For Palestinians, food is at the core of history, identity, and rituals that hold communities together. Because Palestinian food is a cultural symbol that ties the people to the soil, appropriation of Palestinian cuisine is also a tool of the Israeli occupation, thereby denying Palestinian indigeneity by claiming that their dishes belong to Israeli national identity rather than the Palestinians who have long lived on the land.

Accordingly, food always carries a political intent. For example, Rama, a Chicago-based political organizer, explains that Israel prohibits the harvesting of za’atar under the guise of environmental protection, but really to criminalize Palestinian herb-gathering practices. Known for its medicinal benefits, it became an act of resistance to harvest the herb.

“We remain as long as za’atar and olive oil remain,” a phrase that Rama says connotes rootedness in the land for herbs and trees and for people, too.

If Earth Day is about educating others to be good stewards of the land, then the role that Israel has played in destruction of the landscape and its Indigenous people should be told.

Code Pink provides a template—”Earth Day 2024: War is Not Green! Genocide=Ecocide.” Unlike the Sierra Club’s capitulation to Zionist demands, Code Pink calls out the Israeli war machine for its destruction of the land: “Destroying the earth is just another tactic to accelerate genocide, as now nearly all of Gaza’s farmland, energy, and water infrastructure has been destroyed or polluted.”

The group also calls attention to the US Congress for its double-speak: While US law makers offer “shallow sentiments” about their love for the environment, their “virtue signaling” is offset by sending weapons to Israel which “both damage the earth and sever the important tie between indigenous people and the environment, effectively killing both.”

At the recent COP28 in Dubai, Israel was touting its climate tech industry in areas such as carbon capture and storage, water harvesting and plant-based meat alternatives. These so-called climate “solutions” are offset, however, by the entity’s role in warfare.

Ultimately, an end to Israel’s green colonialism (exploiting the banner of environmentalism while actually causing harm), as well as colonialism itself, requires dismantling colonialist structures to return stewardship to its rightful owners.

By acknowledging the connections between environmentalists, climate change activists, and the Palestinian struggle for liberation, this Earth Day could be a watershed the planet’s future.

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
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