The Environment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip: Status and Prospects
A century ago, the world population was one billion. In the space of 130 years this figure has doubled and is expected to increase from today's five billion to reach ten billion within the next forty years, assuming the current average rate of demographic growth. This demographic explosion is a major contribution to the degradation of the environment disturbing the fragile ecological system.
The South Mediterranean Basin (to which the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Gaza Strip belong), is no exception and has, like the rest of the world, been subjected to the same problems of environmental degra¬dation and demographic explosion. In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, however, an added contribution to the degradation of the environment came in the form of occupation by Israel.
In the West Bank, agricultural lands have suffered severely as a result of the prolonged occupation. The Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) have been governed by military orders and Mandatory laws which go back more than five decades. The Israelis have issued more than 1,387 military orders in the West Bank and 1,086 in the Gaza Strip which apply to Palestinians only, while settlers have a free hand in the area. Two of these orders, (Military Orders No. 1015/1982 and 1039/1983), prohibit the plan¬tation of any fruit trees without a prior permit. Thus, a large number of trees have been uprooted, ostensibly for security reasons. Confiscations and closures have reduced the distribution of land from 6.2 dunums/capi¬ta in 1967 to 2 dunums/capita in 1992, although the number of inhabitants during those two years of comparison was almost the same. Agricultural lands have dropped from 2.6 dunums/capita to below 1.4 dunums/capita at the present moment.
In the Gaza Strip, the picture is hardly any brighter. The degradation of the environment, which has been increasing over the years, has reached such a critical level that in certain areas the process has become irremedia¬ble. A catalyst has been the various procedures and legislations of the occu¬pying authorities, such as placing all control of water resources in the hands of the military administration (Military Order No. 92/1967), the over-pumping of underground water and allowing untreated sewage to flow into the sea.

A Population/Land-and-Resources Equation

The increase in population, which has been a natural reaction to the occu¬pation policies, impacted negatively on the environment. Indeed, the equa¬tion of population to land and resources in the OPT is taxed by the average demographic growth which exceeds 4 percent per annum, with 50 percent of the population below the age of fifteen. When the Occupation ends and an era of peace is established, an increasing number of Palestinians are expected to return home. This calls for planned use of available resources, including land.
More than seven persons are living in two- to three-room houses, and this represents 44.3 percent of the population, while 19.3 percent of the popula¬tion live in houses with more than three persons per room.1 The average cost of building a modest housing unit amounts to five-fold, sometimes eight¬fold the total income of a family, and represents 20 percent of the GNP.
Current Israeli regulations require that new buildings be erected over a large area of land, 500 sq. meters on average, a practice which diminishes the possibility of optimal exploitation of the land. Experts have estimated that the West Bank and Gaza Strip need about 120,000 new housing units to cover the housing shortage. This might reach 250,000-300,000 units in the coming five years, in the eventuality that 0.8 million returnees come home.
Hence, the question arises, what areas will be allotted for the building of such housing units. There is a marked preference for detached houses over the more economical apartment blocks, although, at some point, the latter will inevitably have to be considered.
More to the point, what will be the impact of the establishment of such an infrastructure, with all related services and the ensuing production of waste matter, on the environment and the consumption of raw materials?
At present, land in the West Bank is utilized according to the distribution given below, while bearing in mind that Israel controls 70 percent of the land in the West Bank and 40 percent in the Gaza Strip:
32 percent of the total area is utilized for forests and rangelands
32 percent for agriculture (5 percent of which is irrigated)
6 percent for construction
30 percent unexploited
The Gaza Strip has 165,000 dunums of agricultural lands, 112,000 of which are under irrigation.2
According to the Cairo Agreement and the Declaration of Principles (DOP), the Israeli settlements will continue to exist during the interim peri¬od, and their negative impact on the environment will continue.

Environmental Conditions in the OPT

1. The policy of settlement building together with the confiscation of lands for various reasons have led to the reduction of those areas designated as agricultural and rangelands, as well as to the destruction of the local envi¬ronment. The situation has been exacerbated by the uprooting of trees ¬more than a quarter-of-a-million trees, mostly fruit and olive trees, have been uprooted by the Israeli authorities during the Intifada years. The remaining area of land, which does not exceed 35 percent of the total area of the West Bank, is consequently subjected to great constraints. As men¬tioned earlier, the coming five years will not see the dismantling of the settlements which constitute one of the most important factors taxing Palestinian resources. Since the Washington talks, 530,000 dunums have been confiscated in the West Bank alone, with a view to building new set¬tlements or expanding already existing ones.3

2. In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, there is a chronic water shortage both in terms of quantity and quality. Through the various legislations and military orders, Israel has empowered itself to control all water resources. For example, Military Order No. 92/1967 stipulates the expropriation of wells belonging to absentee Palestinian owners; the prohibition to drill any new wells without prior permission from the military authorities (permis¬sion is rarely granted); the freezing of pumping quotas from wells and the establishment of control mechanisms to monitor Palestinian water use. Thus, 80 percent of unreplenishable water in the West Bank is exploited by Israel. In the Gaza Strip, for example, the annual deficit exceeds 70 million cubic meters (mcm). The average consumption/capita in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip does not exceed 30 percent of the total Israeli consump¬tion/capita. Finally, the Palestinians pay $1.2/cubic meter to the $0.33¬O.l/cm which the Israelis pay. With the prospects of a political solution in sight, the estimated water needs in the West Bank for all sectors will increase from 120 mcm to over 384 mcm by the year 2010, 70 percent of which will go for agriculture.

3. The absence of an infrastructure to deal with the disposal of waste mat¬ter both solid and liquid constitutes a health hazard and a means of spread¬ing diseases and epidemics, especially among children. At present, 40-50 percent of sewage gets collected in some sort of network inside residential areas; the rest of the population uses septic tanks. It is obvious that in such circumstances, huge investments are required to update the existing sew¬erage system, and even to consider the treatment of waste water for reuse in various domains.
Around 190 kgs of solid waste are produced per person annually, yet the methods of collection are inadequate, labor and the necessary equipment for collection are insufficient. The solid waste of the municipality of West Jerusalem and part of the liquid waste find their way into the West Bank, while the proportion of West Bank inhabitants receiving garbage collection services within municipal boundaries ranges between 40-60 percent.

4. Sound and air pollution are not sufficiently monitored, yet the dust from quarries, some of which have been constructed against the wishes of the OPT inhabitants, and licensed without an environment impact assessment, has caused extensive damage to the environment and a health hazard to the inhabitants.
Pollution from fumes emitted from car exhausts is a universal problem, but the lack of strict laws in licensing old cars has turned into an irremedi¬able problem, considering that the number of vehicles has jumped from 1,626 in 1970 to 40,070 in 1990 in the West Bank, and from 1,293 to 18,816 in the Gaza Strip for the same period.4
Transboundary pollution, which has become a global phenomenon, is very much applicable to the OPT where pollution from industry, and pos¬sibly from radiation, originates outside the OPT, especially in Israel. For example, it was estimated that air pollutants released by Israel in 1990 were: 525,000 tons of carbon monoxide, 156,000 tons of nitrogen oxide, 275,000 tons of sulfur oxide and 9.6 million tons of carbon dioxide.5

5. The excessive use of pesticides is facilitated by the fact that Israel allows the importation of internationally banned products such as DOT, 2 4-0, etc. It has been estimated there were around twenty kinds of forbidden pesticides still in use. Moreover, since the instructions for use are written either in Hebrew or in a foreign language, the farmers' ignorance can prove calamitous, as some of these pesticides have been known to cause genetic malformations in embryos, and mutations in insects and living organisms.

6. In spite of the deplorable state the environment is in, it has not figured high on the list of priorities in the OPT, especially during the years of the Intifada. This is normal, since people's existential concern is primarily the satisfaction of biological and survival needs; the environment comes lower on the priority scale, although a new attitude is now emerging. An impor¬tant point to consider, if we are to preserve a renewable and sustainable environment, is the need to provide for harmony between the needs for growth and development and those of the environment. Care for the envi¬ronment starts with the simplest of gestures, acquired at home and at school: not to litter, not to cut wild flowers, not to destroy plants.

In Conclusion

There was once a time when the whole of natural Palestine was a land of milk and honey. It was host to forests, rare wild flowers and living crea¬tures: 2,500 species of plants, 150 of which are native to Palestine; 70 species of mammals; 480 of birds; 90 of reptiles and 80 of amphibians.6 Now the OPT are subject to desertification and a paucity of natural resources, the result of years of over-exploitation by the Occupation, and overall neglect of the environment.
The Palestinian National Authority seems to have its work cut out for it in assuming the vital role of the protection of the environment. It will have to set in motion strategies respecting the natural, economic and social assets of the land; to promulgate laws and regulations for the protection of the environment and to establish foundations which will ensure a con¬stantly renewable environment through relevant programs, policies and norms. These might include:

1. The sponsorship of consciousness-raising programs for the preservation of the ecological balance in all levels of daily activities. Attention should be drawn to the dangers arising from the use of chemical products such as beauty products, pesticides, fertilizers, plastics or any other synthetic prod¬ucts.

2. The establishment of an infrastructure to safeguard a healthy environ¬ment and to promote the treatment and recycling of waste matter both solid and liquid, and to ensure that water sources are kept germ-free and fit for domestic consumption.

3. A concern for the quality of air and water in order to limit the pollutants. This involves a review of existing agricultural methods, the adoption of integrated pest management methods, encouragement of aquaculture, water conservation and the reuse of treated waste water.

4. Involving the population in the development process in order to find an organic relationship between developmental needs and the requirements for a healthy and sustainable environment.

5. The promotion of studies and research projects to produce an environ¬ment profile, emphasizing the use of the land to preserve the topsoil, in order to minimize the factors leading to desertification and erosion.

6. Proper planning to separate residential areas on the one hand, and com¬mercial and industrial ones on the other, and to allot land for parks and nature reserves.

7. An awareness of insidious pollutants such as radiation emitted from televisions and microwaves, in addition to sound pollution and inesthetic town planning.

The enormous amounts of money spent yearly on the manufacture of weapons and means of mass destruction can be put to so much better use for the preservation of the environment and the ecological system, for as it has been said: it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.


1 Adnan Shqueir, "A Summary of the Environmental Conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories." (Arabic), a paper presented at the first Regional Conference for the Conditions and Requirements of Environmental Policies in the Arab World, Jordan, Yarmouk University, 1993.
2 Development Perspectives for Agriculture in the Occupied Palestinian Territories Jerusalem: Society for Austro-Arab Relations, 1992.
3 Al-Quds, Jerusalem, 30 March, 1994.
4 Shqueir, opcit.
5 Reports of the Technical Committee on the Palestinian Environment, Jerusalem, 1992 (unpublished).
6 Ibid.