Climate Change, Security, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

By Edgar Roberts


Anthropogenic climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge facing humankind today as its impact extends into effectively every aspect of modern society, from biodiversity, to poverty and socio-economic development, to security. An increasing number of scholars within the field of international relations argue that climate change may act as a threat multiplier, amplifying existing security concerns and producing new ones. As rising global temperatures render some natural resources – in particular, water – scarcer, climate change destabilises domestic socio-political orders, forces vulnerable populations into migration, and goads states into violent conflict.


The Middle East is often singled out as a region where these fears are likely to become reality. As early as 1990, former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali declared that the next war in the Middle East would be “over water, not politics.” In recent years, numerous scholars have argued that the ongoing Syrian civil war was partially caused by a once-in-900-year drought which struck the country in 2011, generating mass internal migration.


These concerns motivated me to conduct my own research on climate security in the Israeli-Palestinian context: I wanted to know just how serious and just how likely the possibility of climate-induced conflict was. But as I surveyed the available literature, I quickly began to feel that the threat multiplier thesis offered too simplistic an analytical perspective, treating the relationship between climate change and security as deterministic and divorced from social and political context. Syria descended into civil war following an extreme drought that afflicted multiple countries across the Middle East, and yet which did not cause conflict and unrest everywhere. Contrary to Boutros-Ghali’s claims, political factors, such as the Assad regime’s irresponsible handling of the fallout of the drought, remained important as determinants of conflict.


Interested now in locating the security impacts of climate change for Israel and the Palestinian Authority within each state’s socio-political context, I decided to conduct my research using the securitisation framework. In a nutshell, this social constructivist theory of security claims that a given problem – say, climate change – is not a matter of security based on any intrinsic, physical qualities that it has or any objective criteria which it meets. Instead, climate change is made a security issue when political actors securitise it – when they talk about it and perceive it in a particular way through certain discourses.


When a political actor securitises a given issue, they declare it an existential threat to some object of value. For example, the highly influential report on “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change”, produced by the American Center for Naval Analyses in 2007, asserts that climate change may create conditions of poverty perfect for terrorists to exploit in order to extend their influence. In this way, the authors claim that climate change has the potential to destroy the United States political order through increased terrorist activity – it is a “national security” issue.


In addition, the political actor must demand emergency measures to eliminate the perceived security threat that go beyond the established boundaries of normal politics in order for her actions to count as securitisation. The Center for Naval Analyses report calls for US defence planners to begin including climate change in their assessments, in order to prepare for the deployment of the National Guard and Reserve during extreme weather events or pandemics of vector-borne diseases. To be clear, securitisation theory does not claim that such increased exercise of military capabilities or the resort to conflict necessarily follow from problems such as climate change: rather, they follow from particular discourses which actors may or may not use to understand climate change.


I applied this framework in an analysis of climate policy documents and public statements from politicians in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I focused on statements made at and after the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP21, the historic summit at which the Paris Accord was finalised, in a large part because it was only in 2016 that the Palestinian Authority acceded to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and became able to participate in international negotiations on climate policy. My aim was to examine the extent of climate securitisation in these documents and statements and how they reflect the wider context of the region’s environmental politics.


Israeli climate policy discussions generally interpret it as a technical problem best resolved through cost-benefit analysis and economic reasoning, rather than as a matter of urgency. In contrast to discourses of securitisation, Israeli politicians refer to climate change not as a threat, but as a “challenge”, almost as if it were a mere puzzle or mechanical problem.


Israeli politicians even talk of climate change as an “opportunity” for the country, for example to hone its technological prowess. Galit Cohen, a former high-ranking official within the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection, has argued that “[t]he climate change story is an international economic story in which Israel must take part … opening up new opportunities for growth.”


Israeli political philosopher Avner De-Shalit has argued more broadly that the Israeli government follows an “ethos of development”, which emphasises the need to exploit the natural environment for the purposes of achieving “rapid urbanisation, industrialisation, [and] economic growth”. This ethos, De-Shalit argues, has its roots in the experiences of the early twentieth century European Zionists who settled in the present territory of Israel, who turned to industrialisation as a means of overcoming the anxiety they experienced in the face of an unfamiliar, barren, and seemingly hostile desert environment. In this way, Zionism was “an assault on a desolate wilderness, a conquest of the desert, and an attempt to make the desert bloom.”


This instrumental attitude can be seen in the limited power and resources available to the Israeli government’s environmental protection department, given the very low priority which the ethos of development affords to environmentalist concerns. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has long been engaged in disputes with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) as to whether or not national environmental legislation applies to the latter body – disputes which are generally won by the IDF. This example is particularly noteworthy, as it shows how the Ministry of Environmental Protection is marginalised to the benefit of mainstream national security agencies, reflecting the desecuritised nature of the Israeli discourse of climate change.


In the case of the Palestinian Authority, the primary framing applied to climate change is that of vulnerability under the Israeli occupation. Palestinian officials’ statements on climate change emphasise how the occupation deprives them of the self-determination and agency necessary to adapt to changing climatic conditions, rendering them acutely vulnerable. President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, in his address to the United Nations at COP21, claimed that Israeli occupation impedes Palestinian efforts at environmental protection, for example through the destruction of Palestinian agricultural harvests and the pollution of aquifers.


While acknowledging the negative consequences of climate change, this discourse ultimately does not securitise climate change: officials identify the occupation as the primary source of threat and afford it enormous priority, crowding out any direct discussion of climate change to the point that it’s hardly mentioned at all. Remarkably, this discourse of vulnerability under military occupation represents something of a reversal of the threat multiplier thesis: instead of climate change being a cause of armed conflict, “[t]he occupation”, claims Nedal Katbeh-Bader, climate advisor to the Palestinian environmental affairs minister, “is a multiplier and makes everything worse.”


As in the case of Israel, Palestinian climate change discourses arise within a historical context of wider narratives and perceptions of the environment. Sociologist Stuart Schoenfeld has studied Israeli-Palestinian environmental narratives, identifying in the Palestinian Authority a progressive narrative of “environmental justice” concerned with overturning unjust systems of oppression that contribute to environmental degradation. This narrative shares much in common with Abbas’s indictment of the occupation in his address at the 2015 summit.


Ultimately, the priority given to the occupation in Palestinian climate discourses results from the fact that the Israeli occupation does actually constrain the Palestinian Authority’s climate policy-making. Although the Palestinian Authority has begun to develop a national climate policy and now participates in international climate politics as a member of the UNFCCC, these efforts are carried out under circumstances unimaginable in the developed world. For example, government agencies prepared initial climate forecast reports in 2008 and 2009 at the same time as some of the deadliest Israeli attacks on Gaza and the lifting of lengthy sieges on multiple West Bank cities. Moreover, the Palestinian Authority attended COP21 in December 2015, the same month that saw twenty 20 building demolitions and 55 fifty-five instances of settler violence carried out by Israeli occupiers.


Neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority, then, view climate change as a security threat requiring any extraordinary measures. I believe my findings offer an important counter-point to the threat multiplier thesis, showing how conflictual relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority – relating to the conventional security issues of sustained occupation and terrorism – actually reduce the priority that both parties will attach to climate change. This argument is significant in the ongoing debate on the relationship between climate change and security, a relationship that it will be crucial to understand in the coming decades.


Edgar Roberts is a Laidlaw Scholar studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Durham University. He is currently completing his dissertation on the incorporation of indigenous land management practices into state environmental conservation programmes.


Photography by Jack Parker

This article is an online feature of Anthroposphere Issue V.


If you like what you've just read, please support Anthroposphere by buying one of our beautifully designed physical copies here. All proceeds go towards printing, designing and maintaining our publication, and your contributions will help keep our climate journalism interdisciplinary and accessible for all.

Find us on...

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram