From Gaza to Atlanta, There is No Climate Justice on Occupied Land

An interview with Hamza Hamouchene and Manal Shqair on the militarization of climate politics

Ivonne Ortiz

The cover of a book reads, “Dismantling Green Colonialism: Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region.” At the bottom of the cover, there’s a picture of women sitting down in a desert, one of them holding a megaphone. In front of the book, there’s a picture of Hamza Hamouchene with his arms crossed and of Manal Shqair smiling.
Co-editor Hamza Hamouchene and researcher Manal Shqair both authored chapters in "Dismantling Green Colonialism," published in October 2023. Image courtesy of Hamza Hamouchene and Manal Shqair

The global production of renewable energies hit a record in 2023. And yet, the production of fossil fuels hasn’t slowed down and shows no signs of doing so. A United Nations report released in November showed global coal production would increase until 2030, and global oil and gas production until at least 2050. The green energy market has merely grown alongside fossil-fuel giants, such as Shell and Exxon Mobil (who continue to make record profits), without replacing them.

Some of these renewable energy companies have emerged in the Middle East and North Africa, where age-old colonial dynamics are at play. In one such case, Israel is planning on doubling its solar power capacity even as it bombs solar panels and massacres tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza. Young activists like Sahar Shirzad, Sara Rachdan and Greta Thunberg believe the link between Palestinian liberation and averting environmental disaster is clear, as there will be no climate justice on occupied land.” And just as land defenders have fought fossil capitalism to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock and Cop City in Atlanta, so too are indigenous people fighting to keep their lands from becoming sacrifice zones” for green energy production — even as they face increased criminalization.

Dismantling Green Colonialism: Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region, co-edited by Hamza Hamouchene and Katie Sandwell of the Transnational Institute (TNI), explores this changing energy paradigm from the Western Sahara to the Gulf Arab States. Alongside other researchers from the Middle East and North Africa, Hamouchene makes the case that a just energy transition must be free from imperial dynamics of domination and extraction. In one chapter, Palestinian researcher and contributing author Manal Shqair explores the impacts of these dynamics by looking specifically at the Israeli government’s greenwashing — deliberately false or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product, policy or action. This has been on full display at the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 (Nov. 30 through Dec. 12 in Dubai), where Israel is normalizing its ongoing occupation by partnering with other countries on green energy projects while leaving besieged Gazans without power.

In These Times spoke to Hamouchene (a founding member of Algeria Solidarity Campaign and Environmental Justice North Africa) and Shqair (former international advocacy officer for the Stop the Wall campaign) about what it means for climate justice to be rooted in the anti-colonial struggle in Palestine and beyond. The interviews were conducted separately and have been interwoven and edited for length and clarity.

IVONNE ORTIZ: How do you define green colonialism?

HAMZA HAMOUCHENE: Green colonialism is the extension of colonial relations to the era of renewable energy. The term is predominantly used in social movement spaces. People say, This is colonialism because it is displacing local populations and taking away their land.” It was a new environmental civilizing mission: We are coming to you to tell you how to safeguard the environment.

IO: What does this mean in the context of the transition to renewable energy?

HH: The green transition is happening unevenly, and it’s predicated on the continued extraction of base and rare minerals and metals, from copper to cobalt to lithium to nickel to graphite. If we continue the same model of luxury production and consumerism that we see in the Global North, we’re going to see the same extractivist relations and the same patterns of dispossession and plunder.

Colonialism has not really ended. Even if former colonies have gained their formal political independence, their subjugation remains through free trade agreements, debt bondage, structural adjustment programs, resource theft, land grabs and illicit flows of capital.

IO: We cannot talk about colonialism, let alone in the Middle East and North Africa, without talking about the genocide that is unfolding in Gaza. The fact that so many are legitimizing what Israel is doing is horrifying. How are you thinking about it?

MANAL SHQAIR: Israel was created by Western powers, mainly Britain, to maintain a colonial presence in the region. And then the United States became the main supporter of this project because it’s interested in the region’s resources, particularly oil and gas. That’s what it uses to justify intervention in the region. A perfect example is what happened after, or in reaction to, October 7. Under the pretext that Israel has the right to defend itself, the United States sent huge warships to the region.

We keep talking about decolonization, but in my opinion, we should also be talking about the re-colonization of the world, particularly of the Global South.

A woman stands by an olive tree, harvesting its fruit.
In the West Bank village of Turmusaya, Palestinian farmers harvest olives on November 18, 2023. Photo by Issam Rimawi/Anadolu via Getty Images

IO: With overt settler colonialism comes also an overt plundering of resources. And we see that with the people in Gaza, who are currently running out of water. Can you talk about the history of Israel’s water apartheid?

MS: The mass dehydration of Gaza has been made possible through decades-old water apartheid practices; it’s not something new. It began in the 1950s when Israel started drying up the Hula Lake and its surrounding swamps, which provided water to the Sea of Galilee. And the Sea of Galilee used to flow into the Jordan River. Israel didn’t have complete access to the Jordan River — this was before 1967 — but they started constructing dams and diverting water to the settlements that were being constructed in the Naqab desert.

Right after the 1967 war, Israel started issuing military orders that allowed them to take over other water resources in Palestine, particularly underground water resources. And now Israel controls more than 80% of the water resources in the West Bank.

The mass dehydration of Gaza has been made possible through decades-old water apartheid practices; it's not something new.

For decades, Israel has been systematically blocking the flow of water from the southern mountains of the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. With the blockade that was imposed on the Gaza Strip, Israel’s water apartheid practices intensified. The regular assaults on Gaza led to the destruction of infrastructure, cutting off Gaza’s access to power. The sewage treatment plants were not operating properly, leading to the contamination of underground water until people in Gaza reached a point where 97% of their water was undrinkable.

IO: And the water apartheid impacts the West Bank, as well?

MS: Yes. I live in the West Bank, in Ramallah, which is part of Area A. Our access to water, especially in the summer, is limited. We have access to water once or twice a week. In Area C — especially in areas where communities are threatened by expulsion, like rural and nomadic or semi-nomadic communities — some people don’t have access to water. They see the water pipelines underneath their feet, but the water goes to the illegal Israeli settlements. So they rely on water tanks from areas A and B, which are really expensive and are sometimes delayed because of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement.

IO: What other resources is Israel heavily invested in?

MS: Israel has discovered several big gas fields in the Mediterranean. According to Israeli and Western sources, these gas reserves will supply Israeli needs for gas for 30 years. This is in addition to exporting its gas and profiting from that. I don’t think Israel will be able to replace Russia or any big exporters of gas, but it is something that allows Israel to construct an image of itself as an international, indispensable energy power.

Israel is also trying to emphasize how powerful it is in terms of supplying renewable energy. And here comes the importance of Palestine, because areas like the Jordan Valley are a perfect place for renewable energy projects, particularly solar farms. We have a long summer season and more than eight hours of sunlight exposure.

But apart from the resources, the strategic location of Palestine is something that matters to these colonial powers. The West’s ability to stay in and control the region through the presence of Israel allows them to also control the resources of the region at large.

IO: Israel has relied on the idea that it’s the only democracy in the Middle East” to expand its presence throughout the region, but it needs other countries to be dependent on them. How do you think about this?

HH: Israel has slowly found itself isolated, and it understands that to bury the Palestinian question, it needs to start normalizing relations with its neighborhoods, especially in the Arab region. And the only way of doing this is through economic means. So with the help of the United States and the Global North, Israel developed technologies — in weaponry, surveillance, AI, desalination, renewable energy — and is using this to greenwash their oppression and to position themselves as a benevolent steward that can help their neighbors with their ecological and water and energy crises. But this is not just benevolence, this is another frontier for capital accumulation predicated on the dispossession of Palestinians.

Morocco is also doing that in Western Sahara. I think it’s important to draw parallels. Morocco is building wind projects and solar plants in the occupied Western Sahara, but the idea is to export that renewable energy to other West African countries. Colonial powers learn from each other, and we are seeing those intensifying relations that would prove a big challenge for any emancipation or liberation in the region.

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MS: Two projects were signed and agreed on as part of the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, the so-called peace agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sudan, Morocco and Bahrain.

The first project under the Abraham Accords is Project Prosperity: Prosperity Blue and Prosperity Green. Prosperity Blue is supposed to supply desalinated water in Israel to Jordan. Israel is absolving itself of its responsibility for the water crisis in Jordan, because for decades, it has been plundering Jordan’s share in the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers, the two main sources of water for Jordan. The project makes Jordan totally reliant on Israel for water. Prosperity Green is a renewable energy project. There will be a solar farm that will be constructed in Jordan, and the energy it produces will be sold to Israel to operate the water desalination plan. The fact that Israel is going to buy that energy from Jordan doesn’t mean that it’s a fair agreement. The money will be split between Jordan and the Emirati company that will be implementing the project.

The second is another renewable energy project that will be implemented by NewMed and Enlight Renewable Energy, two Israeli companies deeply complicit in energy colonialism in Palestine and the occupied Golan Heights. The project will continue to allow Israel to reconfigure its position in the region in a way that, of course, serves territorial expansion and creates dependencies.

IO: And these manufactured dependencies play out at places like COP28, I imagine?

MS: I’ll answer this question by talking about COP27 in Egypt. I didn’t participate, but my friends and comrades noticed that Israel had more visibility and presence there than in any other COP. This shows how strong the ties of normalization are. Israel, Jordan and the UAE were supposed to meet at COP28 to agree on an implementation plan for Project Prosperity. I’m sure Israel will continue to do its best to greenwash its apartheid and the genocide in Gaza.

A crowd of young protesters gather around a speaker. They hold signs that read, "End Fossil Fuels" and "Deliver Climate Finance For Equitable and Just Transition." They're all wearing conference badges.
On the last day of COP28, young climate activists gather to demand that the conference's final agreement include a commitment to phase out fossil fuels. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

HH: The choice to have COP27 in Egypt, in the military dictatorship of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and now in an openly authoritarian, anti-migrant, anti-worker regime, is clearly a sign that the COP process is bankrupt and failing. It’s becoming much more authoritarian and exclusionary. On top of that, the president of this year’s COP is the head of an oil company.

We started the conversation talking about neocolonialism, and the COP process has been pushing some of those neocolonial dynamics: carbon markets, carbon trading, net zero, nature-based solutions that are based on displacing people. If Shell, for example, wants to reach net zero by 2050, it can continue exploiting gas and fossil fuels by paying other companies that do carbon offsets. One of them is Blue Carbon, an Emirati company that is holding the climate talks this year. It’s selling carbon credits — which are a euphemism for pollution permits — while grabbing millions of hectares in five African countries so far: Liberia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya. Some 10% of the whole surface of Liberia and 20% of Zimbabwe are going to be acquired by this company to protect forests.” But they don’t tell you about Indigenous communities and local populations.

IO: In many places, climate policy has been almost synonymous with climate defense, and the strategy has been one of increased militarization and surveillance. Can you speak more about that, and about what it means for the Middle East and North Africa?

HH: You’re right about the climate security discourse, and we avoid saying energy security, food security, climate security and so forth, because we think that framework reinforces the repressive apparatus of the state. We are seeing a global move to militarize and securitize the response to the climate crisis. The Pentagon, the American Army, is developing a climate strategy: We need to protect ourselves from the rising threats, from the climate refugees, from the potential conflicts that would arise from scarce resources, from conflicts over water. But more tanks and weapons and militarized borders are not going to resolve the climate crisis. They’re going to protect the wealthy, the military-industrial complex, the corporations, while the rest of humanity suffers from the consequences of climate inaction.

Specifically in the Arab region, that threat is very real. The Middle East and North Africa is not only one of the largest markets of armament and weapon export, it is also a testing ground for new technologies and new doctrines, like the global war on terror. And the Arab region suffers from a lot of the impacts of climate change: droughts, sea level rises, wildfires. Authoritarian regimes know that the only way to control populations is by militarizing the response, and we are seeing them buy more armament, more surveillance, from Israel.

But more tanks and weapons and militarized borders are not going to resolve the climate crisis. They're going to protect the wealthy, the military-industrial complex, the corporations.

IO: I want to talk about what it looks like to resist re-colonization. Manal, you expand on the Palestinian concept of sumud–steadfastness and perseverance – and introduce the term eco-sumud, or eco-steadfastness. What is it and what does it look like?

MS: Sumud includes developing tools and employing our ancestral land-based knowledge at the service of the steadfastness of a community to stay on Palestinian land. Eco-sumud is the sustainable practices that Palestinians employ to counter and resist Israeli water apartheid, control of resources and energy colonialism. Palestinians do this when they maintain indigenous agricultural lifestyles and refuse to replace them with Israeli farming methods that are not sustainable.

I give the example of rain-fed agriculture in Dayr Ballut, close to where I grew up. Like many villages in Area C of the West Bank, it has been turned into a small enclave, and more than 90% of the electricity and water resources in the village are under the control of Israel.

After 1967, Israel opened up its labor market to Palestinian men, and women were left alone to look after the land. They responded by introducing new crops every few years, and it’s been successful for them. They’ve maintained the land in the hands of Palestinians. They were able to make wealth out of working on that land, and they became independent economically. Palestinian women are major actors in the anti-colonial struggle.

IO: You wanted the book to serve as a tool for grassroots movements, and you talk about climate reparations, abolishing debt and democratizing and demilitarizing these countries. Decolonization has also come up a lot recently, as has the idea that it is a material, tangible process. Can you talk more about that and how this can happen while countering the co-optation of concepts like the just transition, which is supposed to align our energy goals with the interests of working people and populations in the Global South?

HH: These concepts are always contested; political leaders capture and try to depoliticize them to create a corporate, market-based continuation of the status quo. That doesn’t mean we should give up on these concepts, especially if they have emerged and been rooted in social movements. The just transition, for example, emerged in the United States when Indigenous communities, environmental movements and trade unions came together.

But it cannot be a universal prescription. What works in Northern Europe might not work in Algeria. What works in urban areas might not necessarily be good for rural areas. We need to rely on the imagination of the local populations, local workers, that know their environment and their needs. It is an issue of class, of anti-racism, of feminism, of decolonization. And it’s about democratization.

I believe in ecosocialism myself, but other people may have their own emancipatory visions. The just transition for me is a revolutionary project, and it entails demanding climate reparations and the payment of climate debt. It entails the transfer of wealth and technology from the Global North to the Global South. It means redistribution of wealth at the regional level. And the movements need to take power. If you don’t industrialize and move up in the green value chains, if you don’t start manufacturing green hydrogen and renewable energy on your own, you’re not gonna break those dependencies. 

IO: So it’s about owning the means of production but also the land and the raw materials?

HH: Yes, sovereignty over land and resources. National and popular sovereignty. Some countries started saying, We’re not gonna export our critical raw material for the transition.” Indonesia said, I’m not going to export it in a raw form; it needs to be processed and manufactured inside Indonesia to create more jobs and capture more value.” But then the EU sued Indonesia inside the World Trade Organization, saying they’re not allowed to do this. So you need to also challenge the trade agreements.

It’s not easy, and I’m not gonna give you a prescription on how to do it. It’s the social movements and the revolutionary forces that need to come up with a plan.

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Ivonne Ortiz is an environmental journalist based in Sacramento. She’s currently an intern at In These Times.

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