FROM THE FIELD
Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East

Wildfires in Israel and Palestine - A Fuel for Conflict or an Opportunity for Building Trust?

by |August 15, 2018

By Claire Palandri

In July 2018, nine Columbia University graduate students traveled to Jordan and Israel to conduct fieldwork and explore the complex issues surrounding cooperation on environmental issues and managing shared natural resources. The course is a collaboration between Columbia University and the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University. This is one in a series of posts about the trip.

Wildfires have been overwhelmingly present in the news this summer. From the Attica region in Greece to the current Mendocino Complex Fire – both among the largest wildfires recorded in their regions’ histories – it seems that the risk of such natural disasters is increasing worldwide.

The name of the fire ravaging Northern California could not resonate more with the type of problem we are dealing with. Indeed, the apparent simplicity of the forces at play (high temperatures, dry vegetation and winds facilitating spread) actually hide a much more complex system where feedbacks between the natural environment and human behavior play an important role.

In the case of Israel and Palestine, such interactions between the ecological and the social systems are critical, and make wildfires an exemplary case study of the potential of environment management as either a lever for cooperation and peacebuilding, or on the contrary, a driver of conflict among communities sharing common resources.

Beyond the physical damage and destruction wildfire events can cause, their mobilization and framing to pursue private interests or particular political agendas can push the system in a feedback loop reinforcing conflict.

People run as wildfires rages in Haifa, Israel (Nov. 24, 2016).
Source: Times of Israel, 11/30/16

In the first few days of the November 2016 fires, which ravaged over 2000 hectares of lands across Israel and Palestine, accusations of arson terrorism fired from both sides before the causes of the fires had been identified. While some public officials sent messages of moderation and called for cohesion and for joining the “common effort to combat extremism, dealing with the fires rather than with theorizing about incitement,” others were not shy to use strong vocabulary feeding into political agendas and enhancing tensions, with declarations such as “whoever burns down the country cannot be a citizen of the country, and their citizenship status should be revoked” and “anyone who tries to burn down the state of Israel will face the fullest punishment.” The role that extreme atmospheric conditions and regrettable negligence played in the ignition and spread of these fires was often understated. More recently, the burning kites that have been flying out of Gaza since March 2018 to damage neighboring agricultural production and land are another example of how the environment – in this case, the ability for vegetation to catch and propagate fire – can become entangled in a reinforcing feedback loop with dire risks of conflict escalation.

Other dynamics of the social system such as the capacity to take effective urban planning decisions at the wildland-urban interface also play an important role in the environment-conflict nexus. As the population density keeps increasing near areas of high vegetation flammability, developing resource management and urban plans is critical. However, huge asymmetries in decision-making abilities regarding urban development exist between Arab and Jewish communities, which do not benefit from the same public policies. The jurisdictional zones of Arab towns and villages represent less than 3% of the Israeli territory, leading to a very dense habitat, without much or any planning. Moreover, the Jewish sector has overall a much stronger negotiating position in all matters related to land allocation, jurisdiction, and use. At the root of the wildfire problem lies therefore an environmental justice issue with strong asymmetries in both the decision-making abilities of the different stakeholders, and their knowledge power.

In a context of increasing vulnerability from climate change, high population growth and lasting conflict, identifying the forces that may lead the system toward a given positive or negative feedback loop is critical to design effective policies that stand a chance of being sustained.

The outlook is not all bleak: in 2017, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority held the first-of-its-kind joint firefighting and rescue exercise. The goal was to assess the capacity of each party to cooperate with the other two during major firefighting operations, and implement the measures necessary to improve that cooperation. An optimistic – but nonetheless realistic! – scenario is that such cooperation on wildfire risk management might end up being a platform for enhancing dialogue, building trust, and eventually help achieve larger peacebuilding goals.

Claire Palandri is a second-year PhD student in Sustainable Development at Columbia University. She participated in the Regional Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East course in Jordan and Israel in July 2018. The course is a collaborative effort of Columbia’s Earth Institute and School of Professional Studies, and the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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