Children stand with bombed solar panels in Gaza.

Children stand next to solar panels destroyed following Israeli bombing on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 11, 2023.

(Photo: Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)

Solar Panels in Gaza Can’t Withstand Bombs

Why environmentalists should speak up on Palestine.

Why doesn’t Gaza have electricity? A colleague who works in clean energy asked me this seemingly innocent question on October 15 when Israel had cut off power sources in Gaza. It opened the door to an important discussion within the environmental movement, in which people are working toward a clean energy, low-carbon future.

The question of Palestine undoubtedly encompasses racial, economic, health, gender, queer, and carceral dimensions. At the nexus of these intersectional issues is the environmental concern. In Gaza, limited access to food, land, water, and electricity are not just infrastructure problems, they are pressing environmental concerns that intersect with larger social justice issues.

Outside of this recent escalation of violence, the ongoing realities of Palestinians living in Palestinian territories are and have been environmental justice travesties.

The label “intersectional environmentalist” gained popularity during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, urging people to recognize the interconnectedness of social and environmental issues. For those environmentalists who spoke up in 2020 but remain silent right now, it is time to extend this intersectional lens to the dire situation in Gaza, as many intersectional environmentalists have courageously done.

As the environmental community rightly celebrates the global growth of renewable energy as a means to combat climate change, we cannot ignore what is unfolding in Israel-Palestine, where nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been murdered in three months. The carbon footprint of the U.S.-made bombs being dropped by Israel on Gaza is tremendous, negating the impact of collective efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere and reduce carbon emissions worldwide. But outside of this recent escalation of violence, the ongoing realities of Palestinians living in Palestinian territories are and have been environmental justice travesties.

Energy Under Occupation

The power outages in Gaza that began taking place in early October 2023 have underscored the region’s crippling energy crisis. Essential for day-to-day functioning, fuel is the lifeblood of any society. Gazans relied on Israel for electricity and fuel, making the availability of energy to Palestinians precarious. Gaza has one power plant, which became operational in 2002 with a capacity of 140 megawatts (MW) when it was built. Studies estimate that the actual power needs of Gaza are in fact closer to 400-500 MW, meaning that Gazans were frequently facing power shortages and outages. Under “normal” circumstances, this electricity shortage meant hospitals in Gaza postponed surgeries, teachers taught by candlelight, and waste management could not fully treat sewage water, so it ended up dumped in the Mediterranean Sea, threatening marine life and, subsequently, what remains of the fishing industry in Gaza.

It’s essential to underscore that Gaza’s access to fuel has been tightly controlled by Israel, and Palestinians lack the capacity to produce their own fuel, perpetuating their reliance on external sources for this vital resource.

When a complete blockade occurs, as we witnessed over the past few months, Gazans were left quite literally in the dark, unable to access electricity—a critical need for daily life. Due to the siege and airstrikes on Gaza, lack of electricity meant that many newborn babies who relied on incubators for their survival were killed, and rescue efforts were obstructed as it became harder to search for people trapped under the rubble of their destroyed homes in the dark.

There is no such thing as a green airstrike.

The environmental justice movement’s call for energy democracy recognizes that shifting from corporate, centralized control of energy to a system that is decentralized, democratic, and supports local economies—while committed to the well-being of workers, nature, and future generations—would make perfect sense for Palestinian territories. At least in theory.

Gaza is an occupied territory—despite Israel’s claims that it withdrew in 2005, Gaza’s borders are tightly controlled in a way that makes it reliant on Israel to meet basic needs, including fuel. In Gaza, distributed energy resources—particularly solar panels and energy storage—may seem like a viable solution. Prior to October 7, 13% of Gaza’s electricity sources were renewable energy, including solar, wood, charcoal, and even olive cake, but these alone couldn’t fulfill energy needs. We know off-grid solar systems can provide reliable and sustainable energy, build resilience against conflicts, reduce dependence on fossil fuels and outside parties, and mitigate the environmental impact of energy production. This limitation is not solely a matter of access and affordability; it is the stark reality of living under energy apartheid, where true energy independence remains an elusive aspiration for the people of Gaza. Even if this technology were to become available in Gaza (and other Palestinian territories), there’s an unavoidable obstacle: solar panels can’t withstand bombs.

One might argue that the recent bombings are isolated incidents, but that is not the case. The Israeli army frequently bombs the Palestinian territory. In fact, Gaza’s sole power plant was bombed by Israel in 2006, destroying six of its transformers and its fuel reservoir. After repairs, the plant was more recently capable of producing around 110 MW. Though, because of fuel shortages, it often only produced around 60 MW, far below Gaza’s actual needs. For context, 100 MW can power about 16,400 US homes, insufficient for Gaza’s 2.2 million people. What’s more, between 2008 and 2021, Israel launched military assaults on Gaza, lasting a total of 92 days—roughly three months of bombing in one of the world’s most densely populated areas. (See image below) So, even if Palestinians managed to transition to off-grid renewable sources, these could not withstand frequent bombing.

Bombing As Major Emitting Event

Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza have a massive carbon footprint. In October 2023, Israel boasted dropping 6,000 bombs on Gaza in just six days, and the intensity of bombing never subsided. Israel’s military bombardment of the first 60 days resulted in the equivalent of burning at least 150,000 metric tons of coal. While it’s better-understood that Israel has catapulted the region into a major humanitarian crisis, it’s less known that Israel is now catapulting us towards a climate disaster. There is no such thing as a green airstrike. Further, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are exempt from environmental laws, exacerbating the global climate crisis with impunity.

The United States, and other countries, cannot be serious about addressing climate change if they continue to fund military activity because not only are those dollars being diverted from climate action, military activity dramatically shortens our already tight timeline to address the climate crisis. The wealthiest countries funding Israel’s military campaign pulled through on foreign military aid but have not delivered the $100 billion in climate finance that they promised the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries nine years ago (mind you these climate-vulnerable countries bear little responsibility for creating the climate crisis). A recent study revealed that the first 60 days of Israel bombing Gaza produced emissions greater than the combined annual emissions of 20 individual countries.

Water Under Occupation

Water is essential for life and remains a basic right consistently denied to Palestinians. Since 1967, Israeli military authorities have had dominion over all water resources and water-related infrastructure in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, leaving Palestinians at the mercy of their occupying power for access to this fundamental resource.

Moreover, Israel signed a Military Order in 1967, requiring Palestinians to seek approval from Israel’s army for any construction of new water installations. This restriction further exacerbates the water crisis, as Palestinians are effectively barred from building essential water infrastructure, leaving them dependent on Israel for their basic water needs.

A 2017 Amnesty International report shows that approximately 180 Palestinian communities in the occupied West Bank’s rural areas have no access to running water. In the same report, we learn that 90% to 95% of Gaza’s water supply is contaminated and unfit for human consumption.

From Flint to Standing Rock to Gaza—water is life.

In Russia, targeted attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine have rightfully been deemed war crimes, according to the international order. Considering the sustained attacks and deprivation of supplies needed for survival, the daily realities of Gazans under occupation should be called war crimes, as well.

With these facts in mind, imagine how dangerous it is when prominent American celebrities, like comedian Sarah Silverman, post erroneous and callous statements such as the statement below to 2 million Instagram followers in support of Israel cutting off water to Gaza.

Silverman later deleted the post after facing backlash, claiming she had been “stoned.” Yet she did not correct her false claims.

Palestinians across the Occupied Territories are systematically prevented from building their own infrastructure by Israel—and not because of Hamas, which does not operate in the West Bank.

Any justice-conscious environmentalist should be appalled that water is arbitrarily and categorically denied to Palestinians daily. With media and celebrity influencers openly questioning whether Palestinians deserve water, this crisis should be seen as an environmental justice issue of mass proportions, with stark overtones of environmental racism. From Flint to Standing Rock to Gaza—water is life.

Land Under Occupation

As environmentalists, we hold deep respect for Indigenous people as some of the world’s greatest conservationists. Indigenous people represent 6% of the global population, yet have stewarded 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. Native trees are among the planet’s most valuable resources in combating climate change by absorbing carbon, preventing soil erosion, and supplying oxygen.

In historic Palestine, over 9 million old growth, drought-resistant olive trees adorn the region due to Palestinian land stewardship carried out over generations. Since 1967, Israeli authorities have uprooted or burned almost 1 million olive trees largely as a means to displace Palestinians from their land to establish settlements that are illegal under international law. Destroying these trees creates both an ecological tragedy and an economic one, as the Palestinian economy is largely agriculture-based.

While groups like the Jewish National Fund (JNF) plant trees in the region (branding themselves as an environmental organization), the trees they plant are often non-native invasives that inhibit biodiversity while facilitating displacement of Palestinians from their land. In the Negev desert, there is an aggressive tree planting campaign that threatens endangered species including ground-nesting birds like the spectacled warbler, or raptors, which need open landscapes to dive on prey. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) actually opposes further tree planting in naturally unforested open spaces such as grasslands and shrublands, claiming that afforestation in sensitive ecosystems had a destructive impact on Israel’s unique biodiversity. As far as displacement is concerned, in 2015, Israel’s Supreme Court authorized the eviction of 1,000 Indigenous Arab Bedouin residents of two Negev villages in order to build the new town of Hiran—and also, to expand the Yatir Forest.

The ecological damage extends beyond uprooted trees. Much of Palestinian agricultural land, especially in Gaza, is tainted with heavy metals, as a result of repeated airstrikes and shelling. These toxic residues pose a significant threat to the environment, affecting not only the soil but also the health of the people who depend on these lands for their livelihoods.

Palestinians have lived in the region generation after generation. They have been displaced since 1948 in what was called the Nakba, Arabic for “Catastrophe,” and they continue to be displaced and ethnically cleansed. As environmentalists, we have an ethical duty to speak out against such injustices and advocate for a more just and sustainable world, which begins by acknowledging the present crises and taking action to address them.

Environmental Justice Requires Taking a Stand Against Genocide

It is imperative for environmentalists to pay attention to what is happening in Israel-Palestine now and understand that the ongoing devastation and systemic violence has persisted for decades. We of course unequivocally condemn the terrorizing activities of any group responsible for violence and war crimes. Because of this, we refuse to accept state-sanctioned violence that is endorsed and paid for by the U.S. government. We also refuse to accept the military annihilation of our collective climate.

As a community committed to preserving and protecting our planet, we have a moral obligation to take stand against genocide, as many scholars and practitioners of international law are warning. In the same way that we listen to climate scientists warning us of the climate crisis, this moment feels all too familiar and we have an obligation to listen to the experts and speak up. The people of Gaza are bravely and desperately showing us their horrific realities in the hopes we may intervene in service of humanity, and it is incumbent upon us to listen, act, and stand in solidarity with them, for their sake and for the future of the planet.

Let this be a resounding call to action for all of us, for we understand that a path to a more secure, livable planet cannot be paved through genocide or occupying a people.

We all want peace and a deescalation of violence. In order for this to occur, we must also recognize that peace cannot return to the status quo. It must be rooted in the principles of freedom from occupation, land sovereignty, and the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people. If these ideas seem complicated, take comfort in knowing that many of the social justice leaders we all look up to, from Angela Davis and bell hooks to Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X, firmly stood on the side of Palestinian sovereignty. Even before Israel’s founding as a nation-state, there has been strong Jewish resistance to efforts to claim land in historic Palestine, recognizing the material threat it posed to Palestinians; today, there remains an active and growing Jewish movement standing in solidarity with Palestinians against their ongoing subjugation by the nation-state of Israel.

So too, our modern day environmental hero, Greta Thunberg, also posted that she stands with Gaza. They all recognize that struggles against injustice are intricately intertwined. As anti-apartheid South African leader Nelson Mandela stated, “But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” And, we applaud South Africa’s legal action at the International Court of Justice, accusing Israel of genocide—a move that pays tribute to Nelson Mandela’s legacy of championing liberation for the Palestinian people.

So, let this be a resounding call to action for all of us, for we understand that a path to a more secure, livable planet cannot be paved through genocide or occupying a people. We cannot bomb our way to peace. It is only through commitment to solidarity and justice across all boundaries that we may forge the path to a more sustainable world. Enough lives have been lost, and we need a lasting permanent cease-fire to prevent any further loss of life and for the future of the planet.

This piece was written with support from Natasha Jamal, Kate Petriw, Ranjani Prabhakar, Whitney Richardson, and Naomi Tyler.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.