The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion While Israelis and Palestinians fight, climate change threatens the land

Smoke caused by wildfire near Givat Yearim at the outskirts of Jerusalem as it is seen from Jerusalem on Aug. 16. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)
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A century ago, Egyptian explorer Ahmed Hassanein found pictures of animals carved in rock in the depth of the Libyan desert. “There are lions, giraffes, ostriches, and all kinds of gazelles,” he recorded. It was evidence that the surrounding area had once been verdant savanna. A prehistoric shift in climate, from natural causes, had made the land unlivable for beasts and humans.

I thought about that desolate place recently as I looked at the pale splotch of the sun behind clouds of smoke from a forest fire west of Jerusalem. I imagined explorers coming here in 500 years from temperate Greenland or Antarctica, looking at the desolate hills of the once-fertile land. In place of carvings of giraffes, they may find inscriptions in Hebrew and Arabic, commemorating victims of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, which ended when the land itself died.

The climate is shifting, this time because of human negligence.

In December 2010, when a huge forest fire raged through the Carmel range above Haifa, it seemed like a unique disaster. Then, in November 2016, came major blazes both in the Haifa area and the hills near Jerusalem. A wave of fires in 2019 was followed by another in 2020, and then by this month’s firestorm outside Jerusalem. What was unique has become annual.

As usual, allegations of arson followed the latest blaze. Police and firefighters reportedly asked the Shin Bet security service to join the investigation, given suspicion of “nationalist motives” — meaning Palestinian terror. Palestinians, meanwhile, pointed to photos of the denuded hillsides. The fires, they said, revealed agricultural terraces of pre-1948 Palestinian villages, which had been hidden by Israeli forestation. Both reactions neatly fit the disaster into the familiar frame of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I don’t make light of that conflict, or of the complicated history of 1948. But attention is a limited resource, and both Israelis and Palestinians should be devoting much of our attention to whether any of us will be able to live here in 2048.

As Tel Aviv University climate expert Amir Givati told me, temperatures in the entire Mediterranean region are rising even faster than the global average. In Israel, he says, the increase in recent decades is 2 degrees Celsius.

The change isn’t equally spread through the wet Mediterranean winter and the rainless summer, says climatologist Hadas Saaroni, also of Tel Aviv University. “The summer is heating up more than the winter,” she said. And the wet season is getting shorter, Saaroni and colleagues found in recent research. Though total annual rainfall isn’t shrinking, it’s falling on fewer days — meaning more floods, less water soaking into soil and more parched months between the last rain of spring and the first storm of fall or winter.

Fall, at the end of dry seasons that lasted too long, has been particularly dangerous in recent years. But this year’s megafire — or possibly the first such fire this year — came in August, indicating that already in summer, conditions are worse than in the past. The longer dry season, says Givati, combines with unusual heat to dry plants totally, “from the leaves down to the roots,” so that they are more flammable and burn quicker. “There have always been fires,” he says, “but what’s happening now are firestorms. The spread is so quick that it is difficult to control.”

The fires are the most blatant symptom of change here — easier to visualize than the vanishing of cool breezes on August nights, or steadily worse heatwaves. But year by year, the land is less livable.

In this harsh glare, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond tragic. Why should Israel insist that it cannot give up settlements, or Palestinians insist on the individual right of return of refugees to homes in pre-1967 Israel, when both peoples may end up as climate refugees knocking uselessly on the gates of Canada and Finland? We should be desperate to reach a political compromise so that our diplomats can jointly travel from capital to capital, demanding action on greenhouse emissions.

To make that case, though, we need to do more here. “There’s no doubt that we need to increase the use of solar energy drastically,” says climatologist Saaroni. Yet, as of 2020, Israel was producing just 7 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, and the cabinet recently gutted key goals from a plan to cut emissions.

In the occupied West Bank, Israeli peace activist and former renewable energy executive Gershon Baskin spent years “fighting the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli authorities to get Palestine to become 50 percent” dependent on renewable energy during daylight hours, he told me. Israeli unwillingness to give up control over land and grid lines and “Palestinian governmental dysfunctionality” foiled the plan, he says. “We’ve shed so much blood over how much we love this land,” Baskin says, “and yet we treat it so badly.”

That cannot last. Let me combine cynicism and optimism: Israelis and Palestinians now face a shared, existential threat. Perhaps that will finally force us to make peace and work together.

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