In a paper published in May 2023, Palestinian activist-scholar Ghada Sasa positions Israeli-protected areas in Palestine as a form of green colonialism and asserts that this green colonialism can only be understood within the historical contexts of colonialism and Western environmentalism. The full paper is published by Sage Journals in Politics, in a special issue on race and climate change. It was made available online on October 8, 2023.
I want to highlight some key concepts and points raised by Sasa in the paper, titled “Oppressive pines: Uprooting Israeli green colonialism and implanting Palestinian A’wna”, published in the journal Politics. The study illustrates the interconnectedness between environmental issues and other historical and contemporary issues.
Before discussing the links between green colonialism, settler colonialism, and Western environmentalism, it is important to highlight some key arguments made in Sasa’s paper. The author states that the manner in which Israel has created “protected areas” in Palestine, including nature reserves, national parks, and forests, represents a form of green (neo)colonialism.
The piece asserts that Israel’s historical and contemporary motives behind establishing these protected environmental areas – encompassing all of its forests, as discussed later on – are:
- To justify increased colonisation and land acquisition, thus further dispossessing Indigenous Palestinians;
- To discourage the repatriation of Palestinian refugees;
- To remove Palestine’s historical context, thus facilitating (1) the land’s Judaisation and Europeanisation, (2) the erasure of Palestinian identity, and (3) the silencing of resistance to Israeli oppression;
- To project a greener image to improve its international image (“greenwashing”) and gloss over apartheid allegations (assisted by “the growth of Orientalism worldwide and the Jewish National Fund’s production of false propaganda”).
As a side note, regarding Israeli forests, it is worth noting that, although only around 16% of forests globally are officially recognised as “protected”, Sasa considers all Israeli forests to fall into this category because, in the 1990s, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) – Israel’s only afforestation agency – switched from productive forestry to protective forestry. Indeed, the JNF commenced administering forests “ostensibly to primarily safeguard ‘nature’, and, second, to promote leisure, tourism, and other societal gains”, with little regard for wood or timber. For this reason, they can be considered protected rather than productive.
What are the links between green colonialism and settler colonialism?
Green colonialism, as described in an Earth.Org article, can be conceptualised as when the Global North and settler colonial countries, under the guise of environmentalism or conservation, engage in extractive and harmful practices, “exploiting the health, labour, and land of the Global South” and Indigenous communities.
Colonisers seized vast territories, with the aid of Western environmentalism, by declaring their Indigenous inhabitants intrinsically environmentally irresponsible, expelling them, establishing protected areas to superficially preserve their lands, and then distorting, romanticising, and sexualising the areas as ‘wild’ or ‘virgin’ green havens, expunging Native memory.
Colonialism itself is understood in Sasa’s paper to be historical processes and practices collectively concerned with the domination by European powers of the majority of Earth (note the emphasis on European powers). This expansive domination was fuelled by the belief that non-Western peoples of the Global South were inferior to Europeans. Moreover, these peoples were not only “racialised, but also feminised, e.g., characterised as weak and illogical, and sexualised, by colonial powers.”
This denigration facilitated the rape and enslavement of land, resources, and inhabitants, as well as the “universalising [of] capitalism as an economic structure to systematise [colonial powers’] exploitation”.
Thus, colonialism and the current climate crisis can be interpreted as arising from the deeply entwined, globalised systems of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism, Sasa writes.
Further, Sasa argues that Israeli green colonialism can only be properly understood when positioned within “the broader histories of Zionism (Nakba) and Western environmentalism.” In the interest of fully understanding the author’s viewpoint, it is necessary to explore these related topics.
Turning to the European ideology of Zionism – a Jewish nationalist movement wherein Palestine is envisioned as a new Jewish state – in Sasa’s view, it was always a settler colonial project that was nevertheless also anti-Semitic. Rather than being granted independence (as did many other territories), Palestine was gifted by Britain as a “national home” to Jewish peoples, many of whom were European.
After the Balfour Declaration was signed, Palestinian lands began to be colonised. In a period known as the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), two-thirds of the Indigenous Palestinians were driven out of their ancestral homelands, and Zionists created the settler colony of Israel upon claiming 78% of Palestine, Sasa states.
The author explains that genocide is the differentiating factor between settler colonialism and colonialism (please note that while the piece mostly uses the term “colonialism”, the author uses “colonialism” and “settler colonialism” interchangeably for convenience).
The aim of settler colonialism is not just to annihilate Indigenous cultures, histories, and socioeconomic systems – including their environmental knowledge – but, in so doing, to pave the way to ultimately obliterating the peoples, too. Sasa writes that “original inhabitants were dehumanised into nonexistence, rendering their land available for takeover, morally and lawfully (terra nullius)” – such as was the case in the Australian context.
Historical Western environmentalism as a product of settler colonialism
According to the paper, Western environmentalism can be perceived as the weaponisation of ecological discourses for ulterior motives.
The birth of European environmentalism originated in the realisation by Western colonising powers that their devaluation of Indigenous knowledge and destruction of Native lands were putting at risk their “resource extractive industries” and settler lives.
Thus, so-called environmentalism was weaponised to perpetuate fundamentally unsustainable colonial practices. For instance, the piece argues, land grabs were thinly veiled as “sustaining forests”. And the idea of “national parks” was invented by John Muir, a Scottish-American naturalist – who had “whitewashed slavery and labelled Indigenous peoples ‘savages'” – to facilitate nation-building in emerging settler colonies.
Further, Sasa argues that biocentrism is the foundational characteristic of Western environmentalism, as, in her view, it emphasises a binary between humans and “the environment”. Protecting the latter typically meant dismissing the needs of subaltern “others” (for example, especially non-Western, female, and poor humans). These sentiments are reflected in ecofascism, which devalues human life – in particular, the life of non-European peoples – in exaltation of so-called nature.
Lastly, the authors of a related 2023 paper discuss greenwashing in Palestine, arguing that Israel’s so-called sustainability practices also serve the purpose of dispossessing and removing Indigenous Palestinians.
Monique Moate is a writer, editor, wife, cat mum, and night owl who enjoys writing about a wide range of topics. She cares about mental health awareness and destigmatisation.