Guest opinion: Why Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) is an Environmental Issue

On Dec. 4, UC Davis graduate student instructors and undergraduate tutors will vote to join the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and call on the UC and UAW International to divest from companies complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. They will join approximately 13,000 other student workers represented by UAW 2865 across the University of California system.

On Saturday, Nov. 15, UC Davis’ Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) president Marcelle Obeid and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)[i] activist and worker Gabi Kirk hosted a workshop for undergraduate and graduate environmental activists as a part of the California Student Sustainability Coalition’s 2014 Convergence.[ii] Entitled “Occupation as Degradation: Environmental Issues in Palestine and BDS,” their workshop made explicit the links between environmental issues and the occupation of Palestine and gave reasons for why environmental activists ought to vote “yes” on BDS on Dec. 4.

The workshop started with an historical synopsis of the relationship between environmental degradation and the occupation of Palestine, detailing the ways in which many of the early justifications for Israel’s settler-colonial policies – claims that Israeli settlers would “make the desert bloom” – were in fact claims used to justify the expulsion of Palestinians from their land. Obeid and Kirk then explained that Israel’s victory in 1967 had the immediate effect of allowing Israel to occupy and begin to colonize the West Bank and Gaza, thereby allowing Israel to take overall possession of Palestine’s fresh water and agricultural land.

Facilitating this possession are a number of Israel’s policies that actively prevent Palestinians from building sustainable infrastructure,[iii] farming their land,[iv] accessing water[v] and protecting themselves and their land against attacks by Israeli settlers seeking to seize fertile land and fresh water.[vi] Nowhere are these policies more clear than along the route of Israel’s Apartheid Wall[vii] (or Separation Barrier).[viii] Though purportedly designed to follow the border between Israel and Palestine and to guarantee Israeli security, 86 percent of the wall is constructed inside the West Bank and, when complete, will isolate Palestinians from approximately 65 percent of their water resources[ix] and more than 9.4 percent of their total agricultural land.[x]

These policies of environmental degradation are particularly acute[xi] in Gaza,[xii] where Israel’s siege and repetitive bombardments of Gaza (the most recent of which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians)[xiii] have destroyed most of Gaza’s water and wastewater treatment facilities, made 95 percent of the water in Gaza’s severely stretched aquifer unsuitable for drinking, and produced huge amounts of waste and sewage, the majority of which still pollutes Gaza’s streets, farmlands and coastal areas.[xiv]

Kirk and Obeid concluded their workshop by drawing our attention to a number of companies (Caterpillar, Veolia, Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed Martin) that the UC invests in and that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine. These companies do more than just facilitate violence and human rights abuses. They also destroy the environment. By building the bulldozers that destroy rain water-harvesting systems[xv] and uproot olive trees,[xvi] manufacturing the bombs[xvii] that damage waste and water facilities and destroy homes in Gaza,[xviii] transporting waste from illegal Israeli settlements[xix] and dumping it on Palestinian land[xx] and relentlessly burning fossil fuels,[xxi] these companies help to build the infrastructure[xxii] for a settler-colonial state that actively seeks to exploit and devastate the Palestinian environment in the hopes that the Palestinians that remain in the land will leave.[xxiii]

The UC is currently invested in these companies,[xxiv] making us – as tuition and fee-paying students – complicit in their actions. As environmental activists, and as students at the country’s most “sustainable” school,[xxv] it is our duty to end this complicity. We cannot say that we are an environmentally friendly campus while continuing to profit from the companies that build the checkpoints that make it impossible for Palestinians to bike[xxvi] and that illegally dump toxic waste on Palestinian farmland.[xxvii] The UC’s decisions to invest in these companies were made without our consent, and it is time for us to take these decisions back.

One initial step towards doing so will occur on Dec. 4 when UAW 2865 workers choose to vote “yes” for BDS. By voting “yes,” workers from across the UC will signal to the world that they demand an end to their complicity in violence and environmental degradation, and that they are committed to building a more sustainable and just peace in Israel/Palestine.

— Tory Brykalski (aka Tory Webster) is a graduate student in anthropology and a member of UAW 2865’s BDS caucus.