The “Ecocide” Smear Targets Israel

March 30, 2024 Topic: Israel Region: Eurasia Tags: IsraelEcocideICCWar CrimesIsrael-Hamas Conflict

The “Ecocide” Smear Targets Israel

Wartime environmental damage is devastating, but creating a poorly defined crime just to stick the overworked ICC on Israel is simply one-sided propaganda.

After the U.S. military destroyed millions of acres of Vietnamese forests and farmland by spraying tactical herbicides in the Vietnam War, the international community coined the term “ecocide” to describe acts of deliberate, severe environmental damage in wartime. Some advocates have since campaigned to name ecocide a fifth international crime prosecutable by the International Criminal Court (ICC), alongside crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes of aggression, and genocide. In recent weeks, outlets such as Grist, Mother Jones, and Middle East Monitor reported that Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza is also an act of “ecocide.”

This recent push is nothing more than an anti-Israel PR stunt. Of course, wartime environmental harm is horrific. Still, Israel’s worst environmental offenses in Gaza are not nearly severe or reckless enough to fit the definition of ecocide, let alone merit the attention of the ICC. To improve ecological protection during conflicts, advocates should stop baselessly accusing Israel and instead embrace the existing UN environmental forums that promote cooperation and progress.

In 2021, an Independent Expert Panel presented the following draft definition of ecocide: “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.” The panel further defined “wanton” as “with reckless disregard for damage which would be clearly excessive in relation to the social and economic benefits anticipated.” 

This definition is riddled with problems. The wording of “committed with knowledge” requires the ICC to demonstrate intent, which litigators routinely struggle to do. “Substantial likelihood” allows ecocide to encompass acts that never caused environmental damage. In “relation to social and economic benefits,” it brings in a cost-benefit analysis that is unbefitting of a court that evaluates the absolute worst crimes on Earth. If ecocide is genuinely as bad as genocide or war crimes, its definition should not include caveats—either it’s a crime, or it isn’t.

Under this needlessly broad and subjective definition, environmentalists have called every Israeli undertaking an ecocide—from destroying Palestinian farmland and using white phosphorus in their military operations to emitting carbon dioxide in Gaza. These environmentally damaging activities should be limited, but none are unique to Israel. Hamas has destroyed Israeli farmland through rocket and incendiary balloon attacks; the United States, Russia, and Hamas have used white phosphorus; and every country in every war in modern history has emitted carbon dioxide.

If an ecocide crime were to exist, it ought to be narrow enough to prosecute the actual worst of the worst, such as Russia destroying the Kakhovka Dam, Houthi rebels striking a cargo ship with over 41,000 tons of fertilizer, causing an eighteen-mile oil slick, and Bashar al-Assad using chemical warfare against his own people in Syria. But with a poor definition, the ICC could decide to pass over these unfathomably severe and reckless acts and instead target Israel for actions many militaries perform. In advocating this exact approach, environmentalists are prioritizing politics over environmental stewardship.

The one environmental concern unique to Israel is the IDF’s plan to pump seawater into Hamas’s underground tunnels, which, if done wrong, could contaminate the land and Gaza’s aquifer. However, per the IDF, Israel only employs this tactic after performing a comprehensive analysis of the soil and water system in the area to prevent damage. If said analyses are accurate, Israel did not intentionally or recklessly harm the environment, which disproves the ecocide argument by definition. Furthermore, blaming Israel for aquifer damage would prove complicated, as illegal wells and over-pumping by the Palestinian Water Authority in the late 90s already contaminated Gaza’s aquifer, and Hamas has since stolen aid intended for water and sewage management and pulled sewer pipes out of the ground to turn into rockets. Plus, none of this mentions the irony of a hypothetical ICC investigation into Hamas’s tunnels when their mere existence under hospitals, schools, and mosques constitutes a war crime.

Moreover, if environmental protection is indeed the goal, the ICC has little capacity to accomplish it. Since its founding in 2002, the ICC has only heard thirty-one cases and has minimal funding. Its role is not to litigate every international dispute but to intervene when a country is unwilling or unable to adjudicate crimes itself. For a democracy like Israel, with its own courts and systems for investigating IDF crimes, an ICC case would be highly unusual.

Israel is also not a party to the Rome Statute—the agreement under which the ecocide law would be added. Since the Palestinians did sign the Rome Statute, the ICC claims jurisdiction over Palestinian territory. But under no scenario would Israel let the ICC arrest one of its citizens, making any ecocide case an unenforceable PR stunt. Israel has every right to doubt the objectivity of intergovernmental organizations. Last year, fourteen of the twenty-one UN General Assembly resolutions that criticized individual countries targeted Israel, and several UNRWA employees participated in the October 7 attack.

That said, Israel must do a better job staying out of the ICC’s crosshairs. Netanyahu’s government has thus far been unwilling to arrest settlers in the West Bank stealing land and murdering innocent Palestinians. His proposed weakening of Israel’s court system could impede Israel’s internal accountability. In addition to being wholly unlawful and undemocratic, issues like these give the ICC genuine justification to take up a case against Israel. As such, Netanyahu would be equally to blame if his abuses of power left Israelis vulnerable to politically motivated ICC charges.

As symbolic as criminalizing ecocide would be, there are better ways for intergovernmental organizations to prevent widespread environmental damage. Maurice Strong, the first Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, saw UNEP’s role as tracking global ecological action, determining priorities, and identifying gaps in knowledge within other institutions. The vision for global environmental multilateralism was never telling countries what to do or charging them with “ecocide” but informing, convening, and collaborating.

This structure has found success. UNEP has coordinated significant progress on greenhouse gas emissions, established high-quality scientific research forums for climate change and biodiversity, and enabled the adoption of the Montreal Protocol—the only UN treaty in history to be ratified by all 198 member states—which stopped the depletion of the ozone layer. Through its Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding program, UNEP brings its trusted expertise on natural resources to international mediations, transforming environmental conflicts into platforms for cooperation and sustainable development. While Israel has its share of environmental issues, their inclusion in UNEP allows its 850+ cleantech startups to share knowledge and foster collaborations with the rest of the world—including adversaries.

UNEP’s effectiveness is due to its emphasis on inclusion and collaboration. Creating a new international “ecocide” crime flies in the face of that tried-and-true philosophy. Between its lack of capacity and a poor definition of ecocide, the ICC would end up targeting whoever is unpopular; it would stir up resentment, and nothing would get done. For Israelis and Palestinians living in one of the fastest-warming regions of the world, UNEP offers something far more valuable: progress.

Wartime environmental damage is devastating, but creating a poorly defined ecocide crime just to stick the overworked ICC on Israel will only produce fresh anti-Israel propaganda. Let’s instead advocate strengthened democracy in Israel and around the world and environmental multilateralism that fairly, constructively, and peacefully holds all offenders accountable.

Ethan Brown is a Writer and Commentator for Young Voices with a B.A. in Environmental Analysis & Policy from Boston University. He is the creator and host of The Sweaty Penguin, an award-winning comedy climate program. Follow him on Twitter @ethanbrown5151.