Ecocide in Gaza: The environmental impact of Israel’s war

In the place of orchards, sandy beaches, and strawberry fields that were once the pride of Gazans, the coastal territory is now a dystopian landscape of military bases, craters, and ruins.

“In northern Gaza, two-thirds of the land was agricultural – now there’s nothing left,” says Samar Safiya, a Gazan environmental activist.

Her voice notes, sent by WhatsApp to The New Arab, paint a bleak picture of the situation on the ground. “More than 80,000 tons of Israeli bombs have spared neither fields, olive trees nor lemon trees. This environmental destruction accompanies the massacres and genocide,” she says.

“We are living through an environmental catastrophe that will engender other catastrophes in the future. When the tanks roll onto our land, they also destroy its fertility,” says Samar, a researcher and employee of the Ministry of Environment, now living in a tent in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.

As the Israeli offensive in Gaza enters its eighth month, more than 34,000 Gazans have been killed and 77,000 wounded.

With more than half of the population on the brink of starvation, the destruction of Gaza’s environment and food production capabilities is both an immediate concern and one with catastrophic long-term consequences.

"The greenhouse gas emissions generated during the first two months of Israel's war in Gaza were greater than the annual carbon footprint of more than 20 of the world's most climate-vulnerable nations" 

A war against the environment

“The environment is not just collateral damage, but a target of the Israeli army,” Lucia Rebolino, co-author of a study by Forensic Architecture, a collective that works with open-source satellite data, tells The New Arab.

Israeli bulldozers have razed fields and orchards to clear a buffer zone more than 300 meters deep along the northern border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, she says. “The army builds dikes and mounds of earth to protect its tanks and clear the view.”

The figures in her study speak for themselves: of the 170 km2 of farmland that existed in Gaza before the war – half the territory – a total of 40% has been destroyed. Two thousand agricultural buildings have also been razed in Gaza – including 90% of all greenhouses in the northern districts.

By targeting agricultural fields, Israel is attacking an important part of the Gazan economy and ecosystems. A joint study by the UN, the World Bank, and the European Union (EU) estimates the damage to agriculture at $629 million.

Combined with the destruction of natural areas, waste treatment infrastructure, and debris removal, this amounts to over $1.5 billion – not even counting environmental restoration and reconstruction costs.

Israel’s military infrastructure

According to Rebolino, this destruction is an integral part of an asserted Israeli strategy, particularly around the border buffer zone, over the last ten years.

“We regularly observed Israeli planes dropping herbicides on border agricultural areas at the beginning and end of the harvest seasons from 2014 to 2019, taking advantage of favourable winds to hit the maximum surface area,” she says.

Forensic Architecture has published several reports on this “herbicidal war”, which has forced many farmers to leave their land.

Further south, investigators from the media group Bellingcat claim that around 1,740 hectares of land have been cleared where the Israeli army has built a new road, called Route 749. Also known as the ‘Netzarim Corridor’, this no-man’s-land is being used to transport troops and to divide the north of the Gaza Strip from the south.

This zone borders the Wadi Gaza, a natural reserve whose banks were cleaned up at great expense by international NGOs a few months before the war.

“It was once again a region full of life and agriculture, with good infrastructure,” sighs Samar Safiya in a voice note. “Now it’s all destroyed, and Palestinians are forbidden to enter – it’s very dangerous.”

"Israeli bombardments in Gaza have created 37 million tons of debris, more than the whole of the Ukraine war over two years" 

Significant water, air, and soil pollution

From the sky to the sea, from the earth to the groundwater, Gaza has been contaminated for many years, even generations, experts say.

The greenhouse gas emissions generated during the first two months of the war in Gaza were greater than the annual carbon footprint of more than 20 of the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations, according to a British-American study.

It estimates that the climate cost of the first 60 days of Israel’s war is equivalent to burning at least 150,000 tons of coal.

The UN further stated that Israeli bombardments have created 37 million tons of debris. “That’s more than the whole of Ukraine in two years,” points out Wim Zwijnenburg, a researcher on the effects of conflict on the environment at PAX, a Dutch organisation that has documented, and denounced, how Israel’s war is making Gaza uninhabitable.

The dangers are manifold. Contamination by asbestos and heavy metals, dust and fine particles, toxic waste from hospitals and industries, and diseases spread by decomposing bodies. “How are we going to dispose of all this debris, when there’s no waste infrastructure left standing?” asked Zwijnenburg.

Some 70,000 tons of solid waste are said to have accumulated in the makeshift dumps that have sprung up all over the Gaza Strip – contaminating soil and waterways. At the same time, more than 130,000 cubic meters of water are discharged into the Mediterranean Sea every day, causing serious damage to underwater flora and fauna, warns the UN.

“Before the war, donors had invested large sums in the waste and water treatment system – it’s all been wiped out,” laments Wim Zwijnenburg. “Thanks to satellite images, we can see how thousands of pollutants infiltrate the soil and groundwater, and even how toxic fumes make the air unbreathable,” he explains.

Accusations of ecocide

Some organisations are accusing Israel of committing ecocide, with commentators even speaking of an “environmental Nakba” in reference to the ‘catastrophe’ of 1948, when Jewish militias expelled 700,000 Palestinians during Israel’s establishment as a state.

“The destruction of land is a systematic genocidal practice in the same way as the destruction of food production, schools, and hospitals, which is well documented in situ,” says Lucia Rebolino of Forensic Architecture.

For Saeed Bagheri, a lecturer in international humanitarian law at the University of Reading, England, the situation is not as clear-cut.

"The environment is not just collateral damage, but a target of the Israeli army" 

“From a legal point of view, ecocide has no clear definition. The Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute list war crimes against the environment and civilians, but you have to meet their criteria”, he explains to The New Arab.

The discussion among jurists focuses on the notion of proportionality. “Under international law, even if we accept that Israel has the right to defend itself by attacking Hamas, the natural environment cannot be targeted unless there is an imperative military necessity,” he explains.

The Israeli army itself has tried to justify its destruction of agricultural land. “Hamas often operates from orchards, fields and farmland,” explained a spokesman quoted by the Guardian. “The army does not intentionally harm agricultural land and strives to avoid any impact on the environment in the absence of operational necessity.”

But for Saeed Bagheri, “the principle of humanity takes precedence over everything else, i.e. the obligation not to cause inhuman and avoidable suffering” to civilians and the environment. This is where Israel could be taken to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the International Court of Justice (ICJ). “In any case, there must be an investigation,” says the jurist.

In a sign of the seriousness of the situation, the UN has opened an inquiry into the destruction of the environment. These steps will have to wait until the end of the war before any conclusions can be reached.

This is also what Gazans, trapped in a bloody dystopia, are desperately waiting for. “I only hope that the war will end so that we can recover our land and restore our soil, our water and our sea, which have been destroyed by the Israelis,” sighs Samar Abou Saffia.

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