Environmental crimes in Gaza

Sawsan Samy Elawady , Tuesday 28 Nov 2023

As the UN COP28 Climate Change Conference launches in the UAE this week, experts may need to address the environmental hazards posed by the Israeli war on Gaza, writes Sawsan Samy Elawady from Dubai

Israel attacks Gaza using white phosphorus bombs
Israel attacks Gaza using white phosphorus bombs


It would take almost three hours to reach Gaza by air from the UAE, if flights were allowed to go there. As the world’s experts get ready for the UN COP28 Climate Change Conference, which opens in Dubai on 30 November, it feels odd that an environmental crime whose effects will be widely felt is taking place before their eyes as a result of the Israeli war on Gaza.

Dubai, a beautiful Arab city and one of the main cities of the UAE, is holding the UN COP28 Climate Conference, hosted by Egypt last year in Sharm El-Sheikh, until 12 December.

The world has been awaiting this conference, confident of the good organisation of the UAE, in addition to completing what Egypt began last year by launching the Loss and Damage Fund for those countries most affected by climate change. The world is awaiting the emergence of a clear mechanism that guarantees the fund’s financing.

At the same time, it is also following the massacres being carried out in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli army. These go beyond just being a humanitarian crime against hundreds of thousands of Palestinian people, as they are also an environmental crime against billions of people on the planet as a whole.

The international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Israel of using white phosphorus munitions in its military operations in Gaza and Lebanon, saying that the use of such weapons threatens civilians with serious and long-term injuries.

In response to a request for comment on these accusations, the Israeli army said that it “has no current knowledge of the use of weapons containing white phosphorus in Gaza.” It did not comment on the accusation regarding the use of these weapons in Lebanon.

The Palestinian Information Centre, a media organisation, indicated in a previous statement that the Israeli army had launched “white phosphorus” bombs in central Gaza.

It has not been white phosphorus that has killed most of the civilians who have died in Gaza, as most have died from Israeli rockets, bombs, heavy artillery, tank shells, and small arms fire. But the use of this weapon in residential neighbourhoods inhabited by civilians, including Gaza city, violates international humanitarian law, which requires that all feasible precautions be taken to avoid harm to civilians and prohibits indiscriminate attacks that do not distinguish between military and civilian objectives.

The illegal use of white phosphorus by the Israeli army is not accidental or unintentional. Rather, it has been repetitive, lasted for a long period, and included various locations, with the Israeli army “air-dropping” munitions in populated areas.

Even if the intention of using white phosphorus was to use it as a camouflage material and not as a weapon, the Israeli army’s firing of 155 mm artillery shells containing air-explosive white phosphorus into densely populated areas is an indiscriminate act and indicates the commission of war crimes.

White phosphorus is a chemical that is deployed in artillery shells, bombs, rockets and mortars, and is used primarily to camouflage ground military operations. When this substance is released, on impact with the ground or when it explodes in the air, it emits thick white smoke that the military uses to conceal troop movements.

The smoke also interrupts infrared weapon-tracking systems, thus protecting military forces from guided weapons such as anti-tank missiles. Its use in open areas is permitted under international law, but air-detonated white phosphorus used above populated areas is illegal. It exposes civilians to unnecessary risks, and the spread of burning fragments over a wide area could amount to an indiscriminate attack.

White phosphorus can also be used as a weapon against solid military targets, such as concrete trenches. However, it cannot be used as an anti-personnel weapon when another weapon that causes less unnecessary suffering is available.

It is not considered a chemical weapon and is not prohibited as such. But like all weapons, its use is restricted by the principles of international humanitarian law. It must be used in a way that sufficiently distinguishes between combatants and civilians, and it must never target the latter.

Most of the Israeli army’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza has been in the form of air-burst phosphorus from 155 mm artillery shells. Each air-exploded shell releases 116 burning white phosphorus fragments spread over an area extending 125 m from the point of explosion, depending on the circumstances and angle of attack.

White phosphorus ignites and burns when it comes into contact with oxygen, and it continues to burn at up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (816 degrees Celsius) until there is nothing left or until the oxygen around it runs out. When white phosphorus comes into contact with the skin, it causes intense and permanent burns, sometimes reaching the bones. Physical contamination with white phosphorus is possible, and the body’s absorption of this chemical may cause serious damage to the internal organs and may also result in death.

The repeated and consistent use of air-burst white phosphorus instead of smoke projectiles, especially in the absence of Israeli forces on the ground, strongly suggests that the Israeli army has not used this weapon for its camouflage properties, but rather for its incendiary effects.

DANGERS: These practices are not new. The Israeli army said in 2013 that it would gradually phase out white phosphorus munitions, which it is accused of having used during its attack on Gaza between 2008 and 2009.

The Israeli army did not say at the time whether it would also review the use of white phosphorus as a weapon designed to burn enemy positions. White phosphorus munitions can be used legally on battlefields to create smokescreens, provide illumination, mark targets, or burn bunkers and buildings.

The human body can absorb white phosphorus from the remnants of white phosphorus bombs that contaminate and settle in the sediments of surrounding rivers and water basins, with the chemical residues from those bombs leaching into nearby waterways.

White phosphorus can also be inhaled from contaminated air, absorbed through contaminated soil, met with by drinking from or swimming in water contaminated with white phosphorus, or eating contaminated fish or birds from sites containing white phosphorus.

According to experts at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), white phosphorus is a dangerous substance and should be monitored specifically in areas that contain industrial facilities that use it. It may be found in army facilities and where military training takes place, and its residues are found in ammunition containing the material.

Specialists at the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry confirm that the remains of white phosphorus bombs can penetrate the water near the sites of their use and may interact with the oxygen molecules present in water or absorbed by the bodies of fish that live in the area. It can threaten the health of individuals who depend on the water for drinking purposes, and it can lead to the death of waterfowl that live in its vicinity.

At the same time, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has sounded the alarm about the potential rapid spread of infectious diseases in Gaza with the disruption of health facilities and water and sanitation networks and has called for accelerated humanitarian access to various parts of the Strip, including for fuel, water, food and medical supplies.

In a press release, it said that fuel shortages had led to the closure of water desalination plants, forcing people to drink contaminated water and increasing the risk of the spread of bacterial infections.

The shortages have also led to the disruption of solid waste collection, creating an environment conducive to the rapid spread of insects and rodents that can transmit diseases.

The WHO said that the risk is double for displaced populations, as large numbers of them live in overcrowded shelters that lack personal hygiene facilities and adequately safe water.

The organisation also warned that damage to water and sanitation networks in Gaza, and the decrease in cleaning supplies, made it impossible to adhere to basic infection-prevention and control measures in health facilities, including among health workers.

This is in addition to the risk resulting from the interruption of routine vaccinations, the shortage of medicines needed to treat communicable diseases, and limited communications, which in turn lead to an inability to detect early potential outbreaks.

Since mid-October, more than 34,000 cases of diarrhea have been reported in Gaza, more than half of which were among children under the age of five. This represents a significant increase considering that the average did not exceed 2,000 cases of infection per month among this age group during the years 2021 and 2022.

There were also 8,944 cases of scabies and lice, more than 1,000 cases of chicken pox, 13,000 cases of skin rashes, and 55,000 cases of upper respiratory infections.


Pollution: The successive Israeli wars that have targeted the Gaza Strip over recent years have caused an increase in pollution due to the Israeli occupation’s use of various types of weapons that have made large areas of the Strip unsuitable for agriculture, in addition to their effects on health.

Reconstruction operations and the removal of the piles of rubble and debris left by the Israelis as a result of their targeting of infrastructure result in more heart and chest diseases due to larger amounts of dirt and dust, as well as damage to plants and crops.

The destruction of the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip in the current war will have further catastrophic consequences later and be reflected in waste management and pose a major threat to the health of residents of the Strip.

According to 2022 statistics, approximately 2.2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip generate approximately 1,800 tons of solid waste daily, 58 per cent of which is organic materials, 15 per cent plastic waste, and 14 per cent paper and cardboard waste and other building, agricultural, medical, electronic, and other materials.

The value of the damage caused by the Israeli aggression, inflicted on the agricultural sector in particular, has exceeded $1 million, according to Adham Al-Bassiouni, spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza.

Al-Bassiouni told the NGO Afaq for the Environment and Development that the damage was divided into two parts, the first direct and amounting to $600,000. It is distributed as plant production losses at $300,000, livestock production losses at $150,000, and loses in the water and land sector at $150,000.

The indirect losses are estimated at $400,000 and are the result of the inability of farmers to reach their land in some areas and market their products during the Israeli aggression.

Overall, there has been a decline in the amount of agricultural land in the Gaza Strip over the last 10 years. According to a study by the Masarat Centre for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, an NGO, there are some 100,000 dunums of agricultural land in Gaza. (One metric dunum is 1,000 square metres of land.)

The study, published on 22 August, attributes the decline to Israel’s measures in the border buffer zone, which deprives farmers of approximately 17,000 dunams of land in fertile areas. There have also been loses as a result of population growth and urban expansion.

In recent years, 35,000 dunams of agricultural land have been damaged as a result of being bombed by Israeli missiles, killing or neutralising organisms and organic materials in the soil.

From 2000 until today, the agricultural sector in Gaza has lost some $1.1 billion, with compensation as a result of war and other causes only reaching $300,000.

Air pollution rates have risen significantly in the Gaza Strip in recent years, for reasons that include the repeated Israeli wars.

All this has been taking place at a time when the right to a clean environment is one of the human rights approved by the UN General Assembly, as, of course, is also the right to life.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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