April 13, 2024

‘Ecocide in Gaza’: Does the scale of environmental destruction amount to a war crime? | Gaza

IIn a dilapidated warehouse in Rafah, Soha Abu Diab lives with her three young daughters and more than 20 other family members. They have no running water or fuel and are surrounded by running sewage and trash accumulation.

Like the rest of Gaza residents, they fear that the air they breathe is laden with pollutants and that the water transmits diseases. Beyond the city streets lie razed orchards and olive groves, and farmland destroyed by bombs and bulldozers.

“This life is not life,” says Abu Diab, who was displaced from Gaza City. “There is pollution everywhere – in the air, in the water we bathe in, in the water we drink, in the food we eat, in the area around us.”

For his family and thousands of others, the human cost of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, launched after the Hamas attack on October 7, is being compounded by an environmental crisis.

The al-Naji family breaks their fast during Ramadan amid the ruins of their home in Deir al-Balah. Photography: AFP/Getty

The full extent of the damage in Gaza has not yet been documented, but analysis of satellite imagery provided to the Guardian shows the destruction of around 38-48% of tree cover and agricultural land.

Olive groves and farms were reduced to compacted earth; soil and groundwater were contaminated by munitions and toxins; the sea is choked with sewage and waste; air polluted by smoke and particles.

Researchers and environmental organizations say the destruction will have huge effects on Gaza’s ecosystems and biodiversity. The scale and potential long-term impact of the damage has led to calls for it to be considered an “ecocide” and investigated as a possible war crime.

Map showing damage to trees and greenhouses in Gaza

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says it follows international law and tries to limit damage to agricultural areas and the environment.

“The IDF does not intentionally harm agricultural land and seeks to prevent environmental impact in the absence of operational need,” he told the Guardian.

‘There’s only soil left’

Satellite images, photos and videos taken on the ground show how Gaza’s farmland, orchards and olive groves have been destroyed by the war.

He Yin, an assistant professor of geography at Kent State University in the US who studied the damage done to farmland in Syria during the 2011 civil war, analyzed satellite images that show that up to 48% of Gaza’s tree cover was lost or damaged between October 7th and March 21st.

In addition to the direct destruction caused by the military attack, the lack of fuel led people in Gaza to have to cut down trees wherever they found them to burn for cooking or heating.

Palestinians inspect a farm after an Israeli airstrike. One farmer described the land as returning to desert. Photography: AFP/Getty

“The entire orchards disappeared, only soil was left; you don’t see anything,” says Yin.

An independent satellite analysis carried out by Forensic Architecture (FA), a London-based research group that investigates state violence, found similar results.

Before October 7, farms and orchards covered about 170 square kilometers (65 square miles), or 47% of Gaza’s total area. By the end of February, the FA estimates, from satellite data, that Israeli military activity had destroyed more than 65 square kilometers, or 38% of that land.

In addition to the cultivated land, more than 7,500 greenhouses formed a vital part of the territory’s agricultural infrastructure.

Almost a third was completely destroyed, according to FA analysis, ranging from 90% in northern Gaza to around 40% around Khan Younis.

‘What remains is devastation’

Samaneh Moafi, assistant director of research at the FA, describes the destruction as systematic.

Investigators used satellite images to document a process repeated in several locations, she says: After initial damage from aerial bombardment, ground troops arrived and completely dismantled greenhouses, while tractors, tanks and vehicles uprooted orchards and crop fields.

“What remains is devastation,” says Moafi. “An area that is no longer habitable.”

Abu Suffiyeh Farm
Abu Suffiyeh family farm. Images: Forensic Architecture/Google Earth and Planet Labs PBC

The FA investigation examined a farm in Rast Jabalia, near Gaza’s northeastern border, cultivated by the Abu Suffiyeh family for the past decade. Since then, the family has been moved south. His farm was destroyed and the orchards completely uprooted, replaced by military earthworks with a new road cut through it.

“There’s almost nothing to recognize there,” says a family member. “There are no traces of the land we knew. They completely blacked out.

“Now it’s like it was before: desert… There’s not a single tree there. No trace of previous life. If I went there, I wouldn’t be able to recognize him.”

Israel has indicated it may seek to make some of its demolitions permanent, with some officials proposing the creation of a “buffer zone” along the Gaza-Israeli border, where much of the agricultural land is located.

Some demolitions have already paved the way for Israeli military infrastructure. Open source researchers Bellingcat say that about 1,740 hectares (4,300 acres) of land appears to have been deforested in the area south of Gaza City, where a new road, referred to by Israel as Route 749, has appeared, running the entire width of the the territory.

The Israeli military claims that the route was a “military necessity” built to “establish an operational position in the area and allow the passage of forces and logistical equipment”.

An IDF spokesperson said: “Hamas frequently operates in orchards, fields and agricultural land.” They added that: “The IDF is committed to mitigating civilian and environmental damage during operational activity.”

With the trees razed, even the soil that remains is threatened by heavy bombing and demolition. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), heavy bombing of populated areas can contaminate soil and groundwater in the long term – both through the munitions themselves and when collapsed buildings release hazardous materials such as asbestos. , industrial chemicals and fuel, in the surrounding air. soil and groundwater.

Greenhouses before and after the war. Images: Forensic Architecture/Planet Labs PBC

Since the start of the war, Israel has dropped tens of thousands of bombs on Gaza, with satellite analysis from January indicating that between 50% and 62% of all buildings were damaged or destroyed.

In January 2024, UNEP estimated that bombings had left 22.9 million tons of debris and hazardous materials, with much of the debris containing human remains.

“This is an extremely large amount of debris, especially for such a small area,” he says. “Components of debris and rubble may contain harmful substances such as asbestos, heavy metals, fire contaminants, unexploded ordnance and hazardous chemicals.”

Piles of waste and poisoned water

The area around the warehouse that Abu Diab rents with his family is a wasteland. Sewage leaks from a nearby bombed house and waste accumulated, as it does everywhere near the southern city of Rafah, which is now home to much of Gaza’s population.

“The sewage and garbage around the house are a great tragedy. Dogs and cats are attracted to rubbish and then spread it across the streets,” she says.

Ongoing conflict and siege conditions have resulted in the total collapse of Gaza’s already fragile civilian infrastructure, including waste disposal, sewage treatment, fuel supply and water management..

Wim Zwijnenburg, who investigates the impact of conflict on the environment for the Dutch peace organization PAX, says: “War usually destroys everything. In Gaza, it is exposing people to additional risks from pollution and polluted groundwater. It is the destruction of everything that the civilian population depends on.”

The municipality of Gaza listed the damage to infrastructure, noting that 70,000 tons of solid waste have accumulated since October 7. Makeshift landfills have sprung up across the territory as the volume of uncollected trash accumulates; Unrwa, the UN refugee agency for Palestinians, which collects waste from the camps, is unable to operate. Zwijnenburg says PAX has identified at least 60 informal landfills in central and southern Gaza.

Rafah resident Ameer says people have been overwhelmed by air pollution as they use wood or plastic to light fires, cars run on cooking oil and smoke left by the bombing itself.

A Palestinian child helps fill water bottles. Water supplies have been devastated by Israeli attacks and the blockade of Rafah. Photography: Anadolu/Getty

“The smell is horrible and the smoke coming out of the cars is unbearable – I was sick for days,” he says. “The smell of gunpowder and these horrible gases from the ongoing bombings are causing real harm to people and the environment.”

When Israel cut off fuel supplies to Gaza after October 7, the resulting power cuts prevented wastewater from being pumped to treatment plants, causing 100,000 cubic meters of sewage to be released into the sea every day, UNEP says. .

‘An act of ecocide’

The scale and long-term impact of the destruction led to calls for it to be investigated as a potential war crime and classified as ecocide, which encompasses damage caused to the environment by deliberate or negligent actions.

Under the Rome Statute, which governs the International Criminal Court, it is a war crime to intentionally launch an excessive attack knowing that it will cause widespread, long-term and serious damage to the natural environment. The Geneva Conventions require parties to a conflict not to use methods of warfare that cause “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment.”

Saeed Bagheri, professor of international law at the University of Reading, says that although there are disagreements about how to apply these articles, there are already enough reasons to investigate the damage caused to Gaza’s environment.

Vegetation loss in Gaza in 2021-24 and greenhouse gas loss in 2024.
Loss of vegetation in Gaza between 2021 and 2024 and loss of greenhouses in 2024. Images: Forensic Architecture

Abeer al-Butmeh, coordinator of the Palestinian Environmental NGO Network, says: “The Israeli occupation has completely damaged all elements of life and all environmental elements in Gaza – it has completely destroyed agriculture and wildlife.

“What is happening is, of course, ecocide,” she says. “[It] it is completely damaging the environment in Gaza in the long term and not just in the short term.

“The Palestinian people have a strong relationship with the land – they are very connected to their land and also to the sea,” she says. “People in Gaza cannot live without fishing, without agriculture.

FA says: “The destruction of agricultural land and infrastructure in Gaza is a deliberate act of ecocide.

“The targeted farms and greenhouses are essential for local food production for a population that has already been under siege for decades. The effects of this systematic agricultural destruction are exacerbated by other deliberate acts of deprivation of resources critical to Palestinian survival in Gaza.”

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