By: Myriam Marcuello, Advisor for the Arab Transformations Program at the Renaissance Strategic Center
A few days ago, the Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha recalled, with great affection and sorrow, a recent memory of his friend Professor Refaat Al Areer who was assassinated with his family in Gaza the 7th of December 2023. “Refaat loved life, was fond of poetry and strawberries” remembered Mosab. As Israeli occupation forces and bombardments came closer and closer, Refaat felt increasingly threatened and helpless. He sent a message to his friend, telling him, like a last prayer: “There won’t be strawberries this year in Gaza. Please Mosab, if I die, put strawberries on my grave”. While the world is witnessing with horror the live genocide of the Palestinian people, another less visible massacre is being committed in Gaza which could amount to a crime of ecocide. Gaza government’s media office reported the 26th of November that “the Israeli army has dropped 40,000 tons of explosives on the Gaza Strip since October 7, with the apparent goal of rendering the enclave uninhabitable”. In comparison, the Little Boy nuclear bomb dropped by the United States on the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II yielded 15,000 tons of high explosives and destroyed everything within a one-mile (1.6km) radius. The surface of Gaza, which is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, does not exceed 360 square kilometers while the area of Hiroshima is 900 square kilometers.
The 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (COP28), which came to closure the 12th of December, dedicated a whole thematic day, for the first time in its history, on Climate, Recovery, Relief and Peace. That day, the 3rd of December, at least 316 Palestinians had been killed and at least another 664 injured, following the resumption of hostilities. Despite the gravity of the environmental devastation caused by Israeli military aggression on Gaza, and its potential long-term consequences on the lives and well-being of Gazans and their neighbors, this topic has remained absent from any official agenda or negotiations. While the 198 parties that engaged in the high-level discussions agreed to “transition away from fossil fuels”, they failed to acknowledge the role of military forces, equipment and bases in climate change. Moreover, by ignoring the responsibility of Israeli authorities in the destruction of all forms of lives in Gaza, they normalized the participation of the Israeli delegation in COP28 and condoned its greenwashing endeavor. As the current assault against Gaza entered its third month, calls from environmental experts are growing, warning of an imminent ecological Nakba (‘catastrophe’), whose widespread and long-term consequences could render Gaza uninhabitable.
Back in 2012, the UN had already projected that the enclave would become unlivable in 2020. We are now in 2023 and this is the 6th war waged against Gaza since 2008. All indicators seem to point out that not only the UN’s prediction was correct, but it came to reality long before its fateful deadline. Gaza, like most of the MENA region, is particularly affected by the effects of climate change, including water scarcity, heatwaves, declining rainfall and coastal erosion. As the occupying power, Israel bears the primary responsibility to mitigate and address environmental degradation affecting Palestinians. However, repeated attacks against Gaza and the siege imposed on its populations since 2007 have led to the collapse of its infrastructures and exacerbated the impact of climate change. Furthermore, they have undermined the capacity of Palestinians to mitigate these threats and invest in adaptation projects. Palestinians are not only deprived of the resources that could allow them to move towards green economy, they do not control the access and management of their natural resources due to Israeli occupation. This situation is jeopardizing the building of a sustainable future in Gaza and has immediate and long-term consequences on the health and demography of its inhabitants. “Air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, toxic contamination and large volumes of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by military conflict,” explained David R. Boyd, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. “These environmental impacts exacerbate the toll of death and injury directly caused by acts of war, but the environmental death toll will continue for decades due to respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases and cancer caused by exposure to elevated levels of pollution.”
Prior to the 7th of October, the infrastructure in the Strip was already seriously compromised. According to Oxfam, only one of three desalination plants capable of producing 7% of Gaza’s water supply was operational, with reduced capacity due to the blockade on electricity and fuel. Restrictions on material and equipment categorized by Israel as “dual use” items cover 70% of WASH-related equipment, undermining the routine maintenance and repair of deteriorating or damaged infrastructure. In 2019, UNICEF reported that 96% of the over-extracted aquifer water was “unfit for human consumption” due to pollution by seawater, sewage and agrichemicals, forcing Palestinians from Gaza to rely on expensive and potentially contaminated trucked water. Since 2017, Gazans have had access to a daily average of only four hours of electricity. This electricity deficit has led to the discharge of 108,000m3 million liters of partially treated or untreated wastewater in the sea every day. Inflow of sewage into the sea and coastal aquifer has resulted in nitrate concentrations six-fold higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations. It is estimated that over one quarter of illnesses in the Strip were water-related and the primary cause of child morbidity, including incidences of water-washed skin and eye disease. Owing to the current Israeli offensive, all five of Gaza’s wastewater treatment plants and most of its 65 sewage pumping stations have been forced to shut down. As a consequence, over 130,000 cubic meters – 52 Olympic-sized swimming pools – of untreated wastewater are being discharged into the Mediterranean Sea daily.
In previous conflicts, Israel also razed hundreds of greenhouses and acres of cropland, undermining agricultural activities and the capacity of farmers to respond to the nutritional needs of Gazans. During the 2014 assault on Gaza, Israel dropped 21,000 tons of explosives, already severely damaging the soil. According to a report from the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature (APN), the 2021 aggression resulted in the destruction of 13,800,000 square meters (over 25%) of land cultivated with vegetables, 2,725,000 square meters (over 17%) of land cultivated with field crops, and 730,000 square meters of land cultivated with fruit-bearing trees. The war also devastated 165 agricultural ponds, 1,433,000 linear meters of irrigation networks, and 2,090 (over 17%) of greenhouses. The use of massive bombardments and ammunition release significant amount of chemicals and deadly gases which can have serious consequences on the health of Palestinians Moreover, last October, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused Israel of shelling civilians in Gaza with white phosphorus. Such allegations had already been made during the 2008-2009 offensive. This chemical weapon is horrific as it severely burns people and can induce irreversible injuries. Its use is prohibited near civilians under Protocol III of the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. It is also highly detrimental to the environment since, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in the United States, this substance can contaminate soil, bodies of water, and even animals, including fish, posing a long-term threat to humans’ health and livelihood activities.
In addition to the damage on lands and soils caused by explosives and ammunition, Israel admitted it conducted around 30 operations of aerial spraying of crop-killing herbicides between 2014 and 2018, destroying entire swaths of arable land. By spreading these dangerous products and preventing Palestinians from using the 20% of Gaza’s arable land next to Israel’s militarized fence, the aim was to develop a “buffer zone” between Israel and the Gaza Strip. In 2021, Israeli airstrikes bombed four huge warehouses that contained nearly 300 tons of insecticides and about 2,000 tons of agricultural fertilizer. After being shelled, their combustion left corrosive and toxic-contaminated waste. Authorities in Gaza do not have the resources and capabilities to deal safely and effectively with such waste. Like most Arab countries, poor waste management is a major factor of pollution in the enclave, with “47% of all waste, including hazardous one, disposed of in unsanitary dump sites”, according to a 2020 report of the United Nations Environment Programme. The rubble from broken buildings are another threat to the health of Palestinians in Gaza as the hazardous materials they contain can cause severe infections, including lung irritation or disease, chest pain, or more serious and chronic nervous and respiratory issues. As if this were not enough, Israeli forces started to flood the network of tunnels used by Hamas with seawater. While experts have some doubts on the effectiveness of such military tactic, they expressed serious concerns on the potential “negative impact on groundwater quality [which] would last for several generations”.
What has become a total siege on Gaza and the relentless bombardment and targeting of its infrastructure have devastating consequences on the ecosystem of the enclave. Palestinians are not solely deprived of their right to live in safety and dignity on their own lands. The widespread and severe contamination of the Strip could jeopardize their right to live in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. While Palestine’s per capita emissions were only 0.93 tCO2e in 2018, much less than the global average of 4.79 tCO2e per capita at that time, its environment is desecrated by the ongoing illegal and genocidal Israeli occupation. There won’t be strawberries to put on the grave of Refaat Al Areer this year. And even if they were to be found next year, they might not be edible. When the time will finally come for Israel to be made accountable for its crimes, fact-finding missions and legal procedures should include investigations on the crime of ecocide and its consequences on the health, livelihoods and food security of Palestinians living in Gaza. Gazans should receive compensations and reparations for the ecological loss and degradation they have suffered from as a result of the occupation and blockade. They should also be supported in their efforts to mitigate climate change and their transition towards green economy. While some Israeli real estate companies seem to prepare the ‘day after’ in Gaza, they shall be reminded that pollution knows no racial border. If not dealt with effectively, the ecological catastrophe that is unfolding in Gaza and to a lesser extent in Lebanon could spill over Israel and Egypt. Swift and drastic measures shall be taken to remedy to this ecological disaster and funds invested for military spending shall be diverted for this purpose. The health and well-being of future generations of Palestinians in Gaza are at stake. Like their parents and grand-parents, they should enjoy the taste of watermelon, strawberries and honey on their fingers. Like any other child, in the silenced warplanes, they should hear the songs of the birds.
 “Global militaries are the world’s biggest industrial polluters, contributing 2,750 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, or 5.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This is more than all 52 countries in the African continent combined”. https://www.newarab.com/features/cop28-how-war-and-militarisation-fuel-climate-crisis#:~:text=Studies%20show%20that%20global%20militaries,as%20the%20civil%20aviation%20industry.
 The items Israel classifies as “dual-use” are items that can be used for both civilian and military purposes and whose entrance to the Gaza Strip is restricted. Their list is much broader than international standards dictate. For more on this topic: https://gisha.org/en/checking-the-dual-use-list-twice/
 The Palestinian poet Marwan Makhoul wrote:
“In order for me to write poetry that isn’t political
I must listen to the birds
and in order to hear the birds
the warplanes must be silent.”