On 5 May, Israeli airplanes struck targets in Gaza.
The bombings came with the usual tragic consequences: 25 Palestinains were killed, among them 14 civilians. Four Israeli civilians also died in rocket fire from Gaza.
It was one of those “spikes in tensions” that for the briefest of moments shines a media spotlight on Gaza.
That spotlight didn’t stay long enough to see what else happened. As calm returned, a contractor, Muhammad Abu Jebah, gathered together a group of laborers to extract metal from the rubble of the Abu Qamar building, which was destroyed in one of the bombing raids.
Abu Jebah thinks of it as a new industry, one that arose after Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli attack on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, and one that illustrates the lengths to which Palestinians in Gaza have to go to survive.
Trucks and bulldozers move in first to clear the rubble. Then a team of men filter through the building to smash concrete and extract the metal inside.
Once that is done, they realign the metal and reconstitute any large stones.
It is backbreaking hand-scarring work. It is also potentially toxic, according to environmentalists.
But it is necessary since Israel is prohibiting steel and other building materials from entering Gaza.
“Most of the men working for me feed a dozen or so relatives,” Abu Jebah told The Electronic Intifada. It is desperate work for desperate people, he conceded. “It is the economic circumstances that has driven people to do these jobs.”
Abu Jebah has been doing this work ever since the Israeli offensive which began in December 2008. Despite the inherent dangers, he considers his activities to innovative. They started as a clearing operation before morphing into a recycling business.
But the process is more than simply hard work. According to Ahmed Hilles, an environmental scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, material from destroyed buildings can contain pollutants that are hazardous both to people and the environment.
Hilles has done some testing on samples of the concrete in the rubble. He found traces of nickel, lead and arsenic, as well as explosive materials
“These are dangerous to those working in recycling destroyed building concrete or extracting metal,” Hilles told The Electronic Intifada, though he qualified this by noting that due to import restrictions, screening abilities in Gaza are not entirely reliable.
Hilles, who is also in charge of the public awareness department at the Palestinian Authority’s environment quality office, monitors the harm caused by the Israeli occupation, especially in instances when buildings or agricultural land are shelled.
During the 2014 attack on Gaza, the Palestinian Authority’s environment department asked the UN to send a delegation to Gaza with equipment to test materials Israel was using to measure their impact on the environment and people.
FOR CENTURIES, the plains that comprise modern-day Gaza were lush with citrus orchards. Though early Zionists claimed to have pioneered the orange industry, Palestinian farmers had maintained orange groves—specifically of the sweet “Jaffa” orange that would later be co-opted as a symbol of Israeli ingenuity—for export since the 1800s. In some cases, these orchards were passed down by generations of Palestinian families. Arabs and Jews set up mutual orange enterprises in the early 20th century, but things started to change following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, and especially following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Citriculture largely disappeared from Gaza in the second half of the 20th century, due in large part to Israeli bulldozing of the orange groves. Through the course of investigating the disappearance of the orchards, a researcher with Forensic Architecture—a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, composed of architects, software developers, and others who investigate human rights violations—learned that the low-lying crops that replaced the groves in recent years were potentially dying due to Israeli actions. This prompted the agency to take a closer look at crop disappearance in Gaza.
In July, Forensic Architecture released a report titled “Herbicidal Warfare in Gaza,” detailing the results of their investigation, which finds that the crop deaths were caused by herbicides sprayed by Israel and carried into Gaza by the wind. The findings raise the disturbing possibility that the Israeli military has been engaging in a form of ecological warfare (a possibility first reported by +972 Magazine in 2015).
“The actual campaign against the citrus was sustained during the Oslo and Madrid peace processes,” says one of the researchers, who asked not to be named because of safety concerns (the report itself was not published anonymously, and lists all participating researchers by name). During the peace processes in the 1990s, he adds, Israeli bulldozers systematically destroyed orange groves. Israel claimed this was necessary because “orange groves were used as a shelter for terrorists.”
Israel occupied and illegally settled Gaza between 1967 and 2005, after which it pulled out its settlements. Israeli bulldozing during this period was a significant factor in the decimation of Palestinian orange orchards, and Gazans typically didn’t have the money or resources to maintain the groves that were left. Soon, according to the researcher, Palestinian farmers began gradually replacing citrus trees with crops that couldn’t be said to provide cover for terrorists, and were cheaper to maintain, including strawberries, cherry tomatoes, and herbs.
Ever since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007, Israel has maintained a crippling economic blockade, accompanied by periodic bombing campaigns that have killed thousands of civilians. Israel has established and patrolled a “buffer zone,” up to 300 meters or more in some areas, which stretches the entire length of the Gaza side of the border since 2014—roughly the time when a significant number of the lower-growing crops grown by Palestinian farmers close to the border started to die. According to farmers’ testimony—which appears in the Forensic Architecture report and has also been reported on elsewhere—land in the buffer zone, which was previously used by Palestinians as agricultural and residential space, has been razed and bulldozed regularly by the Israeli military for the purpose of surveillance and military operations. When the crops started dying, farmers saw planes spraying herbicides over the Israeli side of the buffer zone, and they assumed the herbicides were to blame.
Working with several NGOs and Palestinian ministries, the researcher collected leaf samples, testimonies, and video footage. Based on a visualization technology called Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI, a remote sensing tool that uses satellite imagery to measure the health of vegetation), it’s clear that there was significant crop loss during the years that the Israeli military was spraying herbicides, from 2014 to 2018. The images, captured in the days after the sprayings, show many red patches throughout the farmlands, indicating loss of vegetation.
With further analysis provided by a fluid dynamics expert, Forensic Architecture concluded that the herbicides—including glyphosate, the primary chemical in the weedkiller Roundup—were being carried by the wind onto Palestinian farmlands a few hundred meters away, and that they were having a significant negative impact on crops.
This appears to have been no accident. “Every single farmer I’ve spoken with says that before each spraying they see a plume of smoke coming,” the researcher says, adding that the sprayings happen without any warning to the farmers. “The Israeli army, in the information they’ve given us through the Freedom of Information request, admitted that among the preparations that they practiced on the ground prior to spraying, incendiary tires was one of them.” Incendiary tires are tires that are burned to determine the direction of the wind. In this case, it seems they were used to ensure that when sprayings occurred, they went toward Gaza, rather than Israel.
According to Forensic Architecture’s researcher, some Palestinian farmers have said that they’ve lost between half a million and a million shekels’ worth of crops since 2014, or approximately $140,000 to $280,000—significant sums considering that Gaza is under an economic blockade, and that nearly 70% of Gaza’s population is classified as food insecure. “It’s not really so much about what’s going to be exported, it’s more that people rely on these crops,” the researcher says.
In 2014, eight Palestinian farmers sought compensation for crops damaged by Israeli herbicide spraying, but all were rejected; according to Israel’s Civil Damages Order, Israel is “not liable for damage to the residents of the Gaza Strip.” In 2015, a kibbutz on the Israeli side, which had also sustained damage to its crops from the military spraying of herbicides, was initially denied compensation on the basis that it was already receiving compensation for its proximity to Gaza. Besides the damage to crops, Kibbutz Nahal Oz argued that the herbicides also lead to land toxicity, preventing the planting of watermelons. The kibbutz ultimately won about $16,000 in compensation from the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
I asked the Israeli Ministry of Defense a series of questions about the use of herbicides, and it responded with the following statement: “The defense establishment conducts weed control, in which the material is sprayed from the air, for operational purposes—among them, removing potential cover for terror elements, which may threaten the citizens of the State of Israel (particularly the communities living adjacent to the Gaza border), as well as IDF troops.” It added that the spraying of herbicides “is conducted only over the territory of the State of Israel. It is carried out by companies specialized in the field, in accordance with the law.” Indeed, the spraying is occurring on the Israeli side of the border—but borders are porous, and they do not stop harmful chemicals carried by the wind. The Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for clarification regarding the burning of tires to assess wind direction.
When the Israeli Ministry of Defense says that it carries out the sprayings “in accordance with the law,” it is unclear whether they mean domestic law, international law, or both (human rights groups have maintained that Israel is breaking both by doing so). In 1977, theConvention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, an international treaty on ecological warfare, banned “any technique for changing—through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes—the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space.” Though Israel is not a signatory to this convention, the practice of spraying herbicides for military purposes does seem to fit the definition of such a technique. (The United States is a signatory to the treaty, as well as Israel’s major military ally and patron. The US State Department ignored repeated requests for comment on Israel’s use of the practice.)
An in-depth report released in Hebrew by Amnesty International’s Israeli chapter provides a damning picture of Israeli arms exports to countries that violate human rights. This report provides solid evidence that over the past 20 years, Israeli military exports went to at least eight countries that have been known for serious violations of human rights:
Azerbaijan – which has persecuted government critics and LGBTQ people – received Israeli battleships, anti-tank missiles, attack drones, military vehicles, and radar systems
Cameroon – implicated in kidnappings, torture, and murder – received Israeli military training and armored vehicles
Mexico – undergoing a severe human rights crisis and forced disappearances – received Israeli spyware software that targeted journalists, human rights lawyers, and anti-corruption activists
Myanmar – which has engaged in ethnic cleansing, genocide, and crimes against humanity – received armored vehicles and naval ammunition
Philippines – which carried out mass extrajudicial executions – received Israeli assault rifles, machine guns, and anti-tank guided missiles
South Sudan – implicated in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity – received Israeli surveillance technology and assault rifles
Sri Lanka – which was engaged in a brutal civil war – received Israeli drones and battleships
United Arab Emirates – which has imprisoned government critics and human rights activists – received Israeli spyware software, including the infamous “Pegasus” spyware (just days ago, NSO, the Israeli company behind Pegasus, was linked to a security exploit targeting WhatsApp that allowed Pegasus to be installed)
What is worse is that some of these countries were under international sanctions and weapons sales embargoes, yet Israel continued to sell arms to them.
For example, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on South Sudan due to its acts of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even using mass rape as a method of war. Yet South Sudan still ended up acquiring Israeli-made assault rifles. Part of this is due to the fact that Israeli weapons reach such countries after a chain of transactions, which helps to avoid international monitoring and decrease transparency.
Israeli authorities claim that they “carefully examine the state of human rights in each country before approving export licenses for selling them weapons,” but the fact that Israeli weapons made it to the countries mentioned above proves that this statement is far from the truth.
But this information is neither new nor shocking. As Jonathan Cook wrote in 2013, “despite having a population smaller than New York City, Israel has emerged in the last few years as one of the world’s largest exporters of weapons.”
At the time, analysts placed Israel as the sixth top producer of weapons, ahead of China and Italy. When accounting for covert weapons deals, Israel was even considered to be the fourth top producer, ahead of Britain and Germany.
Of course, much of these military sales were made possible at the expense and lives of Palestinians. A significant reason why Israeli weapons are so marketable is because they are presented as “battle-proven.” In other words, they were tested on Palestinians.
As Miko Peled wrote last year, an Israeli weapons manufacturer marketed its unmanned armored personnel carrier as “combat-proven” at the “Israel Unmanned Systems 2014” conference, since the 2014 war on Gaza was the first time that such a remote-controlled carrier had been successfully deployed.
And as Rania Khalek has mentioned, “Palestine has long served as a laboratory for Israel’s ballooning ‘homeland security’ industry to test and perfect weapons of domination and control, with disenfranchised and stateless Palestinians serving as their lab rats.”
And as Bloomberg noted, the price of stock of Elbit Systems, one of the largest manufacturers of Israeli military technology, surged to its highest level since 2010 during the 2014 war on Gaza. This was surely no coincidence. It is also uncoincidental that the 2010 high peak of Elbit’s stock was not long after the end of the 2009 war on Gaza.
Clearly, waging war on Palestinians is a huge money-maker for the state of Israel, its corporations, and even its citizens (Cook cites data that around 6,800 Israelis are actively engaged in exporting arms, and former defense minister Ehud Barak admitted that 150,000 Israeli households – around 10 percent of the population – depend on the weapons industry).
One can look no further than to the comments of Avner Benzaken, who was head of the “Technology and Logistics Branch” of the Israeli “Defense” Forces:
In this January 16, 2019 photo Palestinian artist Ahmed Humaid, 29, works on one of his origami sculptures in his house in Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip. Origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, is an unlikely pursuit for an artist living in the Gaza Strip, which has been largely cut off from the outside world since Israel and Egypt imposed a crippling blockade on the Hamas-ruled territory more than a decade ago. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
GAZA CITY — In a small studio packed with sculptures made of scrap metal, Palestinian artist Ahmed Humaid has found a new medium in origami, the Japanese art of paper folding.
It’s an unlikely pursuit for an artist living in the Gaza Strip, which has been largely cut off from the outside world since Israel and Egypt imposed a crippling blockade on the Hamas-ruled territory more than a decade ago.
But the 29-year-old Humaid, who has no regular job, says interest in origami is on the rise.
“With more people asking about it, this work has turned into a source of income for me,” said Humaid, who lives in Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza.
Humaid practices a form of origami in which he folds and forms the pages of an entire book into a readable inscription of calligraphic letters.
He has no formal training. He said he learned about origami when he saw some photos on Instagram. He began following Japanese artists and wrote to them. Some offered help and feedback.
When he made his first origami work in October, it took him 15 hours to finish. He shared the photo with some Japanese artists who acclaimed the work.
Since then, Humaid has sold 45 works locally, including books folded into names that lovers have given to each other as gifts, as well as logos for local businesses. Depending on the size and number of letters, he charges 50 to 100 shekels (about $15-30) per order.
Unemployment in Gaza, a coastal enclave sandwiched between Israel and Egypt, stands at more than 50 percent, according to U.N. and other international estimates. It is even higher among Gaza’s youth.
Humaid would like to expand his business beyond Gaza’s borders, but the blockade has cut off virtually all exports, and Israel and Egypt heavily restrict travel into and out of the territory.
The economic and social situation in Gaza that has been declining for over a decade, has deteriorated exponentially in recent months. . . The situation has reached a critical point.
— Economic Monitoring Report to the World Bank Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, Sept 27, 2018 (PDF)
The latest Economic Monitoring Report to the World Bank Ad Hoc Liaison Committee [AHLC] quantifies the collective punishment and mounting hardship of the Gaza Strip:
– 6% growth in the first quarter of 2018, compared to the same months of 2017.
53.7% unemployment, over 70% for youth and 78% for women in Q1, 2018. The first figures from Q2 suggest that unemployment has risen a further 5%.
53% of Gazans – every second person – lives below the poverty line.
2% of Gazans receive an uninterrupted supply of water. 98% do not.
The cause is not in doubt: the government of Israel imposes “restrictions that are the main impediment” to normal economic activity. “The blockade has caused Gaza’s economy to deindustrialize”. As proportions of GDP, manufacturing and agriculture have declined by more than half since 1994. The blockade and repeated wars have caused Gaza’s economy to grow more slowly than all of its comparator economies (including the West Bank).
And try doing business in an economy this volatile:
(Source: Economic Monitoring Report to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, September 27, 2018)
The structure of the problem explains Gazans’ vulnerability to the cuts made by Israel and Donald Trump this year. The blockade has strangled normal economic activity, such that the public sector is nearly all that remains. Rather than being an economic actor, entrepreneurial Gaza has been reduced to being a recipient. Gaza has been “kept afloat by… transfers”, rather than trade. In 2014 (the most recent figures), the expenditures of UNRWA, the PA and Hamas roughly equalled Gaza’s GDP. Their activity was the only significant spending. This phenomenon will have become even more pronounced since the war.
As they were prevented from earning a living, Gazans increasingly needed assistance. Now 79% of Gazan Palestinians receive some form of assistance, compared with 15% of West Bankers. Aid represents up to 45% of poor Gazans’ income. The poorest, and those living in refugee camps, show the greatest drop in their household expenditures – and these indicators of escalating financial distress were compiled before the most recent cuts took effect.
Hardship is, at last, evident in the declining secondary school enrolments. Education has always been Gaza’s signature, and among wealthier Gazans, it remains so. Among the poorest, it is becoming impossible, or futile, to keep their children in school after they have reached working age – especially their boys. Last year, 13% fewer Gazan boys completed Grade 9 than girls.
(Source: Economic Monitoring Report to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, September 27, 2018)
The blockade forced Gazans into deep dependence on financial transfers rather than earned income. Since 2017, for reasons of politics, the transfers have diminished.