Though he now lives in Virginia with his wife and daughters, he grew up in the Gaza Strip. Hani’s father was an UNRWA teacher in Gaza and his family benefited from UNRWA services there, so he can speak firsthand from personal experience about the work UNRWA does and how the Gaza Strip has changed over the past few decades.
Below, Hani reflects on these changes through the lens of Valentine’s Day.
GAZA CITY — Jana Tawil was born in 2012, the same year that the United Nations released an alarm-raising report on the state of the Gaza Strip: If the prevailing economic, environmental and political trends continued, the organization warned, the besieged coastal enclave sandwiched between Israel and Egypt would become unlivable by 2020.
The United Nations revised its initial rating in 2017 to warn that “de-development” was happening even faster than it first predicted.
Jana’s father, 35-year-old Mahmoud Tawil, never thought much of that assessment.
“When the U.N. report [said] that Gaza would be unlivable, I felt that Gaza was not fit for life in the same year, not in the year 2020,” he said.
That is the bleak reality facing Gaza’s 2 million Palestinian residents as they approach a new year and new decade: still stuck living in a place the world has already deemed uninhabitable in perhaps the most surreal of 2020 predictions.
The Tawil family lives in Gaza’s al-Shati refugee camp, or the Beach camp, where cramped and crumbling rows of homes sit adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea. It is in theory a scenic view — but life here persists on a parallel plane.
The elder Tawil, a psychologist, fears the sea: It’s full of sewage, pumped in because there’s not enough electricity and infrastructure to run Gaza’s war-torn sewage system. Hospitals, schools and homes are similarly running on empty, worn down by the lack of clean water, electricity, infrastructure and jobs or money. Barely anyone has enough clean water to drink. The only local source of drinking water, the coastal aquifer, is full of dirty and salty water. By 2020 — basically, now — that damage will be irreversible, water experts have warned.
“There is no stability in work, and there is no money for people,” Tawil said. “We cannot drink water or eat vegetables safely, [as] there is a fear that it will be contaminated.”
He continued: “We need a just life, and we need hope that there is a possibility for us to live on this earth. … The various Palestinian parties do not help us in Gaza to live, just as Israel imposes a blockade on Gaza. Unfortunately, no one cares about the residents of Gaza.”
Perhaps the hardest part of it all is that, relatively speaking, none of this is new.
When the United Nations issued the 2012 report setting 2020 as the zero hour for Gaza’s unlivability, the organization knew even then that no one should be living in Gaza’s already dangerous conditions.
“From our perspective, [the report] was a useful sort of ringing the alarm bell a couple of years ago,” said Matthias Schmale, the director of operations in Gaza for the U.N. Works and Relief Agency (UNRWA), the U.N. body responsible for Palestinian refugees. “But for us it’s no longer really the issue that by 2020 it will be unlivable. … The key question is how do we prevent total collapse?”
Gazans battle daily with the same crushing question.
It has been a dark decade, and then some, in a place Palestinians liken to an open-air prison. In 2007, the extremist group Hamas seized control after ousting its rival, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which is based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Israel and Egypt in response imposed a land and sea blockade, citing security concerns and the aim of squeezing Hamas out. It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, since 2009, Hamas and Israel have fought three bloody wars, alongside countless flare-ups. In the meantime, Israel flexes control via policies on who and what can enter and leave Gaza, barring most Gazans and goods from leaving. Hamas’s repressive and conservative rule has in turn caused people to feel squeezed from all sides.
Schmale cited four factors keeping Gaza afloat: Palestinian solidarity, such as businesses writing off debts; the inflow of cash sent by Palestinians abroad; Hamas’s autocratic rule, which has restricted internal unrest; and support from international bodies such as the United Nations.
All of these factors also remain subject to change. In 2018, President Trump cut aid to UNRWA and other Palestinian aid programs, threatening to topple the whole model set up in the 1950s to serve displaced Palestinians. Of Gaza’s 1.9 million residents, 1.4 million are refugees, and 1 million of them depend on UNRWA for food assistance. The rate of dependence on food aid only grows, Schmale said.
Despite the Trump administration’s much trumpeted economic-focused Middle East peace plan, no tangible progress has come out of it for Palestinians. A long-term, political solution to Gaza’s impasse (and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) remains far-off.
The depletion of Gaza’s coastal aquifer was one of the main factors in the United Nations’ “uninhabitable” calculus. According to World Health Organization standards, 97 percent of the aquifer’s water is unsuitable for human consumption: It’s been so heavily pumped that saltwater and other pollutants have poured in where groundwater was taken out.
Gazans who can afford to do so buy water from private companies using small-scale desalination projects. But the water from these sources can also become contaminated during unregulated distribution and storage in unclean tanks. One-fourth of all illnesses in Gaza are waterborne, the WHO found.
A man holds the hand of Maria al-Gazali, a 14-month-old Palestinian baby, as her body lies on a stretcher at a hospital in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza on 5 May 2019. She died during an Israeli air strike (AFP)
But Google’s massive memory seems to have suffered amnesia over what took place just one month ago in Deir al-Baba, Gaza.
To recap, because you, too, may have forgotten: on 14 November, an Israeli pilot dropped a one-tonne JDAM bomb on a building where eight members of one family were sleeping. Five of them were children. Two of them were infants.
At first, the Israeli army tried to lie its way out of responsibility for the killing of al-Sawarka family (one other family member has since died of injuries, taking the total to nine). Its Arabic-language spokesman claimed that the building was a command post for an Islamic Jihad rocket-launching unit in the central Gaza Strip.
However, as Haaretz revealed, the target was at least a year old. The intelligence was based on rumours, and no one had bothered to check who was living inside that building: they just dropped the bomb anyway.
The Israeli army need not have bothered lying. No one took any notice
Military intelligence capable of identifying and hitting moving targets like Bahaa Abu al-Atta, the Islamic Jihad’s commander in the northern Gaza Strip – or attempting to kill Akram al-Ajouri, a member of its political bureau in Damascus – is simultaneously incapable of updating its target bank from one year ago.
The Israeli army need not have bothered lying. No one took any notice. Neither the exchange of rocket fire nor the killing of the Sawarka family made the front pages of the Guardian, New York Times or Washington Post.
Israel’s diet plan for Gaza
This is Gaza now: a brutal siege of a forgotten people subsisting in conditions predicted to be unlivable by the UN in 2020, a year that is just a few weeks away.
It is inaccurate to say that the deaths of the Sawarka family were met with indifference in Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s sole rival for the leadership is Benny Gantz. Anyone in western capitals mistaking Gantz for a peacenik, merely because he is challenging Netanyahu, should look at a series of campaign videos the former Israeli army chief published recently about Gaza.
One of them starts with the sort of footage that a Russian drone could have taken after its bombardment of East Aleppo. The devastation is like Dresden or Nagasaki. It takes a disturbing few seconds to realise that this horrendous drone footage is a celebration of destruction, not an indictment of it.
Please join us as we welcome Ms. Laila Hassan of the Women in Hebron crafts cooperative to Madison, where she will be displaying and selling some of the crafts made by the women of the Hebron area. Women in Hebron plays a vital role in supporting 150 women and their families.
Snacks and refreshments including Arabic coffee will be served. Palestinian extra virgin olive oil will also be available for tasting and sale.
This event will be held at a home in Madison. If you would like to attend, please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by 10 am on December 15.
Co-sponsored by MRSCP, Jewish Voice for Peace-Madison and Playgrounds for Palestine-Madison.
Laila will also be on WORT Radio’s A Public Affair with host Gil Halsted on Friday, December 13 from noon to 1, and Her Turn on Sunday, December 15 at 11:00 am.
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.
The UN accepted the invitation but Israel refused to cooperate with the UN, during or after the attack, and the delegation never entered Gaza, according to Hilles.
“The Israeli occupation doesn’t want the world to see its crimes,” Hilles said.
Two men enjoy a coffee break after bending steel back into shape. (Mohammed Al-Hajjar)
He said any large scale bombardment would always bring with it the risk of contamination and pollution and not just because toxic materials can be released from crushed concrete. The soil becomes irradiated under bombardment and when it rains this radiation can seep into the underground water supply, Hilles said.
Hilles said he had warned contractors and workers in the field, but no one had acted.
Abu Jebah said he had heard the warnings of toxins and other harmful materials, but said life in general was harsh and dangerous in Gaza.
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.)
Even if Israel had been a signatory, experts have commented that the Environmental Modification Convention is “ultimately toothless,” due to its overly comprehensive language (it fails to mention a single specific technique that might fit the definition) and the lack of transparency into military operations. There is also the fact that all types of warfare are incredibly destructive to the environment, both in terms of the resources needed to maintain modern militaries and in terms of their actual use in combat.
When asked if calling the practice “warfare” in the report was in any way misleading, the researcher responds: “The importance of calling it warfare is that there is a long history of using herbicides as part of armed conflict, whether it’s the British in Malaysia, the Americans in Vietnam, Colombia spraying over the border in Ecuador, or Israel spraying in Gaza.” Still, the researcher expresses ambivalence about the deliberateness with which this campaign is being carried out by the Israeli military: “I don’t think they’re doing it to intentionally harm Gazan farmlands, I think they actually—and this is my opinion—just don’t care that it harms Gazan farmlands, so long as it is flattening the space.”
Deliberate or not, the damage is certainly worsened by the Israeli military’s choice to spray by air, when the spraying could conceivably be done by truck in a more targeted manner. “The way that they’re spraying it makes it largely uncontrollable,” the researcher says. (The Israeli Ministry of Defense did not address questions about why it has sprayed aerially.)
So far in 2019, no sprayings have been reported. There has been no explanation from the Israeli Ministry of Defense about why. Though this is good news for the farmers, it also speaks to the intense psychological component of the practice—the effect on the farmers of not knowing when, or if, the sprayings will start again. Meanwhile, Palestinian farmers across the region continue to facedaily threats as they pursue their livelihoods.
“Farmers that I have met, many of them Bedouin women, are repeatedly showing me bullet wounds or shrapnel wounds [or] telling me stories of being shot at only for walking along their farmland, or harvesting their crops,” the researcher says.
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:
“If I develop a product and want to test it in the field, I only have to go five or 10 kilometers from my base and I can look and see what is happening with the equipment. I get feedback, so it makes the development process faster and much more efficient. “
Essentially, Benzaken is glad that he has such a convenient space to test Israeli weapons. He all but confirms that Palestinians serve as “lab rats” for these weapons systems.
The report highlighting Israel’s export of arms to countries violating human rights is troubling, but it is not surprising. Israel claims to be a democracy, but this is in name only. In fact, Israel belongs to the same club of prolific human rights violating regimes that it sells weapons to.
More than 71 years ago, Israel forcibly seized Palestinian land and expelled more than 750,000 Palestinians. To this day, nearly all of them have been denied the right to return to their homes, and the ones who managed to stay are now treated as second class citizens in the state of Israel. This reality was reinforced legally with the recent racist Israeli “nation-state” law of 2018.