A man carries steel bars with bare hands in a yard filled with scrap metal. (Mohammed Al-Hajjar)
Amjad Ayman Yaghi, The Electronic Intifada, 15 October 2019
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.