Environment a Weapon in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

GAZA, February 5, 2001 (ENS) - Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are suspended until after the elections in Israel scheduled for February 6. But in the meantime, the Palestinians say the Israelis are destroying the environment of the West Bank and Gaza to intimidate them.

Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week, accused Israeli forces of using depleted uranium weapons in their reaction to the Palestinian uprising of the past four months. Nearly 400 people have been killed, most of them Palestinians.

The Palestinian National Authority Ministry of Environmental Affairs (MEnA) has issued two reports regarding the ongoing environmental destruction. In the latest, dated December 21, MEnA accuses the Israelis of using weapons containing depleted uranium, but offers no proof.

"Given Israel's own nuclear program and well developed military industry, MEnA says, the likelihood is that Israel is a manufacturer of depleted uranium (DU) ammunition. The firm Rafael of Israel is named in numerous reports as being such a manufacturer. But even if this were not the case, Israel has been able to import DU weapons from the United States."

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Israeli bombardment of Gaza Harbor (Photo courtesy MEnA)
"Whether from shells or from the scrapings from tanks moving around the countryside, radioactive materials enter into the land, the water and the whole food chain, contaminating the densely populated West Bank and Gaza, where water is a scarce resource. Wanton radioactive contamination of this region is a crime against all of humanity and a threat to the entire region now and for generations to come," MEnA says.

MEnA is asking environmental and other international and regional organizations to open a public inquiry into the matter.

What is certain is that medical waste is not being disposed of properly, water supplies are being contaminated, and agricultural crops and trees are being destroyed, the Palestinian ministry said in its report.

An average of 20 tons per day of medical waste is being produced and stored in an unhealthy way due to closure, MENA said. Closure is an Israeli policy that restricts the movement of Palestinians out of their home villages.

The accumulated wastes and the inability of municipalities to access the designated landfills have led to burning almost half of the generated waste, a practice that entails an estimated US$3.5 million loss, according to MENA sources.

In Nablus, all access has been denied to the county's healthcare waste incinerator, resulting in large amounts of waste left unmanaged and may be disposed in open lands and/or mixed with domestic waste, MEnA warns. There are fears that Israeli hazardous waste may be disposed of within the Palestinian Territories. "Several attempts were pursued to classify the nature of disposed waste but to no avail, for the Israelis have placed a strict closure and intensive military presence at the sites of disposal," MEnA wrote.

The ministry estimates the overall economic loss in the environmental sector at US$20 million as of December 1, 2000.

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Destruction of agricultural fields in the southern area of the Gaza Strip (Photo courtesy MEnA)
Israelis are uprooting olive trees, grapevines, palm trees, almond, oranges, figs, strawberry, guava, banana and other types of fruit trees, MEnA complains. In Salfit, at least six hectares (15 acres) of olive groves were bulldozed and trees uprooted, and a water cistern supplying water to a number of orchards was destroyed.

An Israeli spokesman, requesting anonymity, agrees that one ecological damage caused by the Israelis is the cutting down of orchards and plantations situated near Israeli population centers, military camps and borders. "The orchards are used for cover for offensive attacks," he says, and "by taking them down there is more space for keeping an open ground for protection."

The quality and quantity of water supplies is a major problem. According to Palestinian Hydrological Group, more than 20 towns have suffered from extreme water shortage due to road closure and military checkpoints that prevented water tankers from distribution, and the turning off of water supplies in the nearby settlements.

The inability to provide maintenance services to wastewater systems, as reported in Tulkarem and other towns, lead to the escape of raw sewage into the agricultural land, wadis, and possibly to the ground water aquifers.

Furthermore, the stored material for Salfit's new wastewater treatment plant was a target for two Israeli rockets. Not mentioning the inclusive financial loss, the replacement of the abolished equipment will definitely set back the implementation of the project for an unknown amount of time, MEnA says.

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Israeli water management in fields of the Palgey Maim Water and Land Resources Development Company owned by the Emek Yizrael and Megiddo Regional Councils just north of the West Bank (Photo courtesy Palgey Maim)
The Israeli spokesman responds, saying that, "The pollution of soil and groundwater happens all the time from various uses both by the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority. And in addition, it is absurd to blame the Israelis for deliberately contaminating the soil and water since we use the same resources. Underground aquifers do not differentiate between people. Similar wells serve both nations," he said.

Ecological damage is taking place since the region is suffering from a drought, the Israeli spokesman says. "Global warming affects us all."

There are some hopeful signs of cooperation between the sides to keep the limited water supply clean.

On January 31, both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC) issued a Joint Declaration for Keeping the Water Infrastructure out of the Cycle of Violence. The document was signed at the Erez Crossing, by Noah Kinarty, Head of the Israeli side of the JWC, and by Nabil El-Sherif, Head of the Palestinian side of the JWC.

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Pipes through which flows the water vital to Palestinians and Israelis alike (Photo courtesy Palgey Maim)
Acknowledging that any damage to water and wastewater systems will harm both Palestinians and Israelis, the declaration states that a special effort is being made by the two sides to ensure the water supply to the Palestinian and Israeli cities, towns and villages in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"In order for this effort to succeed, we need the cooperation and support of all the population, both Israeli and Palestinian. We call on the general public not to damage in any way the water infrastructure, including pipelines, pumping stations, drilling equipment, electricity systems and any other related infrastructure," the two sides jointly ask.

The two sides called on those involved in the current crisis not to harm in any way the professional teams that conduct regular maintenance or repair damage and malfunctions to the water and wastewater infrastructure.