After 100 days of war, the destruction of Gaza is catastrophic enough to have visibly changed the color and “texture” of the territory as seen from space, highlighting the overwhelming environmental devastation of Gaza. Indeed, since the current onslaught began, Israeli forces have systematically transformed 22% of Gaza’s agricultural land to dust, caused the collapse of wastewater systems through the deprivation of electricity to the civilian population, and unleashed more than 45,000 polluting missiles and bombs.
At the same time, Israel’s political establishment has been openly discussing how to conduct the mass transfer of Palestinians out of Gaza. While the internal forcible displacement of 1.9 million Gazans has been carried out through evacuation orders and the destruction of homes in Gaza, the desire to see such displacement made permanent—including by expelling Palestinians from the territory entirely—has prompted calls to make Gaza uninhabitable. As Giora Eiland, former head of the Israeli National Security Council, wrote in a recent article: “Israel needs to create a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, compelling tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to seek refuge . . . Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.” Widespread environmental damage is contributing to creating such conditions in Gaza, facilitating the displacement of Palestinians.
Today, we have legal terminology for widespread and long-term ecological destruction—the crime of ecocide. There is increasing traction for a proposal to recognize ecocide as an international crime under the Rome Statute, with the proposed legal definition of ecocide being “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”
Despite the fact that it is not yet enshrined in international law, condemning ecocide without the force of the law can help us to make sense of environmental harm and acknowledge it as a source of human rights violations. This has been done, for example, regarding ecocidal acts carried out by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.
Ecocide not only protects ecologies—it also protects human groups from the harm inflicted on them through ecological destruction. For example, for human populations—and particularly for Indigenous and place-based peoples, the irreversible damage to life-sustaining and culturally important natural resources can lead to disastrous human phenomena like mass disease, food insecurity, displacement, and genocide. Such outcomes are often intertwined, for example in the case of Canada’s tar sands, a fossil fuel project which has brought about disease, food insecurity and genocide for local indigenous peoples. A recent example of forced displacement is the case of Russia’s destruction of Ukraine’s Karhovka dam, leading to the displacement of thousands.
In the case of Gaza, the ecological impact of the intense bombardment of land—25,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Gaza in just the first month of the assault—is in many ways poorly understood. However, we know that bombs leave behind toxic heavy metals and have done so already in Gaza. Such heavy metals not only cause direct harm to humans and can bioaccumulate in the human body—they also have remarkable environmental longevity, accumulating in food chains and rendering local food sources toxic.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also documented the use of white phosphorus by Israel in the current assault on Gaza. White phosphorus—internationally prohibited for use in densely populated areas because it burns through human skin to the bone—also has far-reaching environmental consequences. It can actively penetrate the soil for several years, causing destruction to plants and ecosystems. It can also cause fires that burn down agricultural land and forests, impacts that were studied extensively in Southern Lebanon.
Despite the massive density of Gaza’s population, around 25% of Gaza is arable land, providing Palestinians with some food security and, therefore, resilience in the face of Israel’s 15-year blockade. For decades, however, Israel has been targeting Palestinian agricultural land. A 2002 report by B’Tselem demonstrates that Israel “has employed a policy of . . . destruction of agricultural areas” under the guise of security, claiming that agricultural lands were used as “hiding places to commit terror attacks.” Later, in 2008–2009, as much as one-third of Gaza’s agricultural land was damaged by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)., According to Human Rights Watch, Gazan factories, farms, and greenhouses were flattened one by one with bulldozers and tanks in what amounted to “a plan of systematic destruction.”
In the current assault on Gaza, this policy has continued. An analysis of satellite images by HRW revealed that Israeli ground forces have “systematically” bulldozed Palestinian orchards, fields, and greenhouses, creating a wasteland of sand and dirt. Such actions destroy both Palestinian livelihoods and the recognizable environmental landmarks and features that make a landscape familiar. Depriving the land of its familiarity makes return more painful, further eradicating the motivation for Palestinians to return following displacement.
The infrastructural consequences of Israeli assaults, now and in the past, have been overwhelming and are having clear negative impacts on the environment and the displacement of Palestinians. In 2014, there was “severe damage” to Gaza’s infrastructure, according to the United Nations Environment Program, including the destruction of 60% of wastewater treatment facilities. Similarly, air and artillery strikes hit wastewater infrastructure in 2021, leading to the release of sewage into the sea and streets of Gaza, as well as flash flooding.
In the current assault on Gaza, the catastrophic policy of depriving the population of electricity has compounded the continued destruction of infrastructure through bombardment. The inoperability of the population’s sewage system will not only spread disease but also seriously endanger the long-term environmental health of the territory, which will become highly polluted by the toxic effects of large amounts of untreated sewage on the soil and groundwater. The pollution of seawater (130,000 cubic meters of wastewater is being discharged into the sea daily) will also impact the health of Gaza’s coastal marine life, jeopardizing what little food security Palestinians enjoy in the form of their fishing industry.
On a larger scale, one study found that the damage to Gaza’s infrastructure during successive Israeli bombing campaigns since 2007 was highly indicative of systematic targeting. The impact is that the environment in Gaza is increasingly becoming uninhabitable, and Palestinians are being displaced. As this study notes, the purposeful targeting of infrastructure “directly undermines the ability of Palestinians to remain in place.” This policy is exacerbated by the restrictions on materials into Gaza necessary for reconstruction through the blockade and mirrors Israeli policy in the West Bank, where Palestinian infrastructure building is systematically prevented, “dispossessing Palestinians of their land.”
In a highly concerning development, reports suggest that Israeli forces have begun flooding Gaza’s underground tunnels with seawater, despite previous dire warnings from environmental experts of the overwhelming consequences. One expert warned that this course of action “risks ruining basic life in Gaza” by “causing an ecological catastrophe that will leave Gaza with no drinkable water and devastate what little agriculture is possible.”
In sum, Israeli military operations and bombing campaigns in Gaza have inflicted long-term and widespread environmental damage, clearly constituting the crime of ecocide. This ecocidal policy has continued with far greater intensity during the current unprecedented assault on Gaza, leading to ever-worsening implications for the health of Gaza’s ecology and the viability of long-term, healthy human existence there. Not only has ecocide been committed, but the destruction of agriculture and infrastructure, now and in the past, has been highly systematic in nature. Such systematic actions reflect the intent present in calls from Israel’s current and former political leaders such as Giora Eiland to induce Palestinian displacement by making Gaza inhospitable.