The purposive destruction of natural Palestine
Israel's policies against Gaza have not only ruined much of its natural environment, but also threaten Egypt directly, writes Mahmoud Bakr
Over the past decades, the Palestinian territories have faced an array of environmental problems that have polluted and destroyed the environment quickly and severely, primarily because of policies pursued by the Israeli occupation. Increased population also raised pollution, waste and attrition of various natural resources. To protect the Palestinian environment and what resources are left, the Palestinian Authority (PA) created the Environment Quality Authority (EQA) in 1996. This is the government body responsible for strategic planning, legislation, and monitoring and regulating all environment issues. It is also responsible for coordinating among all local, regional and international bodies to protect and develop the Palestinian environment.
We met the leading Palestinian official responsible for the environment with a delegation of young people at the third Arab Universities Youth Forum, sponsored by the Arab Youth and Environment Union in Sharm El-Sheikh. EQA Director Youssef Kamel Ibrahim emphasised the importance of uniting efforts by the youth in protecting the environment, with special focus on exchanging practical expertise in the field of environment among Arab and Palestinian youth. Also investing their abilities and enthusiasm, especially on university campuses and youth centres, to defend their environment and natural resources.
Kamel said that the Zionist occupation has made the environment an element of the conflict until today. There are many indicators that demonstrate that Palestinian resources and environment are the target of attrition, such as bombing water resources and the main well which provides water for Gaza City. Also, purposeful damage of large areas of land, including uprooting more than 500,000 trees on purpose. He further noted that lack of water in the western region and scarce food resources in the east is how the Palestinian people are living today. This is a plot by the occupation to control water and food resources in Palestine, Kamel asserted. Around 25 per cent of Al-Aghwar region has become an occupied military zone, and the Palestinian people have no control over 40 per cent there. He added that occupation forces have dug 27 wells to collect rain water before it reaches the Palestinians.
Kamel noted that geographic and geological studies and maps prove that there is a geological link between Rafah and Sheikh Zowayd in Egypt and Palestinian Rafah and the Gaza Strip as far as the town of Asdod, which was occupied in 1948. This geological connection indicates that the subterranean reservoir in the Gaza Strip extends into neighbouring north Sinai at Rafah, Sheikh Zowayd and Areesh, which means that any pollution in the subterranean reservoir in Gaza will spread to other connected parts of the reservoir, whether in Egypt or the occupied territories.
A UN and World Bank study showed that the subterranean reservoir in Gaza is acutely polluted, with nitrate and chloride pollutants reaching record levels far above acceptable standards. Studies by the World Health Organisation (WHO) show that the nitrates allowed for human consumption should not exceed 250mg per litre, but the water in some areas in Gaza close to the border with Egypt, such as Khan Younis and Rafah, has more than 2500mg. This shows that the pollution has reached the reservoir in Egyptian Rafah and from there could pollute Sheikh Zowayd and Areesh.
Kamel said that high concentrations of nitrate pollutants in the water in Gaza pose a high risk of poisoning among infants, especially in rural areas. The UN Environment Programme estimates that $1.5 billion is needed over the next two decades to restore the subterranean reservoir to its previous condition, including building desalination plants to reduce demand on subterranean water resources.
The EQA director highlighted the dangers of toxic and radioactive substances that Israel dumps in the Gaza Strip, which dissolve and decompose in the soil and reach the subterranean reservoir. This toxic, radioactive and dangerous waste could reach Egypt through geological layers and the subterranean reservoir. Kamel explained that this pollution may not be felt by the Egyptian people because they rely on Nile water and not water from subterranean reservoirs. But, he cautioned, if at any time there is a water crisis in Egypt, then Egypt might be forced to use subterranean water in North Sinai. Egyptians might be surprised that the subterranean water is unfit for human consumption or for agriculture, Kamel said.
He added that studies show that around 95 per cent of water from the subterranean reservoir is polluted and unfit for direct use. The UN recently warned against using water from the reservoir for the next 20 years until the reservoir is restored to its natural state, and called for renovating the water reservoir in the Gaza Strip and finding alternative sources. Kamel said that Israeli F-16 jets bombed vacant areas, "and we didn't know the reason behind this until we discovered that the missiles used were toxic chemicals that directly damage the soil and the subterranean reservoir. Soil samples and biopsies of 90 martyrs after the last war on Gaza revealed the presence of nearly 30 toxic minerals, including uranium, in quantities more than 30 times what is permissible."
The EQA director said that agricultural land and soil were directly and critically damaged by Israeli actions. Repeated attacks by a variety of missiles and ammunition resulted in deep craters in agricultural land, which also became polluted by a number of toxins depending on the missiles and ammunition used. Occupation forces also made barren and damaged land, especially that located close to the border which had previously been irrigated and planted with olive groves and palm trees.