The Environmental Devastation of Israel’s Genocidal Drive
by Samira Homerang Saunders
The ongoing genocidal violence against the Palestinians in Gaza has seen an unprecedented building of global solidarity since October 7th. Information about the processes through which the eliminationist drive has been manifesting itself sheds light on the relation between genocide, environmental degradation, and war. War is indiscriminate. As thousands of people die each week, the land they live on, the food and water sources they depend on, and the air they breathe are also being destroyed. Protests across the globe demanding a ceasefire have increasingly picked up the slogan: “no climate justice on occupied land,” a nod to the connections that are increasingly becoming evident.
The dire impacts of this war should not be lost on the environmental activist community. It is vital to remember that the very concept of ecocide emerged from the particular context of the Vietnam war and the use of the toxic chemicals Agent Orange, Agent White and Agent Blue. Not only did such chemicals wreak havoc on the environment, destroying over 5 million acres of land, but also directly contaminated upwards of 1 million people, with lasting health effects to this day.
One of the legacies of the first Gulf War in 1990 and the 2003 Iraq war were documented spikes in cancer rates, congenital birth defects, sterility, infertility and a myriad other illnesses. The primary suspected cause of this is the depleted uranium and other metal contaminants in the bullets and bombings during both wars. As these experiences have shown, war very quickly creates a toxic biosphere.
In April 2009, an inspection by the Arab Commission for Human Rights and the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) found that earth samples taken in Gaza contained radioactive and carcinogenic elements such as depleted uranium and phosphates. In 2013, the head of the Oncology Department at Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza – closed down last week under assault by Israeli forces – said he expected the cancer rates to double over the next five years as a result of the uranium used by Israel in the 2008-2009 war, a campaign he referred to as an “environmental catastrophe.”
This toxic biosphere is repeated and recycled after every period of bombing. The reality of the Gaza strip is such that any reconstruction efforts reuse the same debris from the bombings, patching up and embedding toxins in new buildings.
According to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, in this war, Israel has dropped the equivalent of two nuclear bombs on a population of over 2 million people, confined to a space less than half the size of Hiroshima. The impact of this constant bombing, including the use of white phosphorous in Gaza and Southern Lebanon is of an unprecedented magnitude. Israel’s use of white phosphorus has been documented in this, and in previous wars by Human Rights Watch.
The stringent control of water by the Israeli government has been documented and condemned repeatedly by major international bodies such as the UN and Amnesty International. Before this current attack, up to 96% of drinking water in Gaza was contaminated and designated unfit for human consumption. This is because Gaza’s main source of water, its coastal aquifer, suffers from over-extraction, saltwater intrusion and sewage infiltration, largely a consequence of the decades long blockade of Gaza. All of Gaza’s three desalination plants are out of order due to power cuts. It has now been over a month in which Israel has cut off all supplies to Gaza, including water. In Deir el-Balah, Khan Younis and Rafah in the South, where the majority of the population has been forced to flee, all water wells and sewage pumping stations have ceased functioning, with raw sewage presenting a major threat to the aquifer, the sea and the spread of disease. This reality implies that the choice for Gazans is either death by direct military violence, or death by dehydration, starvation and/or disease. The war has made the water system a genocidal weapon.
In Southern Lebanon, the human consequences of Israeli bombing are closely related to the environmental consequences. Over 40,000 olive trees have been burned. The Lebanon Eco Movement has reported that between 7th October and 3rd November alone, almost 3 million square metres of high density oak trees have also been burned, as well as 66,000 square metres of lemon trees, 98,000 square metres of banana trees, 226,700 square metres of shrublands and 20,800 square metres of grasslands – a cultural, spiritual and agricultural disaster.
Just 3 weeks into this bombardment, as the water system crumbled and the trees burned, the Israeli government announced the expansion of its offshore oil and gas industry. It issued 12 licences to six companies, including British company BP, to explore new offshore natural gas fields. The Israeli Energy Minister stated that “the winning companies have committed to unprecedented investments in natural gas exploration over the coming three years.”
This is not the first time Israel has engaged in negotiations on foreign investment in close proximity to the bombing of Gaza. In 2008, a few months prior to the military invasion of Gaza, the Israeli government sought to re-engage in negotiations with British Gas to reach a deal in relation to natural gas investment, in light of plans that they were making for “a new post-war political territorial arrangement for the Gaza Strip.” Contrary to international law, in 2008 Israel declared sovereignty over Gaza’s offshore reserves, integrating them into Israeli offshore infrastructure. These negotiations were in relation to Gaza Marine, a natural gas field just off the coast. In fact it is closer to land than any other offshore deposit under Israel’s control, making it cheaper to develop. Its net value has been estimated at about $4.592 billion.
The combined worth of the oil and natural gas deposits across the entire Levant Basin is estimated by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNTAD) at upwards of $524 billion. In 2022 in the wake of the global energy crisis as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Israel sought to become a major exporter of natural gas. An historic agreement was signed between the EU, Egypt and Israel, to import natural gas to Europe from Israel (via Egypt) for the first time.
Another factor that may be relevant to the exploitation of those resources is the Ben Gurion Canal, a proposed alternative to the Suez Canal that would be owned and controlled by Israel (and by extension the US). In the 1960s, a feasibility study was conducted, proposing the use of nuclear explosives to excavate a 160 mile long canal that would join the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. While it seems the use of nuclear explosives to achieve this have been abandoned, there are two important things to consider: the first being that at the time, it was written that conventional excavation methods would prove too costly, and secondly, costs could be cut on the proposed canal route if it were able to go straight through Gaza. The Israeli Foreign Minister has already noted in an interview plans to indefinitely maintain a presence there. In September of this year, Netenyahu delivered a speech at the UN headquarters in which he presented a map for a “The New Middle East”. He presented his plans for a:
“visionary corridor that will stretch across the Arabian peninsula and Israel. It will connect India to Europe with maritime links, rail links, energy pipelines, fibreoptic cables. This corridor will bypass maritime checkpoints (or chokepoints) and dramatically lower the costs of goods, communication and energy for over two billion people. What a historic change for my country!”
When Joe Biden’s energy security advisor visited Israel last week to push for the development of Gaza’s offshore gas reserves, he claimed that this move will “revitalise” the Palestinian economy. Yet, Israel has no intention of allowing Palestinians to benefit from the gas, or from any of the commercial opportunities it is so keen to move on. In this line of thinking, the entire population is necessarily seen as an obstacle.
The urgency to use the conflict to speed up the extraction of fossil fuels and the expansion of a fossil-based economy indicates something more integral about the impetus of this war. More oil and gas, and more uncontrolled economic growth are long term outcomes of this war that connect the genocide to the project of ecocide. We should be anxiously concerned with the indiscriminate violence and shortsightedness of the Israeli state, as well as the socio-political precedent now set when a government can cross all rhetorical ‘red-lines’ with impunity. The wiping out of entire family trees, the poisoning of olive trees and soil, the drying up of the Jordan river, and the hostile infrastructure of apartheid, are all contributions to our collective downfall as a viable planet.