Issues Home About Contact Us Issue 30 - July 2024 عربى
Regional Developments

Quantifying Gaza Losses

Across Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel, the occupying power, has repeatedly destroyed Palestinian sanitation and agricultural infrastructure, razed cultivated lands, and used banned phosphorus weapons. The environmental legacy of Israel’s blockade has left extremely limited possibilities to adapt to climate change under occupation. Observers have accused Israel of having long waged an “invisible environmental war,” making the Gaza Strip “uninhabitable,” with a “toxic ecology,” “biosphere of war,”  “environmental apartheid,” “threatening the human viability” of the occupied Palestinian territory.

Serial Israeli military operations in Gaza, in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2021, 2022, May 2023 and October 2023, have caused internal displacement and recurrent destruction of the built environment; residential buildings; factories; office buildings; housing units; educational facilities; health-care centers; capital stock and productive assets, including livestock, greenhouses, fruit trees, storage facilities, boats, fishing equipment, agribusinesses, irrigation canals, the natural aquifer, water pumping systems, desalination facilities, electricity grids and internet networks,.                                                   

More than a mere pattern, the targeting of indigenous homes, shelters and shelter seekers had long been a common practice of colonizing Zionist militias in Palestine, and Israel’s military doctrine since March 1948.

HLRN’s 2022 report from the Violation Database (VDB) featured on the cases of the Israeli-engineered “Gaza Water Crisis” and “Environmental Demographic Manipulation,” led by the parastatal Jewish National Fund. Neither of those cases of deliberate degradation of environment and natural resources in Palestine has led to quantification of costs, loss and damage to the affected population.

In the very month of World Habitat Day and the October 2023 VDB report, Israel unleashed a wave of destruction across the Gaza enclave premised on retaliation for the Hamas-led retaliatory operation against Israeli military targets and settler colonies on Palestinian land inside Israel on 7 October. Israel’s assault has earned itself a “plausible charge of genocide” before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The environmental impact of Israel’s current genocidal assault on Gaza will be enduring. Prior to the outbreak of the latest Israeli war on Gaza, much of the private and public property, infrastructure and institutional damage from previous military operations remained unrepaired, while Gaza’s inhabitants were confined in one of the most densely populated spaces in the world, in chronic conflict conditions, with inadequate access to clean water, without electricity for half the day and without a proper sewage system. Close to half the Gaza workforce was unemployed and two thirds of the population lived in poverty before the Israeli war.

A United Nations Satellite Centre (UNOSAT) Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) has identified notable changes taking place in agricultural areas, evaluating damage as a substantial decline in the health and density of crops by January 2024 due to the impact of activities such as razing, heavy vehicle activity, bombing, shelling, and other military acts. Without verification by field observation, the UNOSAT analysis includes a damage assessment for permanent crop fields, arable land, and fallow lands, estimated at 178 km2, affecting approximately 49% of the total area of Gaza.

Meanwhile, damage to Dhayr al-Balah’s permanent crop fields and arable land has reached 56%. Additionally, an increase in agricultural land damage in the Khan Yunis Governorate, rising from 3% to 14%, appears in imagery collected in December 2023 and January 2024.

One notable assessment of economic impacts has emerged since 7 October 2023, carried out by the UN Conference of Trade and Development (UNCTAD) under GA resolution A/RES/69/20 (2014) [AR], mandating it to report on the economic costs of the Israeli occupation for the Palestinian people. The United Nations Satellite Centre (UNOSAT) also has reported physical damage. It reported key economic indicators before and after the Israel-imposed blockade since 2007 show aspects of the de-development of Gaza.

However, the ratio of Gaza’s per capita GDP to that of the West Bank fell from parity in 1994, at the time the Palestinian National Authority was established, to 44% in 2007 and reached 28% in 2022. For over a decade and a half, Gaza has been largely removed from the development agenda and has been rendered a humanitarian disaster area with 80% of the population dependent on international aid. At the time, the UNCTAD report could only speculate that the damages would reach tens of billions of dollars by any conservative estimation.

From 7 October 2023 to 1 April 2024, Israel’s bombardments destroyed over 112,000 housing units and damaged 356,000. The governorates of Gaza and Khan Yunis have experienced the highest rise in damage, with the highest number of newly destroyed structures.  This compares with Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge attack on Gaza, by which 51 days of Israeli bombardment of Gaza had damaged 22,737 structures.

In the recovery process, the return of GDP per capita to pre-October 2023 levels would not mean restoration of well-being, because GDP and GDP per capita recovery—difficult and lengthy as that may be—does not account for the cost of replacing damaged assets. Nor does such a measure of ‘resilience’ (recovery to the status quo ante) meet the requirements of remedy and reparation, nor the obligation of the duty-bound occupying power (State of Israel) to ensure sustainable development and the “continuous improvement of living conditions,” in addition to its liability for reparations. Regarding the cost of merely replacing destroyed assets, in an optimistic scenario of double-digit growth rates facilitated by a large injection of foreign aid, will take decades for Gaza to return to pre-October 2023 welfare levels.

UNCTAD has not quantified the comprehensive costs, losses and damage incurred in Israel’s 2023–24 war on Gaza, and those values are still mounting. However, its preliminary assessment offers scenarios for a recovery timeline. For example, if Israel’s war were to cease at the time of the UNCTAD assessment’s publication, Gaza’s GDP sustained an average of 10% growth annually and an annual 2.8% population growth, Gaza’s per capita GDP would return to its 2022 level by 2028, and to its 2006 levels in 2035, and may return to its 1994 level by 2037.

Although environmental concerns may seem to pale against the backdrop of the great human suffering in Gaza, they are intimately related to the ongoing humanitarian disaster there. After having accepted the State of Palestine’s request, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has just completed a preliminary environmental assessment, although the dangerous situation has rendered a field mission impossible, but UNEP for an environmental impact assessment.

The UNEP preliminary assessment explains  seven major factors in Israel’s destruction of Gaza’s environment:

  1. The conflict undoes recent environmental progress in Gaza,
  2. Around 39 million tonnes of debris have piled up,
  3. All five of Gaza’s wastewater treatment plants have shut down,
  4. The solid waste management system is severely damaged,
  5. Munitions containing heavy metals and explosive chemicals remain,
  6. Destroyed solar panels leave a toxic legacy,
  7. Hamas’ tunnels could become dangerous ruins.

Meanwhile, Israel has cut water, fuel, electricity, communications and humanitarian aid to the local population, as well as prevented access by international supporters such as NGOs and multilateral agencies. Issues to assess and loss and damage to quantify for restitution are known to include the near- and longer-term hazards posed by the destruction of environmental infrastructure, human remains, asbestos and unexploded munitions, and a “catastrophic spike” in land, soil and water pollution, adding to the already institutional denial of Palestinians’ human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, causing a rise in water-borne diseases.

Despite several notable attempts to quantify reparations owed to the Palestinian people over the decades, no party has begun to comprehensively quantify the mounting costs, losses and damage of Israel’s near century of colonizing and waging war on Palestine.

See also:

UNEP’s preliminary assessment “Environmental Impact of the Conflict in Gaza: Preliminary Assessment of Environmental Impacts” (June 2024);

Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel,” A/HRC/56/26, 27 May 2024;

Annual Report of the UN Secretary-General,Children and Armed Conflict,” A/78/842-S/2024/384, 3 June 2024.

 

Photo: Cultivated lands in the northern Gaza Strip razed by Israeli forces in 2023. Source: Planet Lab PBC via Human Rights Watch.

 


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