The Occupation's Impact on Palestinian Environment - Introduction

Palestine has been described as the “land of milk and honey,” and indeed it is majestically beautiful with rolling hills, sloping mountains, river grottos and the Mediterranean Sea coastline.

But the beauty belies the reality on the ground: More than 60 years of Israeli occupation have devastated the soil and water.

From razing farmland and orchards to dumping illegal Israeli settlers’ raw sewage into Palestinian water sources and to the heavy metal and chemical contamination from spent shells and mortars, Israel has severely injured the land it is fighting so hard to steal.

In the West Bank, the Israeli military regularly uproots olive trees and the illegal colonial settlers routinely set fires to olive and other fruit orchards. And in Gaza, the situation is worse, according to the report “Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: The Case of Gaza,” by Kelly Kimberly.

Kimberly reports that Israeli military destroyed olive, palm, figs, strawberries, and banana trees. In fact, nearly 400,000 productive trees were destroyed during Israel’s three-week offensive, Operation Cast Lead, in December 2008 and January 2009, according to Al Haq’s report, “Operation Cast Lead, A Statistical Analysis.”

In addition, thousands of acres of fertile land, once farmed by the Palestinians, has been commandeered for Israeli settlements or made into restricted buffer zones, 
thus robbing the Palestinians of more of their livelihood. The land that is left for agricultural purposes may very well be tainted with traces of heavy metals – especially in Gaza - from repeated airstrikes and shelling.

Palestinians also face dangers from polluted water sources. In the West Bank, raw sewage from the illegal Israeli settlements has been dumped into rivers that provide drinking water for the Palestinians. The river Wadi Gaza may be the worst example of such abuse. Semide-Emwis, which provides information on water resources within the Euro-Mediterranean partnership countries, reports that the river runs black with filth and sewage for miles. 

The Jordan River recently was closed for Christian baptisms because of the pollution. And in some areas the river is running dry because of the demand for water from illegal Israeli settlements. The Dead Sea has lost a third of its surface area during the last 20 years and is heavily polluted with raw sewage.

Palestinian soil is also heavily polluted. In Gaza, because of repeated shelling and airstrikes in 2006, 2008 and 2009, high levels of dangerous, toxic metals have been found in the soil. The metals include tungsten, mercury, molybdenum, cadmium, and cobalt. All these metals are said to cause tumors, cause complications with fertility, and cause serious birth defects, according to the reports by the New Weapons Research Group, an organization of independent scientists and doctors based in Italy, which studies Israel’s use of non-conventional weapons and their effects on the residents of Gaza. The NWRC research has shown that traces of dangerous metals are also found in Palestinians’ hair, showing how widespread the contamination has become.

“This, given the precarious living conditions, especially in refugee camps, increases the risk of exposure to toxic substances, through the skin, through the lungs and through ingestion,” the report states. 

The Palestinian Ministry of Health reports that incidence of birth defects in Gaza has doubled since Operation Cast Lead.