Photographs of military armored vehicles uprooting and crushing trees and vegetation within the Gaza Strip are not foreign to Israelis, but what is less widely known is that since 2014 Palestinian fields are also being razed through the use of herbicides sprayed from the air — as first publicized by the website 972. Officially, the spraying is only done on the Israeli side of the fence, but as Palestinian farmers on the other side, along with the Red Cross, have testified, the resulting damage can be seen deep inside Palestinian territory.
“The air spraying is carried out only over the territory of the State of Israel, along the security obstacle on the border of the Gaza Strip,” the Defense Ministry told Haaretz. “It is carried out by legally approved spraying companies, in accordance with the provisions of the Plant Protection Law, 5716-1956 and the regulations thereunder, and is identical to the aerial spraying carried out throughout the State of Israel.”
The IDF Spokesman said, “The spraying is done using standard material used in Israel and in other countries, which causes existing vegetation to wither and prevents the growth of weeds. The spraying is carried out near the fence and does not cross into the Gaza Strip.”
However, the standard material used in Israel is intended to assist farmers to grow their cash crops. In Gaza, it’s destroying crops.
M., 67, a resident of the Shujaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, inherited some 60 dunams (15 acres) of land east of the city. He leases out most of it, he told Haaretz, and some 30 farmers make a living from it. This year he noticed the crop dusters while on his land, in early February and early March. He was under the impression that they were spraying inside Gaza territory. That’s also what H, another farmer from Shujaiyeh, who cultivates 19 dunams, thought when he saw the spray planes in early January.
This could have been an optical illusion, as both the Defense Ministry and the IDF insist the spraying is only done in Israeli territory. “Flight regulations forbid us to fly over Gaza territory,” a civilian aviation source stressed. But the damage that was done to the crops of both Shujaiyeh farmers immediately after the sprayings they witnessed was very real. M. estimates that he suffered $7,000 in losses, while H. puts his losses at $10,000. The two hoped to get compensation from the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry, whose representatives came to assess the damage, but they got nothing. Both say that they also suffered damage from spraying in 2015 and in 2017.
In 2015, their neighbors on the other side of the fence also got a taste of the problem. On November 16 of that year, a field in Kibbutz Nahal Oz was sprayed from the air about a month after wheat was sown. The spraying was ordered by the Gaza Division for operational purposes. As a result, some 50 dunams of wheat withered and died. Moreover, because of the toxicity, the kibbutz couldn’t plant watermelons the following season as planned.
The kibbutz demanded compensation of NIS 85,000 from the Defense Ministry. The claim was rejected on the grounds that since the area was adjacent to the security fence the kibbutz was already getting compensation for it. In the end the Defense Ministry paid the kibbutz 61,900 shekels (around $16,000) under a compromise agreement.
But the sprayed material does not recognize the fence or the border. It is carried by the wind westward, deep into the Strip. The Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza documents the spraying and investigates the damage caused to farmers. The Palestinian Agriculture Ministry estimates that since 2014, some 14,000 dunams of agricultural land in Gaza has been damaged by the spraying, and crops like spinach, okra, corn, parsley, wheat, peas and barley all were irreparably damaged. The ministry also estimated that some 8,200 dunams of pasture land have been damaged this year by the spraying. The spraying is carried out between October and January and in February and March, using three herbicides: glysophate, the main one, as well as oxyfluorfen and diuron.
Eight Palestinian farmers filed claims in Israel, seeking compensation for the damage caused to their land by spraying in October 2014. The claims were filed in June 2016 through Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Al-Mezan, and Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. In November 2017 the Defense Ministry rejected the claims for three reasons. The first: In accordance with the Civil Damages Order, the state is not liable for damage to the residents of the Gaza Strip. The second is that the spraying is carried out because of an operational need deriving from hostile terrorist activity in the area, making it a war action that gives the state immunity from damage claims. The third reason was that the claim had been filed too late.
Much of what is known about the herbicide-spraying practices near the Gaza Strip was obtained as part of Gisha’s deliberations with the IDF Spokesman and the Defense Ministry based on the Freedom of Information Law. Gisha had to petition the court because a large part of the information was not provided immediately or was said to be unavailable. This process revealed which herbicides are being used (glysophate is the main one), that the Gaza Division decides on the sprayings, and that to carry them out the Defense Ministry has contracted with civilian aviation firms Telem Aviation and Chim-Nir. This is also how the damage claim by Nahal Oz was discovered, and the fact that the Agriculture Ministry is not involved in these sprayings.
On January 7 of this year a hearing was held on Gisha’s petition in Tel Aviv District Court, during which Judge Judith Stoffman was shown classified material and decided that information about the areas being sprayed should not be revealed. But there is plenty of evidence about this from the field. One prominent witness is the Red Cross. As a rule, this organization rarely gives information to the media, but with regard to the spraying it explicitly confirms Palestinian claims that the spraying harms fields far from the border fence.
“According to our observations, including a chemical analysis of the herbicides in an Israeli laboratory, crops as far as 2,200 meters from the border fence were damaged by the herbicides”, the Red Cross wrote to Haaretz. “Some of the crops located between 100 and 900 meters were completely destroyed, including in some of the areas rehabilitated by the ICRC. [as part of a project to renew the earning capacity of farmers on land damaged by IDF attacks – A.H.] Irrigation pools located within one kilometer were also contaminated. The chemicals used for spraying stay in the soil for months and even years, and may have negative health consequences for people who consume contaminated crops and/or inhale the herbicide.
The Red Cross message is clear. The damage goes beyond the immediate economic damage caused by the loss of the crops; the spraying has far-reaching health implications.
The main herbicide used for spraying near the Gaza Strip is glysophate. While it is the most widely used herbicide in the world, including in Israel, it may have a long-term, adverse effect on health.
In fact, Adalah had already made this argument in 2004, when it petitioned the High Court of Justice to demand that Israel stop spraying crops planted by Bedouin communities in the Negev. There, too, glyphosate was used, and Adalah submitted an opinion by agronomists about the health risks.
The state argued that the Bedouin were trespassing on state land and that other means of removing them had failed. It also claimed that glyphosate was safe. In 2007, however, the High Court accepted the petition and stressed the concern about the harm to people and flocks.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as potentially carcinogenic. However, less than a year ago, the European Commission determined that there is no scientific or legal basis for banning its use, and that its decision in the beginning of 2017 to continue using it for another five years was justified. Many European environmental experts were critical of this decision, however.
Haaretz asked the IDF and the Defense Ministry whether there is any prior coordination with Palestinian farmers or any civilian bodies prior to the sprayings. The IDF Spokesman said the spraying “is done in coordination with the [Israeli] communities adjacent to the fence and Red Cross officials in the Gaza Strip.”
The Red Cross, however, explicitly told Haaretz that it “is not involved in any coordination mechanism related to herbicide spraying.” The organization added that to the best of its knowledge, “The farmers in Gaza are not informed about the spraying in advance. On one occasion, in 2016, following the request by the Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza, the ICRC, as a neutral intermediary, approached the Israeli authorities, who communicated the timing of spraying for the season of January to April 2016. We forwarded this information to the Ministry of Agriculture.
“We have clearly and repeatedly expressed our concerns to the Israeli authorities about the economical and environmental damage the spraying is causing, and the potential consequences for public health. We have repeatedly urged them to explore alternative options of herb-control in the border area that would prevent unnecessary damage to Gaza crops and offered our advise and mediation.
In its response to Haaretz, the Red Cross also stated that, “the above does neither minimize, nor justify in any possible way the threat to which Israeli citizens in the border areas are subjected to, against their physical and economical security. Israeli farmers are suffering considerable losses due to fires caused by the burning kites.”
The IDF Spokesman told Haaretz that the spraying “Is part of a list of actions taken in recent years to allow exposure in the perimeter area. Exposure in the region has high operational importance and greatly helps preserve security in these regions. The choice of this operation was made after repeated attempts with a variety of other means to deal with the thicket in the perimeter area without satisfactory results.”
The ever-expanding "buffer zone"
But “perimeter” is a flexible term that describes an undefined region. Gisha is about to publish the results of an investigation examining the “buffer zone” Israel has set up inside the Gaza Strip and along its coast, in which it prohibits or restricts movement and economic activity (agriculture and fishing).
According to this research, the size of the buffer zone changes constantly, and is defined by the firing of soldiers at those entering it and by repeated actions of destroying vegetation and trees with heavy tools. The IDF Spokesman did not answer Haaretz questions about the width of the buffer zone.
The economic impact of the buffer zone is substantial. Gaza farmers refrain from planting more profitable crops, because the possible economic damage caused by spraying will be greater. The spraying also caused losses to beekeepers, and exceptional damage was caused to shepherds, many of whom are women for whom shepherding is their way to add to the family income.
This is how, on grounds of security, Israel is carrying out undeclared economic warfare in the area, which in the longer term will also cause direct damage to the environment and to the health of people and animals.