Israel Resumes Spraying Herbicides Along Gaza Border After Yearlong Halt

The herbicides damaged 14,000 dunams of agricultural land in Gaza from 2014 through 2018, destroying all crops sown there, says Palestinian Agriculture Ministry

Hagar Shezaf
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A Palestinian farmer sprays his farm with pesticides in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on December 31, 2019.
A Palestinian farmer sprays his farm with pesticides in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on December 31, 2019.Credit: MOHAMMED ABED / AFP
Hagar Shezaf

Israel has resumed spraying herbicides along the border of the Gaza Strip, after having refrained from aerial spraying throughout 2019.

Last week, the army sprayed the border area for three days.

Credit: Forensic Architecture

From 2014 through 2018, the army regularly sprayed the border every spring and fall. The Defense Ministry said periodic spraying is necessary to destroy vegetation that obscures soldiers’ view of the area and allows "terrorists" to hide there. But last year, it suddenly stopped.

When asked why the spraying has resumed after a year’s hiatus, the ministry replied, “Aerial spraying is done from time to time based on security needs, but solely within Israel’s territory.”

According to the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry, the herbicides damaged 14,000 dunams of agricultural land in Gaza from 2014 through 2018, destroying all the crops that had been sown there. In contrast, Palestinian farmers told Haaretz that 2019, when there was no spraying, was an excellent year for them.

The Defense Ministry denied that the spraying damaged any Gazan fields. It said it only uses herbicides that are approved by the Israeli Agriculture Ministry and used by farmers on their own fields both in Israel and abroad. The ministry added that it has experts oversee the spraying.

After the spraying resumed last week, three organizations – Gisha, Adalah and Al Mezan – appealed to Defense Minister Naftali Bennett to stop it, saying there were “serious fears” that it had already harmed farmers in the area.

Anwar Jamali, a Gazan farmer whose field lies 300 meters from the border fence, said he and his fellow farmers were given no advance notice of the spraying – which was also true in previous years. “In previous years, there was major damage,” he said. “Sometimes dozens of dunams of wheat, barley and parsley were completely lost.” Jamali added that the stench of the herbicides causes people to leave the area if they can, “but the barley can’t get up and leave.”

Both the London-based research agency Forensic Architecture and Palestinian farmers agree that the spraying is indeed done over Israel. However, they said, the wind then carries the herbicides into Gaza. This claim is backed by video clips of the smoke from tires that were burned on the Israeli side just before the herbicides were sprayed.

The Defense Ministry’s contract with the company that does the spraying – a copy of which was obtained by Gisha through a freedom of information request – requires the company to run up flags and burn tires to check the wind direction before it starts spraying.

The footage that Palestinian farmers filmed last week in cooperation with Forensic Architecture shows that the wind was indeed blowing toward Gaza during the spraying, judging by the burning tires and a Palestinian flag near the border. Forensic Architecture also collected leaves from fields near the fence on January 18, and over the coming weeks, it will do laboratory tests on them to determine whether they were damaged by the spraying.

One of the agency’s researchers in Israel charged that the army “recruits” the wind for its own purposes. Given the video evidence that the wind was blowing toward Gaza, she added, there’s no way Israel can be sure where the pesticides will land.

Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories recently posted a paid Facebook post stating that the pesticides used along the border harm neither the land nor human beings. The pesticides are sprayed from low-flying planes to ensure that they go only where they’re supposed to go, it added, and the sprayers take the wind direction into account.

Shortly afterward, the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry posted a response in which it termed COGAT’s post “lies” and urged the Palestinian media not to report it.

A Forensic Architecture report from 2019 confirmed Palestinian claims that the pesticides spread into Gaza, reaching a distance of more than 300 meters from the border fence. The report integrated Palestinian testimonies, video footage of an aerial spraying from April 2017, satellite photographs, data on weather and wind direction, a simulation of the pesticides’ movement, and lab tests of both damaged leaves and the ground’s chemical composition

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