Opinion

The Missing Reports on Herbicides in Gaza

So we’re destroying Palestinian crops with our spraying? What’s new here, shrugs the average Israeli and clicks to another channel

Crops damaged by Israel herbicide blowing over the border into the Gaza Strip. Crops up to 2,200 meters west of the fence are affected by the spraying, says the Red Cross.
Gisha organization

As I was working on my article about Israeli herbicide spraying in Gaza, I learned that 1948 refugees from the village of Salama are living in the village of Khuza’a. They are farmers, much as their parents and grandparents were. Back then, they grew citrus fruit, bananas and grains, and sold their crops in Jaffa as well as in Jewish communities.

We tend to associate Palestinian refugees with the refugee camps. But sometimes you get to meet some who, even in exile from their village, have managed to maintain the same type of life and livelihood – that is, to work and live off the land in the West Bank and even Gaza. The Al-Najjar family in Khuza’a is one such family.

Together with his father, Saleh al-Najjar, 53, works 60 dunams (about 15 acres) of land that they are leasing in Khuza’a. They employ three laborers, and Saleh says the five of them work 12 hours a day.

By working the land they maintain continuity, despite being refugees and having lost the lands of Salama – where Israel built Kfar Shalem. Israel, meanwhile, maintains the continuity by damaging their sources of income and their health. When people say the Nakba never ended, the Najjar family can be cited as another example. One of the millions.

Over the past four years, the Najjars – like hundreds of other farming families in the eastern part of the Gaza Strip – have learned to fear also small civilian aircraft.

In spring and fall, and sometimes in winter too, for several days the planes appear in the mornings, flying above the separation fence. But the contrails they emit are borne westward with the wind, cross the border and reach the Gazan fields. From seeing their wilted crops, the farmers have understood that the planes are spraying herbicides.

The fear of these crop dusters is even greater than of the Israeli armored vehicles that every so often trample all the vegetation west of the separation fence – because the herbicides reach further, seep into the soil and pollute the water. Crops up to 2,200 meters (7,220 feet) west of the border fence are affected by the spraying, says the Red Cross. The crops 100 to 900 meters away were totally destroyed. The irrigation pools located a kilometer away were contaminated.

The Palestinian reports about Israeli crop spraying destroying Gaza agriculture were first heard in late 2014. A figment of the imagination? In late 2015, the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson confirmed to the 972 website that crop spraying was taking place. The Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, an organization in Gaza, sent soil samples for laboratory testing. The army did not tell it what was being sprayed.

Spraying of herbicides intended to destroy crops is not the sort of thing the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit or the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories is happy to talk about or volunteer information on. Nor is it the kind of report that concerns Israelis much, not on social media or as a common subject of conversation in Israeli homes.

“So we’re destroying Palestinian crops with herbicide spraying – what else is new? We did the same thing to the Bedouin crops in the Negev (before the High Court of Justice outlawed it following a petition by Adala) and with the lands of Akraba in the 1970s. If our fine young men have decided to do it, it must be necessary,” shrugs the ordinary Israeli before clicking to the next channel. That is why I’m trying to return to the previous channel.

The IDF’s Gaza Division decides; the Defense Ministry pays the civil aviation companies to do it. The seared spinach fields and the withered parsley plants prey on my mind. Also, I think about the children of these pilots: Do they know the wind carries the chemicals their daddy sprayed, and that another daddy can’t buy his kids shoes and other things because of the crops that were destroyed due to it?

Asked to comment, the Defense Ministry says: “The spraying is carried out by properly authorized companies in accordance with the 1956 law regarding the protection of plants.” It’s true that the two civilian companies that fly crop dusters above the border fence – Chim-Nir and Telem Aviation – are recognized professionals in the field. The Defense Ministry also says: “The crop dusting is identical to that which is done throughout Israel.”

Whoever wrote that sentence is either demeaning the intelligence of his Israeli readers, or confident that they will take his word for it and not be concerned. Both are correct.

The Defense Ministry only revealed what the “identical” herbicides being used are in response to an inquiry from Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, based on the freedom of information law. The chemicals are glyphosate, oxyfluorfen and diuron.

Despite the numerous findings about the environmental and health hazards posed by glyphosate, it is still in use in Israel. But the Defense Ministry spokesperson ignores the fact that even with all the debate about how harmful these substances are to the environment and to people’s health, their purpose is to help safeguard farmers’ livelihoods – not to destroy their crops, as we are doing in Gaza.

The IDF and the Defense Ministry know these sprayed chemicals don’t recognize borders. The systematic damage to Palestinian crops through spraying is not an accident. It is deliberate. Another form of warfare against the health and welfare of Palestinians, and all under the worn-out blanket of security.