Amid the dangers that humans pose to the environment and the earth's climate, Russia’s war in Ukraine is making its own contribution.
“The war in Ukraine is poisoning the nation’s air, water and soil, with environmental-health experts saying pollutants released by the continuing assault could take years to clean up,” The Wall Street Journal reported last month.
And the head of the Center for International Environmental Law, Caroll Muffet, told NPR that the environmental damage could “continue long after the shells have stopped exploding, long after the bullets and the guns have ceased.”
Such statements seem obvious, and it’s clear that the massive dangers extend beyond Ukraine and include Gaza and the Israeli attacks on it over the past 20 years, even if the international and especially the Israeli media have been paying little attention.
During the fighting between Israel and Hamas a year ago, Israeli shells ignited hundreds of tons of pesticides, seeds, fertilizers, other chemicals, nylon and plastic sheeting, and plastic piping in a warehouse in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia. Fifty tons were of hazardous substances.
In the hour after the shelling, foul-smelling smoke spread over 5.7 square kilometers (2.2 square miles), including Beit Lahia’s agricultural areas and the crowded Jabalya refugee camp. According to a fluid dynamics expert whom Al-Haq consulted, hazardous substances in the air surpassed permissible exposure levels. Also, several of the toxic emissions have the potential to amplify each other's impacts, he says.
These findings are included in a study by the Palestinian organization Al-Haq, the leading group providing information to the International Criminal Court in The Hague on alleged Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity.
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The investigation, which lasted five months, was carried out by a new investigative unit at Al-Haq that received assistance from the Forensic Architecture center at the University of London, directed by Israeli professor Eyal Weizman. The multidisciplinary center investigates crimes, human rights violations and institutional violence around the world.
Al-Haq intentionally devoted the first investigation by its own forensic architecture unit to an attack that is still directly endangering the environment. The investigators analyzed security-camera and drone footage, online press coverage, interviews, wind-direction and speed data, time and area measurements based on the smoke's shadow, and a 3D model of the warehouse.
The Beit Lahia warehouse, owned by the Al-Khudair Pharmaceuticals and Agricultural Tools Company, is the largest of its kind in the Gaza Strip. Just before the attack, it contained about half of all such products that were in use in Gaza, including about 40 types of pest-control substances and fertilizers.
On the evening of May 15, 2021, in the eight minutes between 5:48 and 5:56 P.M., six incendiary canisters from M150 projectiles produced by Israeli company Elbit Systems hit the warehouse. They were found later by field researchers from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
According to the Al-Haq investigation, the warehouse burned for about six hours, producing a toxic, foul-smelling cloud for at least four days. The stench plagued local residents for about four months.
The shells, known as advanced 155mm smoke projectiles, were fired from an artillery cannon. Every shell contains five canisters, so the army fired at least two shells at the warehouse.
A British munitions expert, Chris Cobb-Smith, told Al-Haq that these shells are used to produce smokescreens to mask the movement of ground troops. Since ground forces weren't used in last year's war, there was no military justification for the use of the M150 artillery, he says.
“It is inherently inaccurate and unsuitable for use in an urban environment,” he says.
Among the materials hit was 18,000 liters of toxic and flammable Kontos insecticide, a liquid that emits hydrogen cyanide when it burns. An expert on liquid dynamics, Salvador Navarro-Martinez of Imperial College London, found that several hundred meters from the warehouse, the concentrations of sulfur dioxide and phosphorous pentoxide crossed Acute Emergency Level 2, indicating a high risk of irreversible damage to human health.
This is why Al-Haq calls the Israeli shelling “chemical warfare by indirect means.”
Residents of the area said they suffered from diarrhea, vomiting and intense stomach pain after the attack. Two women from the Al-Khudair family who live near the warehouse told Al-Haq they miscarried after enduring severe pain. According to a November study by the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, other residents said they suffered from rashes and skin irritation for extended periods after the shelling.
Drone footage by the independent Ain Media group in Gaza and other photographs don’t show any Palestinian military activity near the warehouse before the attack, and the Israeli army didn’t report the shelling, or any shelling by it nearby.
Haaretz asked the Israel Defense Forces' Spokesperson's Unit whether the warehouse was considered a target and whether the environmental damage caused was considered proportionate with the military gains. The unit was also asked whether the decision to use incendiary munitions was deliberate or the result of negligence.
Haaretz also asked if, in the event of an international criminal investigation, the military advocate general could provide visual and other substantial evidence that would justify the shelling. The spokesperson's unit did not directly answer these and other questions but provided the following response:
“The IDF has been examining various events from Operation Guardian of the Walls to determine whether the binding rules were violated, and to draw lessons. Exceptional incidents during the operation that are known from various sources have been sent for examination by the General Staff’s investigation system, which works independently and professionally to clarify the facts to the greatest extent. The incident inquired about is being examined.”
Al-Haq says the attack deliberately targeted civilian economic and industrial infrastructure in Gaza. According to the United Nations, just Al-Khudair Pharmaceuticals and Agricultural Tools alone sustained $13 million in damages.
Al-Haq adds that in the days after the shelling, the IDF shelled at least six other Palestinian plants – including plants producing paint, sponges and plastic piping – and these attacks also released toxic substances into the air. Al-Haq adds that the choice of flammable, imprecise munitions proves that military considerations were not in play.
Responding to this allegation, the spokesperson’s unit said: “The IDF does not direct its attacks at civilians and acts to reduce harm to them while attacking military targets.”
Al-Haq is one of the six Palestinian rights groups that Israel deemed terrorist organizations last year. Al-Haq says the inauguration of the research unit and the publication of the study show that the group isn't being deterred by Israeli efforts to silence it. It will continue to try to bring to justice Israelis responsible for any war crimes against the Palestinian people.