Israeli Army Not Spraying Harmful Herbicides at Gaza Border for First Time in Five Years

Chemicals have destroyed Gaza farmers’ crops and inflicted financial and environmental damage ■ Army says it's trying to reduce range of effects

A Palestinian farmer loads grapes on a truck at a farm in the southern Gaza Strip July 2, 2019.
REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

For the first time since 2014, so far this year the army hasn’t carried out aerial spraying of herbicides on the Gaza border. In previous years, the Defense Ministry leased planes several times every fall and spring to ensure that troops along the border had a good field of vision into the Strip and to make it harder for Gazans to cross the fence into Israel.

As reported by Haaretz a year ago, the spraying destroyed about 14,000 dunams (3,500 acres) of crops and pastureland over around five years and caused major economic losses to hundreds of Palestinians who make a living from crops and livestock. In recent weeks, Palestinian farmers have reported that this season they’ve been spared the major damage caused by the spraying.

The last time such spraying damaged crops and fields was December 3. About a month later, the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza and the Gisha and Adalah rights groups asked Israeli officials to stop the practice. Their letter, which was sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his capacity as defense minister, as well as to Military Advocate General Sharon Afek and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, was preceded by similar requests by the rights groups and unsuccessful court action seeking compensation for the farmers suffering thousands of dollars in losses every year.

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But this time around, in a March 6 letter, the legal adviser to the army’s Southern Command, Amit Shuchnazky, assured the three organizations that “the officials in charge of the spraying are taking steps designed to limit the range of its effect.”

The spraying, he wrote, was “being carried out at very low altitude, so the lower part of the spray plane is just a few meters above the ground.” Shuchnazky added that a chemical was being used that limits the spread. As a result, “we have not found any deficiencies with the spraying, the chemical used for this purpose or the conditions in which it is being carried out.”

And since December, the army hasn’t sprayed at all in the area.

‘Operational necessity’

In their contacts with the army, including their most recent request, the rights groups complained that the spraying, which has been done without warning the Palestinian farmers and shepherds, has caused disproportionate financial and environmental damage, as well as harm to public health.

One of the three herbicides that has been used is Roundup, a glyphosate declared carcinogenic by the World Health Organization, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a number of European countries allow its use. In 2007, Israel’s Supreme Court barred similar punitive spraying of agricultural fields that were being farmed by residents of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev.

Since 2016, an agronomist has been enlisted to advise the army in its spraying along Gaza, as was apparent in the response to a freedom of information request by Gisha. The agronomist has requested anonymity, but according to the response, the spraying was done by Chim-Nir, a commercial aviation company.

The army’s herbicide spraying has come on top of Israel’s use in the past 19 years of heavy equipment to uproot trees and foliage, and the flattening of a wide area of land inside the Gaza enclave along the border, creating a wide strip of desolation. The army says this was necessary to expand its field of vision from the Israeli side of the border.

In his reply, Shuchnazky, the legal adviser, said the aerial spraying had been done routinely as an operational necessity “required to foil destructive, hostile activity in the area,” including Gazans’ use of foliage as a cover after crossing the border fence into Israel to conceal the presence of terrorists and to lay explosives.

The army and the Defense Ministry have denied Palestinian claims that the spraying was carried out directly over agricultural fields and pastureland inside Gaza, and a source in the civilian aviation sector told Haaretz that aviation regulations bar civilian companies from flying into Gaza’s airspace.

Even if the spraying had been done from the Israeli side of the border, a new study by the research group Forensic Architecture confirms accounts by Palestinian farmers and shepherds that herbicides have spread more than 300 meters (985 feet) into the Strip.

The study examined spraying done in April 2017. In previous years the Red Cross found that crops had been damaged as far as 2.2 kilometers (1.4 miles) from the border. The spraying completely destroyed crops between 100 and 900 meters from the border fence, including areas that had been restored by the Red Cross in a project to enable farmers to again make a living from land that had been damaged in Israeli military attacks.

Last year, the Red Cross told Haaretz that irrigation pools a kilometer from the border fence had also been polluted. At the time, the Red Cross reported that chemicals sprayed in the area remained in the ground for months and even years and could damage the health of people consuming crops grown there or who breathed in the herbicides.

‘Herbicidal warfare’

The current study by Forensic Architecture comes on top of videos from April 2017 of a spray plane on the Israeli side of the border. There is also documentation from satellite photos, data on the weather and wind direction, a simulation of the chemicals’ path, laboratory tests on plants that were damaged and tests on the soil’s chemical composition. The study, entitled “Herbicidal Warfare in Gaza,” is being released this weekend.

The study found that each spraying operation created its own unique destructive signature and that even though the two planes that sprayed in 2017 had GPS devices, it was impossible to know where the poisonous chemicals would land. The concentration of the chemicals depends on wind speed and direction and the plane’s path, the report states. In the case that was investigated, the herbicide carried by the wind included a higher concentration of chemicals than is permitted by European standards, the report adds.

As far as Haaretz is aware, no tests have been carried out this year to determine if chemical residues remain in the soil and to what degree crops may still be affected.

“There is no justification or legal basis for the continued use of this destructive practice, which causes heavy, disproportionate damage,” Gisha said in a statement. “Israel must also commit to avoid aerial spraying above the Gaza fence in the future.”

Forensic architecture is a new discipline created by architect Eyal Weizman; it uses architectural tools such as modeling, maps and simulations to investigate crimes carried out by governments and other centers of power. The organization Forensic Architecture operates out of Goldsmiths, University of London.

An exhibition featuring the findings of “Herbicidal Warfare in Gaza” along with photographs, videos and simulations will be exhibited in the coming weeks at the Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah. There will also be lectures and discussions aimed at making West Bank Palestinians more familiar with what’s happening in Gaza.