The air has a deadly poison... Gaza War spoils what olive trees have repaired

Writer: Salma Arafa - Translator: Amira Gawdat
الاحد 25 فبراير 2024 | 04:30 مساءً

A picture of a Palestinian girl sitting smiling at the camera while spreading out dough at a table in front of her, recently became the talk of social media users. But, most of them did not notice the clouds of smoke covering the backdrop of the scene as a result of the ongoing bombing on Gaza Strip.

Between the tons of pollutants left by the flames of war and the solid fuel that has become Gazans' only means of cooking, the air and environment have not been spared the effects of the devastating war that has been going on for more than 3 months.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, emphasized that the war in Gaza "has serious consequences for human beings and the environment", noting that "air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity and the worsening climate crisis are some of the effects of the massive destruction caused by war".

Air Quality Decline

"Green in Arabic" used the "Plume Labs" indicator to measure air quality to compare the change in the Gaza Strip before and during the war, to discover that the air quality level in the three months preceding the events was most days proven at "acceptable", a level that indicates an average proportion of pollutants in the air.

This indicator changed completely after the outbreak of war. The air quality index declined during the period between October 7, 2023 and January 14, 2024, to “bad” and “unhealthy” levels.

Speaking to “Green in Arabic”, Yasser Abu Shanab, Director General of Environmental Protection at the Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority, said that the Israeli occupation targeted Gaza with explosives, shells and missiles, including internationally banned weapons, accusing Israel of attacking residential areas in the Strip with white phosphorus, which reacts with oxygen and results in several environmental, and health impacts starting from skin burns to death.

Heavy smoke covers Rafah's streets, Gaza- APHeavy smoke covers Rafah's streets, Gaza- AP

"Abu Shanab" noted that phosphorus contact with land creates a 150 m burning circle, ending with the elimination of living organisms in that area, as well as the burning of vegetation and cultivated areas.

He also drew attention to the movement of dust from war weapons, beyond the limits of the area targeted, to be inhaled by the inhabitants of remote areas, stressing that air pollution is "trans-boundary", and therefore gases and vapors resulting from the continuous bombardment reach the surrounding countries.

Destruction affects olive trees

Destruction has affected the majority of the strip's cultivated areas, including olive trees. This reduces the percentage of oxygen needed for air purification, thus changing the components of air quality recipes in Gaza, according to the Director General of Environmental Protection of the Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority.


“Abu Shanab” pointed out the paradox between what is happening in Gaza Strip and the world’s interest in the issue of climate change and environmental protection, saying: “The countries that call for reducing emissions are the same ones that support the Israeli occupation, and prevent cessation of the massacres against the Palestinian environment and the Palestinian human being.”

He continued that the measures demanded by developed countries in order to protect the environment are supposed to have the primary goal of preserving humans, describing what is happening in Gaza Strip currently as “killing the main component of the environment in Gaza, which is human.”

Tons of carbon

That paradox is already evident in a new study that tried to measure the carbon footprint of war, at a time when the world is trying to counter greenhouse gas pollution.

The study conducted by a group of British and American researchers, and published by the journal “Social Science Research Network”, revealed that the carbon footprint during the first 60 days of the war exceeded 281 thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide. This is equivalent to burning approximately 150,000 tons of coal, without taking into account other greenhouse gases such as methane. More than 99% of the carbon amounts were the result of the aerial bombardment and ground operations launched by Israel in Gaza Strip, according to the results of the study.

The true volume of emissions is likely to be much higher than the research estimates, with “Benjamin Nemark”, a lecturer at the Queen Mary College of the University of London, and a study participant, describing it as merely a "glimpse" of the larger military footprint of the war and a microcosm of huge emissions and toxic pollutants that will remain for long periods after it ends.

The study figures included calculation of the effects of aircraft, tanks and other vehicles' operation, as well as emissions from the manufacture and use of bombs, missiles and artillery weapons.

Dangerous means of survival

The quantities of fuel consumed by Israel to kill thousands since the beginning of the war have been offset by the near-total depletion of Gaza's energy sources and the transformation of the most basic daily activities into a difficult and dangerous task, after burning firewood, solid waste and furniture is the only means of cooking food and heating to cope with winter cold in the outdoors.

Last December 14 - the 69th day of the war - the World Food Program issued a report stating that 70% of the displaced people who arrived in the southern regions used firewood to prepare food.

Many Palestinians are forced to use unclean fuels to cook food- ReutersMany Palestinians are forced to use unclean fuels to cook food- Reuters

According to the Clean Cooking Alliance (a non-profit organization for the promotion of safe means of cooking), 120 megatons of climate pollutants are emitted annually by cooking on open fire or by lack of ovens, and more than 50% of the world's air-polluting black carbon emissions result from combustion of solid fuels, both for cooking and heating.

The need for cooking has forced many residents to resort to cutting down the remaining trees, and then air pollution rates have escalated with declining vegetation contributing to its purification.

Harmful gases and particles

Speaking to “Green in Arabic”, Dr. Assim Al-Khateeb, Professor at the Institute of Environmental and Aquatic Studies at Birzeit University in the West Bank, points out that firewood combustion results in harmful gases and particles pollute the air, and reliance on it depletes natural resources through the decline in green spaces, affecting biodiversity.

On the other hand, the Director General of Environmental Protection at the Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority, Yasser Abu Shanab, believes that the impact of resorting to these methods is limited on the environmental and health levels, compared to the extent of the destruction witnessed by the Strip, and they are the means available to sustain life, whether for preparing food or sterilizing water, noting that 99% of the water in Gaza is either unavailable or contaminated and unfit for drinking.

Gaza war has a serious effect on air quality- ReutersGaza war has a serious effect on air quality- Reuters

Wasted efforts

The effects of the war also mean the loss of the efforts made by many environmental institutions over many years in the Gaza Strip, and their cessation indefinitely, including afforestation efforts that contribute to air purification and removing suspended pollutants.

Maryam Al-Ja'aga, Director of The Arab Group for the Protection of Nature (APN) -a non-profit organization focusing its activities on Jordan and Palestine- points to the cessation of the organization's agricultural activities in Gaza following the outbreak of war. Israel has targeted unprecedented agricultural land with various types of internationally prohibited bombs and weapons, in addition to the direct bulldozing of land. She noted that the number of trees destroyed by Israel during this war far exceeds that destroyed during previous wars.

The organization's director promised, in her interview with "Green in Arabic", to make efforts to replant trees in the strip again, according to the organization's ability as a civil society organization, even if implementation will be carried out in several stages.

In 2000, the organization launched the Million Trees Campaign in Palestine, the third phase of which is currently being implemented with the cultivation of the third million. Gaza's share of these efforts was planting of nearly 470 thousand trees since the launch of the project with a list of objectives including the promotion of smallholder farmers' income and the protection of their land.

But during the period between 2000 and 2022, Israel destroyed at least 700,000 trees in Gaza Strip through continuous bombing during successive wars, especially in the 2009 and 2014 wars, according to “Al-Ja'aga’s” estimates.

The director of the “Arab Group for the Protection of Nature” (APN) asserts that the war prevented olive farmers from harvesting this year to benefit financially or even exploit it in light of the “famine” resulting from the siege.

Before the outbreak of war, the area planted with olive trees in Gaza Strip exceeded 4 thousands of hectares (about 11 thousand acres), but the war came to interrupt the harvest season that began in early October, according to “Mongabay” website.

The director of the “Arab Group for the Protection of Nature” (APN) noted that Palestinians suffer the worst repercussions of climate change, although their carbon emissions are limited to 0.6 tons per year, compared to 6.13 tons per year in Israel.

“Mariam al-Ja'aga” pointed out that the depletion of fuel and energy sources in the Strip was a "deliberate situation" caused by the occupation’s blockade and the targeting of solar panels and other infrastructure, which left residents with no alternatives but to use trees while watching their children die from cold weather and food insecurity.

Waste crisis

At a time when Gaza Strip is suffering from a huge waste crisis, Dr. Assim Al-Khateeb, professor at the Institute of Environmental and Water Studies, points out the danger of harmful gases that will be released into the air over time and the decomposition of waste containing chemicals, adding that the leakage of these materials into water and soil may also be transferred into the air when contaminated water evaporates, or soil components move.

“Al-Khateeb” further drew attention to the long-term effects of wars on air quality in the strip, saying that the presence of war remnants such as unexploded ordnance could pose a persistent threat and lead to long-term environmental pollution, indicating that failure to properly deal with the waste could lead to further air pollution.

Thorsten Kalnichis, a geologist and former UN expert in waste management, estimated the volume of debris covering Gaza's territory at 15 million tons, carrying dust, ash and toxic substances, according to “Grist” website.