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Echoes of Civilian and Environmental Harm from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Gaza – Occupied Palestinian Territories

Echoes of Civilian and Environmental Harm from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Gaza – Occupied Palestinian Territories

In a collaboration between Airwars and CEOBS, we explore the immediate and reverberating consequences of the use of explosive weapons during the 10-day conflict in Gaza in May 2021.

Research collaboration

On Friday, November 18, more than 80 countries from around the world signed the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas (EWIPA), the first international agreement aimed at limiting the use of weapons with wide-area effects in towns and cities. . This week, Airwars is presenting new research as part of our Mapping Urban Warfare series, exploring the massive damage associated with urban warfare.

This latest project, which focuses on the Gaza Strip, was implemented in collaboration with the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), a British charity that aims to increase awareness and understanding of the environmental and humanitarian consequences of conflict and military activities.

Instant and reciprocating damage from explosive weapons

It is reported that the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with more than two million people living in an area of ​​360 square kilometers in 2021.[1] Documenting the effects of urban strikes on Gaza shows part of a disturbing contemporary pattern in which wars are waged in densely populated areas – with devastating and long-lasting consequences for local communities.

A look at an area severely affected by airstrikes during the May 2021 conflict shows the complex and lasting effects of the impacts of the strikes: Besides civilian deaths and injuries, we also show adverse environmental and socio-economic impacts, including legacies of damaged infrastructure and associated pollution.

civilian casualties

In May 2021, the brief 11-day conflict between Israel and two armed Palestinian factions was no less devastating due to the short duration of the conflict. In December 2021, Airwars published an in-depth report, “Why did they bomb us?” Civilian harm to civilians in Gaza, Syria and Israel from the use of explosive weapons” Documenting urban strikes and harm to civilians in Gaza following the escalation of violence. About 1,500 Israeli air and artillery strikes reportedly targeted militants, weapons and infrastructure, with the IDF claiming 100 militants were killed.

Airwars’ updated results, also shown through an interactive map, have identified 116 locally reported civilian events, which represents the likely death toll of at least 151 civilians from IDF strikes. Another 15 and 20 civilians were killed in Gaza as a result of rocket failures by Palestinian militants. It was reported that at least 554 Palestinians were injured in the Israeli strikes. About a third of the reported civilian casualties in these strikes were children.

Destruction of critical infrastructure

The effects of explosive weapons during the May 2021 escalation in Gaza go beyond the impact of the initial strike, causing reverberating effects including damage to critical water and sanitation infrastructure.

Of the 290 water infrastructure items damaged in the May 2021 escalation, 109 were connected to wastewater—such as sewage treatment plants and sewage pipes—according to the United Nations’ Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) cluster. The United Nations estimated that this harm affected more than a million people.

One direct impact was the outflow of untreated sewage into the streets, which can be seen across the strip Social media, inland lakes, and the Mediterranean Sea – as evidenced by satellite imagery, ground measurements by WASH cluster representatives, and media photography. Evidence also suggests that prolonged conflict, combined with untreated or partially treated sewage discharges, has exacerbated the risk of infections that cannot be treated with common antibiotics.

These incidents often occur as a result of militant targets reportedly being embedded within populated areas, the “metro” tunnel system. In its report on the May 2021 conflict, Airwars found that between 56 and 68 civilians were killed in four incidents of civilian harm where Israeli forces were said to have targeted the tunnels. Of these, at least 25 of the deaths were children.

One such incident was the deadliest event in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in May 2021. Up to 49 civilians from three different families, including up to 18 children, were killed in a series of strikes that caused two buildings to partially collapse in the early hours of on May 16, when the IDF sought to destroy a tunnel and a command center beneath it. street. Fahd Al-Haddad, an emergency medicine specialist at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, told New Arab that most of the dead who were taken to the hospital did not show any external signs of injuries, which means that they were killed by rubble that collapsed on them while they were in the hospital. still alive Footage from the event from the New York Times shows a huge crater in the street pooling with sewage.[2]

** Reverb Effects **

The effects of damage to water infrastructure persisted well after May 2021, with landslides Damage to pipelines is delayed. Six months later, temporary repairs continued to provide minimal service – but were not completed due to a funding gap and an embargo on raw materials. flash floods in january,[3] and November 2022,[4] in areas with damaged wastewater infrastructure, with damage being blamed as a contributing factor.[5] Another factor was the rainwater drains and storage ponds that were present clogged with waste – This is an example of Gaza’s solid waste and sanitation crises working hand in hand.

Under these types of conditions, where rainwater mixes with raw sewage, the health effects can be even more significant due to the uncontrolled discharge of untreated sewage. Flooding may be exacerbated in the future by climate change – heavy rainfall forecasts in the region are complex, but in general they are expected to increase with increasing warming. Conflict and the continued use of explosive weapons are reducing climate resilience in Gaza, given capacity constraints and the effectiveness of existing infrastructure.

Continued damage to the wastewater infrastructure from attacks and the use of explosive weapons in Gaza is exacerbating the aftermath of decades of conflict, in which water, sanitation and hygiene provisions fail to meet even the basic needs of the population, as outlined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Human for 2021. Report. Although positive steps have been taken recently, such as closing new treatment plants and reopening beaches due to pollution, they are highly sensitive and reversible if explosive weapons continue to damage wastewater infrastructure.

Implementation of the Political Declaration on Explosive Weapons

These overlapping effects, which resulted from the Israeli raids on Gaza in May 2021, undermine the narrative that war is possible within urban environments without causing significant civilian casualties.

Where, When, and How Civilians Were Harmed tells an important story about how the choices made by belligerents can continue to have devastating effects on civilian lives—and clearly shows why the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas must be stopped.

As states sign the Political Declaration on EWIPA, Airwars and CEOBS urge states to implement the declaration by improving national policies with robust mechanisms to protect civilians, civilian infrastructure, and the environment. This means reducing the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities, saving countless human lives and preventing environmental damage from damage to critical infrastructure and conflict-related pollution, the legacy of which could last for decades.

Georgia Edwards is Airwars Conflict Researcher, Clive Villa is Head of Open Source Research, Eoghan Darbyshire is CEOBS Researcher.

[1.] Palestinian Statistics Authority (2021).

[2.] Initial reports and follow-up investigation open source.

[3.] It has been reported internationally by Xinhua, with images from agencies like getty Images and alamy, and on social media like @icrc_ilot, @linalin72281196, and @leogoat on Twitter. The damage assessment was published by the NGO Anera.

[4.] Reported regionally in Arab News, with images from social media like @hayatyolu_en, @Arab_Storms, @ShaimaSaqr. The flood caused the resignation of a member of the Municipal Council of Gaza City, lamenting the dilapidated and outdated infrastructure.

[5.] As for the January flood, the claim that the floods were exacerbated by May 2021 damage is made by the Gaza Municipality according to the subtitle of the Middle East Eye video. Alternatively, he suggested that the floods arose in the wake of the diversion of infrastructure resources to fighting. Either way, the proximate cause is conflict. As for the November floods, a spokesperson for the Gaza municipality was quoted in The New Arab – “The main reason for the inundation of some areas was due to the destruction of infrastructure due to the Israeli aggression on the coastal enclave in 2021.”



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