Sixty Years After the Nakba; Gaza Siege Destroying the Environment

By  Motasem Dalloul

Freelance Journalist – Gaza

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“Garbage trucks that collect the rubbish from the streets and dispose of it in dumps have been stopped because of the fuel shortage,” said Abul-Gomboz.

On the 60th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, the Gazan environment is in bad shape; scientists say this will have terrible consequences on the health of the Gazan population.There are three main causes for the environmental pollution of the Gaza Strip: the use of cooking oil as a substitute for fuel, the dumping of raw sewage into the sea, and the rubbish accumulating in the streets.

There are 15,000 taxi drivers in the Gaza Strip, who are now facing the threat of poverty and unemployment due to the severe shortage of fuel caused by the continuous Israeli blockade. As a result of this direct threat to their livelihoods, worrying about the dangers associated with running their taxis on cooking oil is a luxury they cannot afford.

“We have only two options; the better of the two is bad,” said Ali Abu-Hekma, who works as a taxi driver in Gaza.

“Either we stop working, leaving our families to starve and pull our kids out of schools and universities or we have to continue running our taxis on cooking oil and — in the process —pollute the environment,” he explained.

Some taxi drivers know the dangers involved in using cooking oil as a fuel, but they say they have no choice in the matter; others pronounce their disbelief in what the scientists are saying. “They only say this to make us stop using the cooking oil,” exclaimed Samer Hussien, another taxi driver, who has a family of nine, “they should offer us an alternative,” he added.

The strict and comprehensive Israeli siege imposed on the coastal strip has resulted in a severe shortage of fuel used to operate cars, factories, ships, and generators. “The daily requirement of fuel to operate the taxis and cars in Gaza Strip is 508,000 liters,” said Mahmoud Al-Khozondar, the spokesman of the Gaza Petrol Station Association.

“We receive a small amount of fuel, and most of the time it is intended for the electricity plant,” said Kan`an Obaid, the head of the energy authority in Gaza Strip.

Taxi drivers were compelled to find an alternative to fossil fuel in order to run their vehicles. However, municipalities of the Gaza, governorates found it difficult to take similar action and instead decided to stop working altogether.

“Garbage trucks and sewage pumps were all stopped because of the shortage of fuel,” said Monther Abul-Gomboz, the head of the Environment Department in the Municipality of Gaza.

“But around 3,000 fishermen working at the primitive Gaza harbor preferred to follow in the footsteps of the taxi drivers,” declared Nezar Ayyash, the head of the Gaza Fishermen Syndicate.

A Deadly Fuel

If you walk around the Gaza streets, you will be compelled to wear a mask if you want to avoid breathing in toxins emitted from the burning rubbish.

The Islamic University’s Chemistry Department in Gaza held an urgent seminar to discuss the negative effects on the environment resulting from the use of cooking oil by taxis as well as other engines. They concluded that it is harmful to the environment and that it could possibly have a direct effect on human health as well.

“The use of cooking oil to run engines results in incomplete burnt residuals that directly pollute the environment and may also have a direct effect on humans,” said Dr. Ahmed Thabet, an attendee of the seminar.

Dr. Hussien Ashoor, the associate director of Al-Shefa hospital, agrees, “Recently, the number of patients coming to the hospital complaining of asthma has increased.”

“We believe this to be caused by the new chemical particles in the air, and we advise them to put on masks when they walk outside,” he added.

A press release by the Ministry of Health confirms Ashoor’s statement. In addition, the ministry announced its alarm at the use of cooking oil as a fuel by several working sectors including taxi drivers. “It is a dangerous issue, and we anxiously look forward to solving the problem of the increasing use of cooking oil by all working sectors.”

“The burning of Biofuel emits toxins and unsaturated fatty acids that are considered to be very harmful to the human body,” said Thabet.

“The resulting compounds reach the nucleus of human cells, especially the DNA, and attack the genes responsible for cell division, turning them into rebellious cells.”

In a statement to warn people of the dangers of using cooking oil as a fuel, the Palestinian Ministry of Health said. “We are very concerned about the use of cooking oil as a means to run transportation, ships, and some pumps, because it has been scientifically proven to contain dangerous pre-cancerous substances.”

Toxic Chemicals Dumped Into the Sea

“People here are living a very difficult life that does not even reach the lowest standards of humanity.”

In addition to pollution of the air, the Gaza population is also suffering from pollution of the sea. Officials in the Gaza Water Authority say they are forced to allow between 45,000 to 50,000 cubic meter of raw sewage to be poured into the Gaza seashores daily.

Based on the press release of the Gaza Water Authority regarding this issue, the Al-Dameer Human Rights Organization in Gaza, declared that because of the pollution, “Sea life and swimmers are facing a real danger.”

“The toxic chemicals are causing two adverse effects on people: The first is an itching sensation in the eyes that occurs directly after contact of the eye with the polluted water and the other is symptoms of enteric fever that appear later on,” said Yahya Abu-Obaid, the head of the Environmental Department of the Gaza Water Authority.

According to Abu-Obaid, when the organic materials in the raw sewage decompose in a body of water, it depletes the dissolved oxygen level needed to support aquatic life thus threatening the livelihood of the Gaza fishermen. Disease causing bacteria and viruses also enter the water which can have serious consequences on human health.

When Reyad Ishrafi, a 47-year-old fisherman, heard about this, he said, “I have the worst job, I face dangers from all sides!” Nevertheless, he said he wouldn’t stop fishing even if he had to face the risk of death.

“I don’t care about any of the things they say, I invite the entire world to come and witness the misery we live here in Gaza,” said the fisherman who sometimes operates his fishing felucca on cooking oil.

“I have 12 members in my family; three of them are university students and the others go to school,” he said. “Where can I get their expenses from?”

“We don’t care about any of this. We only care that our kids are opening their mouths and saying ‘Food! Food!'”

As for the causes of raw sewage being dumped into the sea, Abu-Obaid said, “Since the Strip suffers from a shortage of fuel, we are unable to run all three sewage processing plants. Two have been completely shut down and the third works only sporadically.”

The third sewage processing plant is a modern one that is operated by electricity. At present, it is in jeopardy of blackouts.

Garbage Piling Up

Raw sewage is being dumped directly into the sea.

Another threat to the Gaza environment is the piles of rubbish accumulating in the streets. If you walk around the Gaza streets, you will be compelled to wear a mask if you want to avoid breathing in toxins emitted from the burning rubbish.“Garbage trucks that collect the rubbish from the streets and dispose of it in dumps have been stopped because of the fuel shortage,” explained Abul-Gomboz.

“Sometimes we use donkey carts to carry out the task,” he continued. “However, garbage is accumulated everywhere since the steps taken aren’t sufficient enough.”

“This also has a very negative consequence, not only on asthmatic patients, but on all people in general,” added Dr. Ashoor.

“The only solution to all of this is the release of the required amount of fuel needed for the different municipalities so they can carry out their work efficiently,” asserted Abul-Gomboz.

Collective Punishment

Appeals from around the world have been launched calling on Israel to lift the siege.

According to Zekra Ajjour, a human rights activist in Gaza, “All of these actions are considered violations of the human rights accords and declarations.”“These actions violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, as they are considered to be a collective punishment,” she said.

Destroying the Gaza environment is also a violation of the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, which says, “Man has the fundamental right to an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.”

In regards to the environment, the Declaration says, “The natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, land, flora and fauna and especially representative samples of natural ecosystems, must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations.”

Ajjour added that the UN issued a Special Resolution, 52/20/1997, which says that Israel as an occupying power must not deplete or harm the natural resources in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and that the Palestinians have the right to ask for compensation if this was to happen.

Humanitarian Appeals

Appeals from around the world have been launched calling on Israel to lift the siege and for all countries to pressure Israel into easing the life of the Gazan population.

Jamal Al-Khodary, head of the Popular Committee for Lifting the Gaza Siege and an independent Palestinian Legislative Council member, said, “We appeal to all those who call for freedom in the world to come and witness the misery in the Gaza Strip.”

“People here are living a very difficult life that does not even reach the lowest standards of humanity,” he said.

The Al-Dameer human rights organization said that what is happening in the Gaza Strip is a collective punishment. They call for “an international movement to be taken to protect the people of the strip before a tragedy occurs.”

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