On a picturesque beach in central Gaza, a mile north of the now-flattened Al-Shati refugee camp, long black pipes snake through hills of white sand before disappearing underground. An image released by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) shows dozens of soldiers laying pipelines and what appear to be mobile pumping stations that are to take water from the Mediterranean Sea and hose it into underground tunnels. The plan, according to various reports, is to flood the vast network of underground shafts and tunnels Hamas has reportedly built and used to carry out its operations.
“I won’t talk about specifics, but they include explosives to destroy and other means to prevent Hamas operatives from using the tunnels to harm our soldiers,” said IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi. “[Any] means which give us an advantage over the enemy that [uses the tunnels], deprives it of this asset, is a means that we are evaluating using. This is a good idea…”
While Israel is already test-running its flood strategy, it’s not the first time Hamas’s tunnels have been subjected to sabotage by seawater. In 2013, neighboring Egypt began flooding Hamas-controlled tunnels that were allegedly being used to smuggle goods between the country’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. For more than two years, water from the Mediterranean was flushed into the tunnel system, wreaking havoc on Gaza’s environment. Groundwater supplies were quickly polluted with salt brine and, as a result, the dirt became saturated and unstable, causing the ground to collapse and killing numerous people. Once fertile agricultural fields were transformed into salinated pits of mud, and clean drinking water, already in short supply in Gaza, was further degraded.
Israel’s current strategy to drown Hamas’s tunnels will no doubt cause similar, irreparable damage. “It is important to keep in mind,” warns Juliane Schillinger, a researcher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, “that we are not just talking about water with a high salt content here — seawater along the Mediterranean coast is also polluted with untreated wastewater, which is continuously discharged into the Mediterranean from Gaza’s dysfunctional sewage system.”
This, of course, appears to be part of a broader Israeli objective — not just to dismantle Hamas’s military capabilities but to further degrade and destroy Gaza’s imperiled aquifers (already polluted with sewage that’s leaked from dilapidated pipes). Israeli officials have openly admitted their goal is to ensure that Gaza will be an unlivable place once they end their merciless military campaign.
“We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said shortly after the Hamas attack of October 7th. “We will eliminate everything — they will regret it.”
And Israel is now keeping its promise.
As if its indiscriminate bombing, which has already damaged or destroyed up to 70% of all homes in Gaza, weren’t enough, filling those tunnels with polluted water will ensure that some of the remaining residential buildings will suffer structural problems, too. And if the ground is weak and insecure, Palestinians will have trouble rebuilding.
Flooding tunnels with polluted groundwater “will cause an accumulation of salt and the collapse of the soil, leading to the demolition of thousands of Palestinian homes in the densely populated strip,” says Abdel-Rahman al-Tamimi, director of the Palestinian Hydrologists Group, the largest NGO monitoring pollution in the Palestinian territories. His conclusion couldn’t be more stunning: “The Gaza Strip will become a depopulated area, and it will take about 100 years to get rid of the environmental effects of this war.”
In other words, as al-Tamimi points out, Israel is now “killing the environment.” And in many ways, it all started with the destruction of Palestine’s lush olive groves.
Olives No More
During an average year, Gaza once produced more than 5,000 tons of olive oil from more than 40,000 trees. The fall harvest in October and November was long a celebratory season for thousands of Palestinians. Families and friends sang, shared meals, and gathered in the groves to celebrate under ancient trees, which symbolized “peace, hope, and sustenance.” It was an important tradition, a deep connection both to the land and to a vital economic resource. Last year, olive crops accounted for more than 10% of the Gazan economy, a total of $30 million.
Of course, since October 7th, harvesting has ceased. Israel’s scorched earth tactics have instead ensured the destruction of countless olive groves. Satellite images released in early December affirm that 22% of Gaza’s agricultural land, including countless olive orchards, has been completely destroyed.
“We are heartbroken over our crops, which we cannot reach,” explains Ahmed Qudeih, a farmer from Khuza, a town in the Southern Gaza Strip. “We can’t irrigate or observe our land or take care of it. After every devastating war, we pay thousands of shekels to ensure the quality of our crops and to make our soil suitable again for agriculture.”
Israel’s relentless military thrashing of Gaza has taken an unfathomable toll on human life (more than 22,000 dead, including significant numbers of women and children, and thousands more bodies believed to be buried under the rubble and so uncountable). And consider this latest round of horror just a particularly grim continuation of a 75-year campaign to eviscerate the Palestinian cultural heritage. Since 1967, Israel has uprooted more than 800,000 native Palestinian olive trees, sometimes to make way for new illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank; in other instances, out of alleged security concerns, or from pure, visceral Zionist rage.
Wild groves of olive trees have been harvested by inhabitants of the region for thousands of years, dating back to the Chalcolithic period in the Levant (4,300-3,300 BCE), and the razing of such groves has had calamitous environmental consequences. “[The] removal of trees is directly linked to irreversible climate change, soil erosion, and a reduction in crops,” according to a 2023 Yale Review of International Studiesreport. “The perennial, woody bark acts as a carbon sink … [an] olive tree absorbs 11 kg of CO2 per liter of olive oil produced.”
Besides providing a harvestable crop and cultural value, olive groves are vital to Palestine’s ecosystem. Numerous bird species, including the Eurasian Jay, Green Finch, Hooded Crow, Masked Shrike, Palestine Sunbird, and Sardinian Warbler rely on the biodiversity provided by Palestine’s wild trees, six species of which are often found in native olive groves: the Aleppo pine, almond, olive, Palestine buckhorn, piny hawthorne, and fig.
As Simon Awad and Omar Attum wrote in a 2017 issue of the Jordan Journal of Natural History:
“[Olive] groves in Palestine could be considered cultural landscapes or be designated as globally important agricultural systems because of the combination of their biodiversity, cultural, and economic values. The biodiversity value of historic olive groves has been recognized in other parts of the Mediterranean, with some proposing these areas should receive protection because they are habitat used by some rare and threatened species and are important in maintaining regional biodiversity.”
An ancient, native olive tree should be considered a testament to the very existence of Palestinians and their struggle for freedom. With its thick spiraling trunk, the olive tree stands as a cautionary tale to Israel, not because of the fruit it bears, but because of the stories its roots hold of a scarred landscape and a battered people that have been callously and relentlessly besieged for more than 75 years.
White Phosphorus and Bombs, Bombs, and More Bombs
While contaminating aquifers and uprooting olive groves, Israel is now also poisoning Gaza from above. Numerous videos analyzed by Amnesty International and confirmed by the Washington Post display footage of flares and plumes of white phosphorus raining down on densely populated urban areas. First used on World War I battlefields to provide cover for troop movements, white phosphorus is known to be toxic and dangerous to human health. Dropping it on urban environments is now considered illegal under international law, and Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth. “Any time that white phosphorus is used in crowded civilian areas, it poses a high risk of excruciating burns and lifelong suffering,” says Lama Fakih, director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
While white phosphorus is highly toxic to humans, significant concentrations of it also have deleterious effects on plants and animals. It can disrupt soil composition, making it too acidic to grow crops. And that’s just one part of the mountain of munitions Israel has fired at Gaza over the past three months. The war (if you can call such an asymmetrical assault a “war”) has been the deadliest and most destructive in recent memory, by some estimates at least as bad as the Allied bombing of Germany during World War II, which annihilated 60 German cities and killed an estimated half-million people.
Like the Allied forces of World War II, Israel is killing indiscriminately. Of the 29,000 air-to-surface munitions fired, 40% have been unguided bombs dropped on crowded residential areas. The U.N. estimates that, as of late December, 70% of all schools in Gaza, many of which served as shelters for Palestinians fleeing Israel’s onslaught, had been severely damaged. Hundreds of mosques and churches have also been struck and 70% of Gaza’s 36 hospitals have been hit and are no longer functioning.
A War That Exceeds All Predictions
“Gaza is one of the most intense civilian punishment campaigns in history,” claims Robert Pape, a historian at the University of Chicago. “It now sits comfortably in the top quartile of the most devastating bombing campaigns ever.”
It’s still difficult to grasp the toll being inflicted, day by day, week by week, not just on Gaza’s infrastructure and civilian life but on its environment as well. Each building that explodes leaves a lingering cloud of toxic dust and climate-warming vapors. “In conflict-affected areas, the detonation of explosives can release significant amounts of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter,” says Dr. Erum Zahir, a chemistry professor at the University of Karachi.
Dust from the collapsed World Trade Center towers on 9/11 ravaged first responders. A 2020 study found that rescuers were “41 percent more likely to develop leukemia than other individuals.” Some 10,000 New Yorkers suffered short-term health ailments following the attack, and it took a year for air quality in Lower Manhattan to return to pre-9/11 levels.
While it’s impossible to analyze all of the impacts of Israel’s nonstop bombing, it’s safe to assume that the ongoing leveling of Gaza will have far worse effects than 9/11 had on New York City. Nasreen Tamimi, head of the Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority, believes that an environmental assessment of Gaza now would “exceed all predictions.”
Central to the dilemma that faced Palestinians in Gaza, even before October 7th, was access to clean drinking water and it’s only been horrifically exacerbated by Israel’s nonstop bombardment. A 2019 report by UNICEF noted that “96 percent of water from Gaza’s sole aquifer is unfit for human consumption.”
Intermittent electricity, a direct result of Israel’s blockade, has also damaged Gaza’s sanitation facilities, leading to increased groundwater contamination, which has, in turn, led to various infections and massive outbreaks of preventable waterborne diseases. According to HRW, Israel is using a lack of food and drinking water as a tool of warfare, which many international observers argue is a form of collective punishment — a war crime of the first order. Israeli forces have intentionally destroyed farmland and bombed water and sanitation facilities in what certainly seems like an effort to make Gaza all too literally unlivable.
“I have to walk three kilometers to get one gallon [of water],” 30-year-old Marwan told HRW. Along with hundreds of thousands of other Gazans, Marwan fled to the south with his pregnant wife and two children in early November. “And there is no food. If we are able to find food, it is canned food. Not all of us are eating well.”
In the south of Gaza, near the overcrowded city of Khan Younis, raw sewage flows through the streets as sanitation services have ceased operation. In the southern town of Rafah, where so many Gazans have fled, conditions are beyond dire. Makeshift U.N. hospitals are overwhelmed, food and water are in short supply, and starvation is significantly on the rise. In late December, the World Health Organization (WHO) documented more than 100,000 cases of diarrhea and 150,000 respiratory infections in a Gazan population of about 2.3 million. And those numbers are likely massive undercounts and will undoubtedly increase as Israel’s offensive drags on, having already displaced 1.9 million people, or more than 85% of the population, half of whom are now facing starvation, according to the U.N.
“For over two months, Israel has been depriving Gaza’s population of food and water, a policy spurred on or endorsed by high-ranking Israeli officials and reflecting an intent to starve civilians as a method of warfare,” reports Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch.
Rarely, if ever, have the perpetrators of mass murder (reportedly now afraid of South Africa’s filing at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, accusing Israel of genocide) so plainly laid out their cruel intentions. As Israeli President Isaac Herzog put it in a callous attempt to justify the atrocities now being faced by Palestinian civilians, “It’s an entire nation out there that is responsible [for October 7th]. This rhetoric about civilians not aware, not involved, it’s absolutely not true. They could’ve risen up, they could have fought against that evil regime.”
The violence inflicted on Palestinians by an Israel backed so strikingly by President Biden and his foreign policy team is unlike anything we had previously witnessed in more or less real-time in the media and on social media. Gaza, its people, and the lands that have sustained them for centuries are being desecrated and transformed into an all too unlivable hellscape, the impact of which will be felt — it’s a guarantee — for generations to come.
This article has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.
Joshua Frank is an award-winning California-based journalist and co-editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the new book Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America (Haymarket Books).
Palestinians search for survivors in the rubble following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah in October, 2023. (Anas-Mohammed/ Shutterstock)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
keep readingShow less
Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
keep readingShow less
Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.