Gazans recycle bomb wreckage to rebuild their lives, but the rubble is toxic

Extracting and reusing damaged infrastructure has become a common business in the war-ravaged coastal enclave

A Palestinian man clears rubble from a building, damaged by an Israeli airstrike launched in response to rocket fire, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 2, 2019. Dozens of strikes hit the Palestinian enclave in the early hours today, targeting bases of the strip's Islamist rulers and allied groups, a security source in Gaza said.
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During Israel's 51-day offensive on Gaza in 2014, more than 2,200 Palestinian lives were lost. But the rain of rocket fire did more than wipe out scores of civilians.

The war generated 2.5 million tons of solid waste, consisting primarily of debris from buildings bombed by Israeli jets.

In the aftermath of the violence, Gazans have tried to rehabilitate their lives by recycling the rubble – a practice risen out of necessity but leaving many in poor health.

In a region of the Middle East faced with heavy bombardment and an Israeli-imposed blockade limiting construction materials, Gazans are left with little options to rebuild. Extracting and reusing metal and concrete from damaged infrastructure to repair roads, homes and the coastal territory’s harbour has become a common business in the war-ravaged coastal enclave.

“The public are using these materials to rebuild because it’s cheaper than the imports and available when the imports are prevented,” Dr Ahmed Hilles, chairman of the National Institute for Environment and Development and an expert with the Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority (EQA), said.

This kind of recycling not only helps Gazans restore their lives, but also earns them a quick buck.

“The unemployment in the Gaza Strip pushes people to go this direction,” Dr Hilles said.

The earnings from this work fluctuate depending upon the type of material and how much waste has accumulated, but some individuals can earn 1,000 shekels (almost $300) from the labour. Despite the tempting profit the job offers, Dr Hilles explained that it comes with significant health costs.

“All of them suffer from health problems and some of the people die because they are working in dangerous areas and in dangerous conditions,” Dr Hilles said. “I found many of these people are suffering from complicated problems with inhalation and their respiratory system as a whole is collapsed and completely destroyed.”

Dr Hilles explained that respiratory issues stem from dust inhalation, and that the crushing of concrete can be a critical culprit.  A 2015 study found that cement factory employees in Gaza frequently suffered from cough, phlegm build-up and difficulty breathing. Additionally, demolishing facilities, which specialise in breaking down the building remnants, “produc[e] thousands of tons of toxic dust annually.”

Dr Hilles emphasised that the chemicals in Israeli weapons used to bomb Gaza can then seep into the aquifers and soil, contaminating water and wildlife.

A report published by the Ma’an Development Centre, an NGO based in the occupied West Bank, after the conflict indicated a significant presence of heavy metals in the groundwater and soil.

After Israel’s military offensive in 2012, known as Operation Pillar of Defence, “chemical testing of heavy metals in 157 municipal water wells in the Gaza Strip…showed a serious level of contamination with strontium and chromium.”

Strontium can cause bone disorders and bone cancer and chromium also contains cancerous properties and may cause DNA damage.

Yet Dr Hilles cautioned that Gaza lacks the appropriate tools in order to conduct proper testing. In lieu of appropriate testing methods, the EQA requested the UN Environmental Programme investigate after the 2008-2009 Gaza War.

“Their report confirmed the contamination of the destroyed buildings with major pollutants of asbestos, zinc, and hydrocarbons,” Dr Khalid Qahman, assistant chairman of the EQA, said of the UNEP’s findings.

A 2017 Gaza Situation report highlighted that asbestos exposure can cause skin irritation. According to Dr Hilles, workers have experienced skin problems – some due to handling extracted metals.

About 15,000 cancer cases have been documented in Gaza as of 2017. Dr Hilles believes these cancer cases and other health issues Gazans suffer from are related to the enclave’s worsening environmental conditions. And he sees Israel as responsible in creating those conditions.

“The health status that we live here in Gaza is a direct reflection and product from the environmental situation, which is systematically targeted by the Israeli occupation,” Dr Hilles said.