Impact of Israeli strike in Gaza akin to chemical weapons, NGO report finds

Bethan McKernan & Hazem Balousha

The Guardian  /  May 30, 2022

 Shells fired at agrochemical warehouse created toxic plume that has left residents with health problems.

An Israeli airstrike on an agrochemical warehouse during last year’s war in Gaza amounted to the “indirect deploying of chemical weapons”, according to a report analysing the attack and its impact.

Incendiary artillery shells fired by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) hit the large Khudair Pharmaceutical and Agricultural Tools warehouse in the north of the Gaza Strip on 15 May last year, setting fire to hundreds of tons of pesticides, fertilizers, plastics and nylons. The strike created a toxic plume, which engulfed an area of 5.7 sq km and has left local residents struggling with health issues, including two reports of miscarriages, and indications of environmental damage.

The extensive investigation, which involved analysing mobile phone and drone footage and CCTV, dozens of interviews with residents, and analysis from munitions and fluid dynamics experts, used 3D modelling of the warehouse to determine the circumstances of the attack.

It is the first publication by Palestinian human rights NGO Al-Haq’s newly established forensic architecture investigation unit, a first-of-its-kind collaboration in the Middle East with Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, which carries out spatial and media analysis for NGOs and in international human rights cases.

Legal experts concluded from Al-Haq’s findings that while conventional weapons were used in the bombing, “the shelling of the warehouse, with knowledge of the presence of toxic chemicals stored therein, is tantamount to chemical weapons through indirect means. Such acts are clearly prohibited … and prosecutable under the Rome Statute of the international criminal court”.

Chris Cobb-Smith, a munitions expert, is quoted as saying: “There is no military justification for [advanced smoke projectiles] to be used here. It is inherently inaccurate and unsuitable for use in an urban environment.”

Two hundred and fifty six people in Gaza and 14 in Israel died in the 11-day war last May between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the besieged strip. Al-Haq said the strike on the Khudair warehouse was the first in a series of attacks deliberately targeting Gaza’s economic and industrial infrastructure, with half a dozen other factories and warehouses systematically bombed.

The international criminal court (ICC) opened an investigation in 2019 into war crimes allegedly committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in Palestinian territory. Israel disputes the ICC’s jurisdiction.

The IDF said in a statement that in response to the onslaught of attacks by Hamas, Israel had “carried out a series of strikes on legitimate military targets in the Gaza Strip” last year during what in Israel is known as Operation Guardian of the Walls.

 “The IDF takes all possible precautions to avoid harming civilians during operational activity,” a spokesperson said, adding that “the event in question” was being investigated by an internal IDF inquiry “to examine whether there were any deviations from the binding rules and make necessary adjustments based on lessons learned”.

Israa Khudair, 20, who lives with her husband and two children 40 metres away from the site of the agrochemical warehouse, suffered a miscarriage in the fifth month of her pregnancy, eight weeks after the attack.

“For months the smell was unbearable, like a car engine mixed with burnt oil, sewage and cooking gas, so of course we knew it could be harmful,” said her husband, Ihab, 26.

“I have had skin rashes since and so have most people here. We washed the house five times, and the furniture, but the smell stayed. It was like an oil on the walls … eventually in the winter the rain washed a lot of it away from the rubble of the warehouse.

“We are worried for our health now. One of my cousins, who is only 19, and my aunt also, got cancer recently and we think it is related to what happened here.”

Last year’s fighting was the third round of full-scale conflict between the Israeli state and Hamas since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, after which Israel and Egypt imposed a punishing blockade. Since then, the strip’s water, sewage and electricity infrastructure have all but collapsed, leaving Gaza’s 2 million residents struggling to deal with increasing levels of air, soil and water pollution.

Al-Haq, which operates in Gaza and the West Bank, has also come under attack from the Israeli authorities: last year, the NGO was one of six leading civil society and human rights organizations working in the occupied Palestinian territories designated as a terrorist organization. The decision has been widely condemned by the UN, western governments and prominent international organizations such as Amnesty International.

Rula Shadeed, the head of Al-Haq’s monitoring and documentation department, said in a statement: “Without our professional documentation based on legal standards [Palestinians] cannot call for accountability and justice. Introducing new methodologies to enhance and complement the standard documentation and presentation of our work is very crucial.

“We are very proud that despite the illegal attacks and difficult times Palestinian civil society is facing, we still manage to continue and advance in our work, due to our strong belief in the importance of exposing the violations against our people and to hold perpetrators accountable.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Hazem Balousha in Gaza City