As Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza continues—with nearly 20,000 dead, more than two-thirds women and children—much of the world is holding its breath in anticipation of some kind of longer-term cessation of the violence.

Sadly, however, the quieting of the bombs and guns will merely mark the end of one chapter of Gaza’s suffering. It is unclear where the 1.2 million Gazans who are now displaced—80 percent of the population—will live. Carpet bombing has rendered most of the territory’s major urban areas all but uninhabitable. But even if the matter of shelter is resolved, there is a graver problem in Gaza’s future: its environmental resources are being poisoned, depleted, or otherwise destroyed, and may take generations to recover.

Any lasting peace in Gaza will need to go beyond a ceasefire and political solution, difficult as the latter may be to attain. Peace will also require environmental justice. As the United States and other global powers try to steer Israel and Hamas toward a resolution of the current conflict, they will also have to reckon with the need not only for a restoration of prewar resources, but vast improvements to the protection of Palestine’s environment—in both Gaza and the West Bank.

A failure to achieve environmental justice for Palestine will not only deepen Gazans’ suffering. It will also spill across boundaries and borders and affect Israel: environmental catastrophe does not require a passport to travel.


Since the start of the conflict in Gaza, Israel has prioritized using resources, such as water and gas, as weapons. It has also targeted the environment by destroying essential infrastructure. For instance, during the first days of the war, Israel immediately limited water, electricity, and fuel supplies to Gaza. Electricity and fuel are essential for water pumps and desalination. The majority of water supplies in Gaza are pumped from a coastal aquifer, which was already becoming undrinkable due to outdated and damaged infrastructure.

Gaza’s water and sewage treatment facilities also require electricity and fuel. Without them—and with airstrikes ongoing—sewage is flowing into the Mediterranean Sea. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, more than 130,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage a day were released into the Mediterranean Sea from Gaza in October, with dire consequences for the environment.

Some 97 percent of Gaza’s water is unsuitable for human consumption.

These latest developments are pounding Gazan ecosystems that had already been experiencing severe environmental degradation for decades. For instance, while there are some wastewater treatment facilities in the West Bank, the situation was dire in the Gaza Strip even before the current outbreak of violence, because of the Israeli blockade. That blockade has been near total since 2007, and has restricted the entry of materials and fuel needed for infrastructure. Wastewater management infrastructure is outdated, and sewage polluted Gaza’s aquifer and coastal waters. Some 97 percent of Gaza’s water is unsuitable for human consumption, and polluted water is the source of 26 percent of all illnesses—and before the war, the leading cause of child death in the territory.

Poor water quality and quantity are not only a result of Israel’s targeted policies and the unequal distribution of resources. They are also side effects of the destruction of Gaza’s already flimsy infrastructure during rounds of conflict over the last decade and a half. For instance, in 2007, a river of sewage overflowed in the Gazan village of Umm Naser from a collapsed earth embankment, killing five people. Corruption in the Palestinian Authority and Hamas helped cause the disaster, but an even bigger cause was Israel’s massive, sustained bombing attack on Gaza in the summer of 2006, which led to the destruction of sewage treatment facilities and infrastructure in Gaza.

While the 2006 conflict was devastating, it pales in comparison to the current assault. It is estimated that Israel dropped 25,000 metric tons of bombs on Gaza in the first month of this year’s war, a weight equal to the two nuclear bombs (combined) dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. The bombs have struck 12,000 targets, the majority of which appear to have served a civilian purpose.

The current conflict further constrained water supplies and forced many to rely on unclean water, which increases the risk of dehydration and waterborne diseases like cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis. Families displaced in locations near the Mediterranean Sea are thus forced to bathe, drink, and wash their clothes in the polluted water, putting them at an elevated risk and further polluting water sources. According to an October 17 report from the UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, dehydration and waterborne diseases had become some of the primary threats to the population of Gaza. The situation has only worsened since then. Hundreds of thousands of other Gazans have been forced to flee their homes toward concentrated areas that Israel has dubbed “humanitarian zones.” These areas lack supplies and infrastructure to accommodate the refugee influx. According to reports from UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, the aid that made it to Gaza can barely accommodate the population’s needs, with some reports documenting that only twenty-six trucks entered the Strip between October 21 and November 1, carrying water to the 2 million residents of the territory. The situation improved slightly during the ceasefire from November 24 to 30, with approximately two hundred aid trucks entering Gaza daily. But that number still fell far short of the five hundred aid trucks that used to enter Gaza each day before October 7. The decline in aid has forced many to scavenge for food and supplies under rubble. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), Gaza’s entire population now requires food assistance.

Contaminants from Bombs

The decline in water quality and quantity is only part of the story of Gaza’s environmental degradation. An October 12 report by Human Rights Watch documents the use of white phosphorus in military operations in Gaza and Lebanon. Exposure to white phosphorus is highly dangerous. The chemical weapon can burn human flesh down to the bone and can set fields and structures on fire. The use of white phosphorus in some of the most densely packed cities in the world violates international humanitarian law.

White phosphorus is also damaging to the environment. For instance, once the chemicals reach rivers and aquifers, they can affect any population consuming water from these sources, which is especially true in the case of Gaza, since the population lacks access to clean water supplies. Agricultural land that depends on water from these sources also becomes contaminated, putting local crops and cattle at an elevated risk. And of course, poisoned food also poisons the human population. Since many Gazans depend on fishing as a source of food and income, contaminated waterways will impact the ecosystem, the water, the fish, and people’s health and livelihoods. Even before the current conflict, Gazan fisherfolk’s livelihoods were under strain, because Israel limited Gazans’ access to the sea to only six to fifteen nautical miles offshore. Water pollution will now deplete remaining fisheries.

The buildup of phosphoric acid can also deplete soil fertility and increase erosion, further impacting agriculture in Gaza. Like water quality and quantity, agriculture in Gaza has long been targeted and in poor conditions. Although the agriculture sector in Gaza is modest, it is still important for its fragile economy—accounting for 4.5 percent of GDP—and will also be important to develop for Gaza to become more food secure in the future. According to the WFP, there are 1.84 million people in Palestine who are food insecure, with around 1.1 million of them severely food insecure, and 90 percent of them live in Gaza.

The bombing campaign against Gaza compounds a much longer-term problem of the loss of Palestinian land—a process that has its own environmental baggage. The relationship between water, land, and the population’s well-being is intertwined with land capture and the collective change of the landscape and the ecosystem. A report by Haaretz found that the Jewish National Fund, a nonprofit that controls around 11 percent of Palestinian land, often frames itself as a fighter against climate change, while at the same time, the JNF has uprooted hundreds of thousands of Palestinian olive trees, which are an essential part of the local ecosystem, and planted imported trees in their place. The vanishing of the land, the olive tree, and the water sources is not only economically and environmentally damaging, but is also a sign of an ongoing process of erasing the Palestinian identity, culture, belonging, and home.


The uprooting of communities and the disappearance of their ways of life also undermine their ability to withstand climate change and environmental degradation.

Conflict and environmental degradation increase the vulnerability of Gaza, especially considering that the territory, like many other places in the Middle East and North Africa, is experiencing a worsening climate. Research conducted by the Israeli Meteorological Service reveals that the Eastern Mediterranean is among the world’s most regions most vulnerable to climate change, with average temperatures increasing by 1.5 degrees Celsius between 1950 and 2017, compared to the world average of 1.1 degrees Celsius since preindustrial times. Temperatures are expected to increase by 4 degrees by the end of the century. When combined with declining precipitation, this long-term temperature increase is predicted to reduce water availability in arid areas, necessitating a rapid response in the development of water infrastructure and management.

Rising sea levels are also a significant threat, with the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection forecasting a one-meter increase by 2050, which will negatively impact coastal agriculture and farmland, affecting both the environment and the economy. Extreme weather events are also becoming more frequent and intense. According to Israel’s Meteorological Service, the majority of the hottest summers in Israel’s history were in the last two decades; July and August 2023 were the hottest summer months since 1950. As overall precipitation decreases, the likelihood of short, intense rain events increases, heightening the risk of flash flooding with devastating consequences, particularly in areas with limited resources and infrastructure.

Climate change does not recognize borders, and environmental degradation in Palestine will make its way to Israel.

Managing climate change will be expensive and difficult in every country in the world, but it will be especially hard for Palestine, where Israeli policy has effectively engineered elevated vulnerability. This will be particularly true in Gaza. To protect economies and health from higher temperatures and extreme weather, countries will need major investments in infrastructure. In Palestine, there will be a special need for investment in water storage facilities, both for domestic consumption and agricultural use. Ecosystems will require additional protection as well, as saltwater pushes into coastal aquifers and endemic species come under threat (Israel and Palestine are part of the Mediterranean Basin biodiversity hotspot.) But Gaza is in a weaker position than ever before for accomplishing any of this preparation.

An Environmental Nakba

The prewar status quo for resource and environmental protection in Gaza was so degraded that the territory stood naked in the face of climate change effects. And there was already no sign of these needed investments in Palestine’s future. Now, however, with much of Gaza in rubble and land and water poisoned, the situation is much more perilous. Environmental destruction could make Gaza all but inhabitable, creating a second nakba—the term Palestinians use to describe the mass expulsion of Palestinians at the time of Israel’s creation in 1948.

This environmental nakba is no more a natural occurrence than the nakba of 1948. Israeli policies, whether during “peace” times or during periods of increased conflict, have actively undermined the development of infrastructure, destroyed what infrastructure is available, destroyed the existing landscape, and polluted the environment, all of which will have a severe negative impact on the people and the land of Palestine.

However, climate change does not recognize borders and political arrangements, and environmental degradation in Palestine will make its way to Israel. For instance, Ashkelon, one of Israel’s desalination plants, has been shut down several times in the past few years due to pollution from Gaza. As pollution in the Strip is likely to increase due to the conflict, Israel’s water security will be jeopardized. Without an immediate long-term ceasefire and long-term plans that centralize the environment in any peace talks, give Palestinian communities the ability to protect their environment, and stop the Israeli government from actively destroying the environment, it is not only Palestinians who will suffer. Even Israel’s climate policy cannot protect it from a cross-border environmental disaster.

Israeli government policies and settler practices that target Palestinian infrastructure and spaces—such as land confiscation and ecosystem destruction—and the use of resources as a weapon to control and subjugate the population are nothing less than an ecocide. To have any hope for peace and stability following this indiscriminate war, we must understand environmental destruction in relation to existing systems of power, authority, and sovereignty.

Targeting natural resources and destroying infrastructure with devastating impacts on the environment have many precedents. As the United States-led coalition started driving out Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, the retreating Iraqi forces set ablaze hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells. Many years later, the retreating Islamic State forces torched more than a dozen wells near Mosul and burned farmland; the area still suffers from environmental damage.

But just because environmental destruction—salting the earth, so to speak—is a war tactic with a long history doesn’t make it right. And the singular precariousness of Gaza’s situation makes the consequences especially grievous. For a lasting peace to hold, environmental justice will have to be part of any solution for Gaza.

Header image: Palestinian citizens inspect the effects of destruction caused by air strikes on their homes in the Khuza’a area on November 24, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Source: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images