We all know the consequences of conflict. The angst, anger, and outright hostility of warring parties can often injure, or worse, kill civilians caught up in the mess. But an often-overlooked consequence of violence is the destruction of the shared environmental space all parties occupy and rely upon to remain healthy. Our air, water, land, and ecosystems are as much a victim to war as any innocent bystander.
When Gazans gathered thousands of tires to light on fire for their “Great March of Return”, environmental groups, agencies, and advocacies turned an outright blind eye. While tires can produce up to 25 percent more energy than coal, the fumes that are released from their burning have been shown to be extremely toxic to human health and harmful to the environment. Emissions from tires often include “criteria” pollutants, such as particulates, carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur oxides (SOx), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They also include “non-criteria” hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), such as polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins, furans, hydrogen chloride, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); as well as heavy metals such as cadmium, nickel, zinc, mercury, chromium, and vanadium. Health effects from these pollutants can include irritation of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes, respiratory effects, central nervous system depression, and cancer.
Despite these potential dangers, Palestinian environmental groups were silent when it came to Hamas’ decision to use burning tires to camouflage protesters. During the lead up to the protests, PENGON-FoE Palestine, a chapter of the Friends of the Earth NGO and a coalition of different Palestinian environmental NGOs, instead chose to focus its attention on Israeli development. It’s clear that greater criticism, accountability and responsibility of these decisions is needed from Palestinian civil society organizations.
The consequences of environmental destruction are familiar to those who have endured war in the Middle East. When electrical power facilities were demolished in the Gulf War, water purification and sewage treatment plants shut down, which induced outbreaks of gastroenteritis, cholera, and typhoid. This, combined with a myriad of other post-war effects, led to an estimated 100,000 civilian fatalities in Iraq.
These kinds of unintended effects are often unforeseeable. Which is precisely why war-induced adverse health effects should be heavily considered when preparing for mass-protest and civil disobedience. It’s absolutely imperative to highlight the direct casualties of conflict. But it’s also equally important to sound the alarm when our environment and natural resources fall victim. For without a healthy environment, there cannot be a healthy society.