War crime? Israel destroys Gaza crops with aerial herbicide spraying

Field damaged by Israel's spraying of crops within Gaza, 31 December 2015. Photo: Khaled al-'Azayzeh, B'Tselem.
Field damaged by Israel's spraying of crops within Gaza, 31 December 2015. Photo: Khaled al-'Azayzeh, B'Tselem.
Gaza farmers have lost 187 hectares of crops to aerial spraying of herbicides by Israel hundreds of meters within the territory's borders. The action, carried out in the name of 'security', further undermines Gaza's ability to feed itself and may permanently deprive farmers of their livelihoods. It may also represent a war crime under the 1977 Protocol to the Geneva Conventions.
About two days after the spraying, I began to see the damage on the leaves of the plants. Five days later, I could already see the damage to the peas and the fava beans, which dried up. My plants were burnt, right in front of me.

Palestinian farmers in the Gaza Strip have reported that Israeli military planes had sprayed their land with herbicides on three days last December.

The spraying, conducted by crop-dusting aircraft, covered areas up to 200 meters west of the border fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Moreover, due to the prevailing winds at the time of the spraying, extensive damage was also caused to crops and farmland a further 200 meters further inside the Gaza Strip.

Crops affected include wheat, barley, zucchini, aubergine, fava beans, peas, green pepper, parsley, watermelon, cabbage, spinach and bitter vetch, grown as fodder for sheep. An area of 187 hectares of crops is reported as being destroyed or damaged.

The spraying has had a devastating effect on the farmers by imposing on them total or near total loss of farm income, leaving many of them deep in debt for the cost of agricultural inputs.

As well as suffering the immediate loss of crops and income, some of the farmers may now be forced out of agriculture altogether, unwilling to repeat the risk of losing their crops again.

The spraying extended from the center of the Gaza Strip to the south, from areas to the east of al-Bureij Refugee Camp to land east of Khuza'ah. This action was undertaken despite the fact that in 2014, the military informed Palestinians that they could farm land up to 100 meters from the fence.

It is not known what herbicide was used. In their testimonies (shown in full below) farmers speak of a "white substance " and a "thick substance" being sprayed by a yellow-colored airplane that left "white stains " on leaves that spread rapidly through the plants causing them to wilt and "burn" in the hot sunshine

Israel's restrictions on Gaza farmers

This is not the first time that the military has sprayed crops along the border fence. Over the past three years, Israel has undertaken similar spraying operations once or twice a year. In previous years, the military used bulldozers to flatten vegetation and land along the border. Until now, the spraying did not cause serious damage to crops as it was done in areas that were barely farmed.

This year, however, extensive areas of farmland were affected, causing serious damage. Testimonies collected by B'Tselem's field researchers from farmers who work these lands reveal that the damage to crops grew apparent two days after the spraying. Within several days, the leaves of some plants withered completely.

At the beginning of the second intifada, in September 2000, Israel began to restrict the access of Palestinian farmers in Gaza to their land close to the border fence. Over the years, the military has periodically changed the definition of its no-go area for farmers. However, the precise extent of this area has always remained uncertain, and no official Israeli body has ever provided Gazan residents with the information.

About two days after the spraying, I began to see the damage on the leaves of the plants. Five days later, I could already see the damage to the peas and the fava beans, which dried up. My plants were burnt, right in front of me.

In November 2008, for example, following the collapse of the tahdiya (calm) agreement between Israel and Hamas, the military declared a 500-meter buffer zone on the Palestinian side of the fence.

In May 2009, the military announced that anyone coming within 300 meters of the fence was endangering their life and would be subject to all possible action, including shooting. The military's announcement in the same year stated that "the area adjacent to the fence constitutes a combat zone."

At the end of 2012, following the understandings reached between Israel and Hamas after Operation Pillar of Defense, the military announced that Palestinian farmers would be allowed to access land up to 300 meters from the fence.

About 18 months later, following Operation Protective Edge, the military informed Israeli human rights organization Gisha that the no-go area for farmers had been reduced and they could now farm up to 100 meters from the fence, though without the use of vehicles.

But the extent of the 'no-go' area has never been clear

Over the years, the prohibition on the entry of farmers to areas close to the fence has gravely injured the livelihood of the landowners in the area. In addition, the precise scope of the no-go zone has been unclear over the years.

The first reason for this is that the military has not clearly marked the area. The second is ongoing disparity between the military's official declarations and the actual implementation of policy.

For example, the military has shot farmers who were working on their land under the mistaken impression that they were permitted to enter the area. This reality leaves the farmers in a state of constant uncertainty as to where they are permitted to farm and what level of danger they face.

The testimonies collected by B'Tselem's field researchers in December 2015 reveal that many farmers in the Gaza Strip who own land near the fence have been forced to rent land elsewhere in order to make a living for their families, in the absence of any other source of income.

Due to the military's ambiguity on the matter, even the farming of this land entails mortal danger, particularly during foggy weather or when demonstrations are taking place in the area. One farmer's testimony (below) tells of how a neighbour was shot dead while at work in his fields some 350m from a demonstration.

The spraying operations conducted by the military in December form part of Israel's policy of restricting access to these areas of the Gaza Strip - a policy that the military has implemented for many years, as noted above.

The crop spraying could also be considered a violation of Article 54 of the 1977 Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions relating to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts, which prohibits the "starvation of civilians as a method of warfare". It states:

"It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive."

But Palestinians are not holding their breath for the international community to pursue any enforcement action against those responsible.

There is no justification for this course of action

Human rights NGO Gisha posted on its website a statement by the IDF Spokesperson in which the military justified these actions, saying: "The aerial spraying of herbicides and germination inhibitors was conducted in the area along the border fence last week in order to enable optimal and continuous security operations."

This statement completely ignores the impact of the spraying on extensive areas due to the prevailing winds at the time of spraying, and the grave injury to the farmers' livelihood. It also highlights Israel's utilitarian approach to the Gaza Strip.

When Israel so wishes, the area is described as a 'hostile state entity' for which - and for whose residents - Israel bears no responsibility. At other times, it is a 'zone' in which the military is entitled to undertake 'continuous security operations', as if it were part of Israel's own territory.

The reality is that, even after the 2005 'disengagement' from Gaza, Israel continues to control many aspects of the lives of Gaza residents. The scope of this control imposes responsibility on Israel for the residents' wellbeing and welfare.

Israel cannot merely regard the territory of the Gaza Strip as part of its own territory, while ignoring the people who live and work in the area. If the security establishment believes that a 'security zone' is needed between Israel and the Gaza Strip, it must establish this zone within Israeli territory.



Testimony of Riad Salim Muhammd a-Niser , 54, married father of six, farmer, resident of al-Bureij Refugee Camp, Deir al-Balah District. Testimony given to Khaled al-'Azayzeh on 30 December 2015.

I have been a farmer for 25 years. My five brothers and I have eight dunams of farmland near the border, east of al-Bureij Refugee Camp. Since the land is less than 100 meters away from the fence with Israel, we cannot cultivate it. To make a living, I rent 70 dunams (1 dunam = 0.1 hectare) of farmland located 300 meters away from the fence, east of al-Bureij.

I pay 4,000 Jordanian dinars a year in rent. It's a relatively low price, because the land is close to the border and it's dangerous to work there because of the Israeli army's fire. I have to rent this land and cultivate it with my children, my brother, and my sister's children because I have no other work. We provide for our families with the living we make off the land. About 40 people rely on this land for their living. Sometimes I hire extra workers to help us farm the land.

I grow wheat on 48 dunams and parsley on 12. I was planning to plant peppers and watermelons in the rest of the land in February. I sowed the wheat about a month ago and the parsley in April. I harvest the parsley once a month. Each dunam yields 1.5 tons of parsley. The price varies. Sometimes I sell 1.5 tons for 3,000 ILS, sometimes less, sometimes more. I began harvesting the parsley in July and I've already harvested it five times.

The seeds for every dunam of parsley cost 1,200 ILS, and each dunam takes a truckload of fertilizer, which costs 1,200 ILS, and all sorts of chemicals, several times a month. One bag of 25 kg costs 125 ILS. I'm left with 1,000 ILS from every 1.5 tons of parsley sold.

One morning around the end of December, I don't remember when exactly, I saw an Israeli plane spraying a white substance over the border area. It was flying very low, inside the Palestinian area, about 100 meters west of the border fence.

Two days later, when I was in the fields I cultivate, I saw that the parsley had gone yellow, and realized it had been destroyed by the spraying. The wind blew the herbicides to our crops. We were supposed to harvest the parsley and sell it, but I had to gather it up and throw it out. Now I'm waiting for the parsley to grow again. Forty dunams of wheat were also destroyed. We have only eight left.

I had made commitments to suppliers. I was supposed to sell them parsley, but because the crop was destroyed and I didn't deliver the goods, they had to buy parsley from other farmers and I lost their business.

An airplane sprayed the border area in April 2015, too, and we lost crops on eight dunams of parsley, eight dunams of green pepper and eight dunams of watermelon. I plowed the land and sowed again. I lost about 19,000 ILS. At the time, people from the ICRC and the Ministry of Agriculture came by, took photos of the crop and assessed the damages, but I haven't received financial compensation from anyone.

I buy herbicides, materials for treating the crops and seeds on credit, with the intention of paying back once I sell the crops, but I haven't had a crop and now I have debts I'll have to pay back. If the Israeli army goes on spraying around the border, I'll have to stop farming, and I don't know how my brothers and I are going to provide for our families. We have no source of income except farming.

We suffer from Israeli military fire around the border area, especially when there are clashes. My children and I take risks and go out to protect our crops from the demonstrators, exposing ourselves to Israeli military fire.

Testimony of H.A., 47, married father of six, farmer and resident of al-Musadar, a village that lies north-east of Deir al-Balah, some 450 meters from the border fence. Testimony given to Khaled al-'Azayzeh on 31 December 2015.

I have a 50-dunam plot right next to the western side of the border fence, in the eastern part of the village of al-Musadar. My house is on this plot, but since my land reaches all the way to the border, I can only cultivate 25 dunams of it. The rest of the plot is right in front of me, but I can't reach it because the Israeli army shoots anyone who comes within 150 meters of the border.

I planted wheat, barley, fava beans and peas in the part of the plot that I can cultivate. The cost of the seeds and the plowing, including renting a tractor, was about 5,000 ILS and I paid another 5,000 ILS for laborers to help me cultivate the land.

On Tuesday, 8 December 2015, at around 7:00 AM, I was on the land near the house when an Israeli plane arrived and started spraying the areas around the border. It went about 200 meters into the Palestinian area. It flew very low, and right then the wind was blowing in the direction of our house. I didn't think these herbicides would be so devastating.

The army sprays that area every year and so far, the damage hasn't been that bad. Usually, only plants up to 100 meters from the border are harmed. At that distance, people hardly grow anything, so there are no crops that get destroyed from the spraying, just grazing pastures.

About two days after the spraying, I began to see the damage on the leaves of the plants. Five days later, I could already see the damage to the peas and the fava beans, which dried up. When I saw that, I couldn't believe it. My plants were burnt, right in front of me, and I realized I'd lost my crop and I wouldn't see even one shekel from it.

They destroyed our crop for no reason. Ten days later, I lost any hope of getting anything out of my crop. I brought a tractor in and plowed the wheat and barley fields and replanted them. I left the peas as they were, because it costs a lot of money to plant it again and I won't make it in time for this season anyway. The wheat and barley I sowed now are also late, but I'm hoping they'll grow anyway.

I have no source of income other than farming. I was really hoping for a good pea and fava bean crop. One kg of peas sells for 5 ILS now, and a kilo of fava beans is about 16. I put a lot of money into herbicides for this field before it got sprayed. Luckily, I get my fertilizer from my livestock, so I didn't have to pay for that. I have ten sheep and goats, which I can't graze near the fence now because the plants there have been poisoned. I'll have to buy animal feed at the market.

I borrowed about 7,000 ILS for farming expenses, including hiring the tractor, paying laborers and buying materials. Now I can't pay back the loan because I lost the crop. I was also hoping that the income from the crop would help us build a house, after our house was destroyed in the last war. We live in a makeshift wood and tin structure on the first floor of what was our house. The conditions are very harsh. It's very hot in the summer, and now, in the winter, it's cold and the kids are always sick.

I don't know why the planes sprayed like that for no reason, and why they let us put our heart and soul into working the land and then spray before we manage to harvest the crop.

Testimony of Saeil Mustafa Abu Sa'id, 48, married and father of eight, farmer and resident of al-Bureij Refugee Camp. Testimony given to Khaled al-A'zayzeh on 30 December 2015.

We live about 800 meters from the border fence, to the east of al-Bureij refugee camp. I own about 10 dunams of farmland near my home. My land is also about 800 meters from the fence.

There's an olive grove on part of the land, and on the remainder I grow crops such as wheat, barley, and fava beans. I also rented another seven dunams next to my plot and used to grow vegetables there, but at the moment I'm not growing anything on it. There's also a well on my land.

Over the years we've suffered a lot from shooting from the military watchtowers, particularly early in the morning, because of the fog, and in the evening. So I stopped going to my land at these times because I'm afraid they'll shoot me.

Apart from the shooting, the Israeli military sprays herbicide all along the border at least once a year. Last year, an airplane sprayed the border area in December or January. At the time I had two dunams of fava beans, three dunams of eggplants, and two dunams of zucchini. On the rest of my land I'd planted wheat and rye.

The spraying destroyed 80 percent of my crops. I'd put over two months' work into those crops - watering them, spraying them, fertilizing the land, and covering the zucchini with plastic sheets at night. Every dunam needed about 800 shekels worth of herbicide.

The same thing happened this year. About two weeks ago, I was on my land one morning tending to my crops - fava beans, wheat, and barley. Suddenly an airplane appeared and sprayed over the border area, about 100 meters to the west of the fence, into the Palestinian side. As the plane turned around, it flew hundreds of meters inside Palestinian territory. It was flying low.

At the time I couldn't tell whether the herbicide had affected my land, but a few days later I saw that my crops had begun to turn yellow. Some of the fava beans I had planted on two dunams of land had gone dry and yellow and were ruined, and four dunams of wheat and three of barley were also totally destroyed. I lost 2,500 ILS because of the spraying.

Now I'm trying to repair the damage. I'm spraying a special substance to try and save what's left of the fava beans. Every four days I spray at least once, and it costs me 80 ILS every time. I hoped that the treatment would help and I'd be able to sell the crop on the market. Unfortunately it didn't work and I'll only be able to sell it as fodder for sheep.

Fava beans sell for around 16 shekels a kilo at the moment, and I'd hoped to harvest 50 kilos a day. Now, because of the spraying by the Israeli military, I can't sell even a single kilo, and instead I'll have to sell it off as fodder for sheep at one shekel a kilo.

Apart from the spraying, we also suffer from shooting by the military. On Friday, 25 December 2015, I was on my land at about 3:20 P.M. together with my neighbor Yusuf Mubarak Abu Sabika, 48. He was working on land he rented next to my land and he came over to talk to me. At the same time, some young people were holding a demonstration opposite the fence, to the east of al-Bureij.

Yusuf and I were standing about 350 meters from the clashes. Someone called Yusuf on the phone and he moved about 50 meters away from me, toward the fence, to take the call. So by then he was 300 meters away from the clashes.

The soldiers fired live shots at the demonstrators and two bullets hit Yusuf, one in the thigh and the other in the stomach. He took a few steps, clutching his stomach, and then he fell down. I was shocked when I saw he'd been injured. He's a farmer and had nothing to do with the demonstration.

After a few minutes an ambulance came and took him to hospital. I went home and later learned that Yusuf had died. I lost a fellow farmer and a neighbor who had done nothing more than earn a living for his family.

Testimony of Ghazi Ahmad Ibrahim a-Najar, 48, married and father of five, farmer and resident of the town of Khuza'ah to the east of Khan Yunis. Testimony given to B'Tselem field researcher Muhammad Sa'id on 30 December 2015.

I own four dunams of farmland to the east of Khuza'ah, about 500 meters from the border fence. Apart from my own land, I rent a plot of 18 dunams to increase my income. Eight dunams of that plot are 300 meters from the fence and the rest are 400 to 600 meters from the fence.

On Wednesday, 23 December 2015, at about 8:00 A.M., I was close to my land when I saw two Israeli military vehicles driving near the border and dust kicked up by tanks on the other side of the fence. I picked up my stuff and walked away until reached the home of my sister and brother-in-law, which is nearby and overlooks the border fence.

A few minutes later I heard the military vehicles getting closer to the Palestinian area. I saw four bulldozers and two tanks start to flatten an area that lies about 50 meters from the border, on the Palestinian side.

I stayed there and watched what was happening together with my sister and her husband. After about half an hour I saw two airplanes. One flew about 30-70 meters into the Palestinian side and the other stayed on the Israeli side. The planes and vehicles they went on working until about 9:30 A.M. The planes would disappear from a little while and then come back again. The substance sprayed from the planes scattered across a large area because of the wind and reached a distance of hundreds of meters.

Two days after they sprayed the area, I was working on my land when I noticed white stains on the wheat. The stains spread over the course of the day, and then the leaves turned yellow and wilted completely, particularly in the area closest to the border. Four dunams of wheat were totally ruined, and now I have to plow the whole area and plant again. The rest of my land was also damaged, but only partially.

All the farmers and residents in the Khan Yunis area know about these planes and have seen them several times over the past couple of years. Twice a year, in April and at the end of the year, they spray the weeds close to the border strip, but the spraying also affects our crops. It costs us a lot of money every time, not to mention the time and work we put into the crops.

Testimony of Suliman 'Abd al-Karim Mahana, 60, married and father of thirteen, farmer and resident of the a-Sreij neighborhood in eastern al-Qararah, Khan Yunis District. Testimony given to Muhammad Sa'id on 29 December 2015.

I have eight sons, all of whom work as farmers. It's our only source of income. I own 35 dunams of farmland in eastern al-Qararah, about 400 to 800 meters from the border fence.

We sowed winter crops on the land and some of them had already grown and were ready for harvesting. I planted barley on 10 dunams closest to the border area, 400 meters from the fence. On five dunams of land at the same distance from the fence I planted bitter vetch, a legume that's used as fodder for livestock. Barley and bitter vetch don't need a lot of care, which is why I plant them on the land closest to the fence.

On seven dunams that lie 500 meters from the fence I planted zucchini. On another seven dunams at the same distance from the fence I planted peas, and on six dunams that lie 800 meters from the fence I planted spinach.

On Monday, 21 December 2015, at about 6:00 A.M., I was already awake and about to head out to my land when I heard a plane flying close to our house. I went up to the roof and saw a yellow agricultural airplane flying at a height of about 30 to 60 meters, about 100 meters west of the border on the Palestinian side.

The plane was flying from north to the south, spraying a thick substance. The spraying went on for about two hours - every time the plane went away for a while and then reappeared. I don't know what substance it was spraying, but I could see it spread hundreds of meters from the fence because of the wind.

The morning after they sprayed the area, I noticed new white stains on the leaves and stalks of the plants. I realized that it was because of the spraying the day before and asked my sons to harvest all the crops that were ripe that day, before they got any worse. Sure enough, over the next three days, the damage to the plants got worse and most of them dried up completely.

The plants that suffered the worst damage were the leafy ones like spinach, barley, and bitter vetch. I have to plow and replant that land. The other plants were also damaged, but not as badly. Substances like the one they sprayed affect the plants' lifespan and the number of times you can harvest them. For example, zucchini usually yields 17 harvests a year, but now that it's been exposed to this material, I don't know whether it will flower again.

Over the past couple of years we've gotten used to the Israeli military spraying herbicides from airplanes close to the border at this time of year. In 2014, after the last round of fighting, our crops were also very badly damaged after the herbicide reached our land.

I'd estimate that my financial losses are around 5,000 dollars, not including work time. The Israeli occupation authorities persecute us and damage our livelihood all the time. We've also suffered many times from shooting and other obstacles that the military puts in the way of our work. They endanger our lives and our children's lives. Two years ago, one of my sons was injured by a bullet while he was working on our land. The bullet hit him in the spine, paralyzed him, and totally ruined his life.

Testimony of 'Ali Salameh Abu Sawarin , 29, married and father of four, farmer and resident of the al-Muharabah area in Deir al-Balah. Testimony given to Muhammad Sa'id on 29 December 2015.

I'm a farmer and I have eight dunams of land in the al-Qararah area northeast of Khan Yunis. I also rent a 60-dunam plot in the Wadi a-Salqa area, a little north of my land, to increase my income.

Seven dunams of my land are 200 to 300 meters away from the border. I sowed seeds there about two months ago, in coordination with the ICRC. They sent officials and laborers, and a tractor and plow with ICRC flags on them, so we could plow and sow. We have been banned from farming there since before Operation Protective Edge. The rest of my land is 400 to 600 meters away from the fence. I sowed zucchini on 15 dunams, peas on ten, fava beans on ten, cabbage on six and spinach on eight. I left the rest empty.

On Wednesday, 23 December 2015, around 8:00 AM, I was working the land in the Wadi a-Salqa area. I was watering the plants and treating them when I saw a yellow agricultural airplane flying along the border fence, at about a 100-meter height. While flying, the plane released a thick substance that flew hundreds of meters to the west because of the wind, and reached our land and our plants.

The plane continued flying about a kilometer to the south, and then turned around and flew back. The spraying lasted for about two hours. The next day, white stains appeared on the leaves and stalks of the plants. From that moment, the more sun the plants got, the worse the damage got, until they finally dried up completely. That happened to most of my plants and crops, especially the leafy ones, which I can't sell anymore.

The area that's 200 to 400 meters from the fence was the worst hit by the spraying. The rest of my land was also damaged, but less. I put a lot of money, work hours and effort into farming these fields and I lost them. The spraying isn't new. The Israeli occupation forces harm us, our livelihoods, and our children's livelihoods every time they do it. We feel that they're doing it deliberately.



This article is based on one originally published by B'Tselem, with some additional reporting by The Ecologist.

Also on The Ecologist: