Gaza’s unexploded-bomb crisis

Gaza’s unexploded-bomb crisis

Isaac Chotiner writes:

Late last month, Charles (Mungo) Birch, who oversees the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in the Palestinian territories, issued a warning about the dangers posed by unexploded ordnance in Gaza, especially if and when Gazan civilians return to the enclave’s north. (On Tuesday, the Israeli military entered the southern city of Rafah, after ordering tens of thousands of people to evacuate, and took control of the Rafah border crossing.) Birch said that more unexploded missiles and bombs have fallen in Gaza than anywhere in the world since at least the Second World War. He and I recently spoke by phone about the enormous scale of the problem, and what his agency is trying to do to mitigate it. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Can you just describe for people the scale of the problem in Gaza in terms of mines and unexploded ordnance?

We can’t quantify the level of contamination because we haven’t been able to do an assessment yet, but we can say that Gaza is eighty-seven per cent urbanized. Urban clearance is very expensive and very time-consuming. There are thirty-seven million tons of estimated rubble, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (unep) and U.N.-Habitat, and it is likely that much of it will be contaminated with explosive ordnance. As a rule of thumb, the U.N. assumes that ten per cent of ordnance fail to function. The bombardment and fighting have been very heavy in certain areas of Gaza, so there are likely very significant levels of contamination.

It makes sense intuitively, but can you describe why urban areas are so much more difficult to clear?

Because of the rubble and all the associated hazards. There’s an estimated eight hundred thousand tons of asbestos in the rubble. Then, you’ve got the human remains, about which the estimates vary, but many thousands of bodies are likely stuck under the rubble. You have to obviously handle that humanely, but they also pose a hazard. Then, there are hazards from chemicals and from industrial processes. Hospitals can be a problem, too, when clearing unexploded ordnance because of the associated hazards: radiology departments, biological waste, et cetera. [Continue reading…]

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