Unexploded ordnance in Gaza rubble poses unprecedented challenge: UN Mine Action Service chief

UN Environment Program estimates that currently there are 37M tons of rubble in Gaza, which is more than in Ukraine, says head of UNMAS Mine Action Program in Palestine

13:12 - 15/05/2024 Çarşamba
File photo
File photo

- Mine Action sector will need hundreds of millions of dollars to make Gaza safe from explosive ordnance, says Charles Birch

The UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) has estimated significant contamination of explosive ordnance in the besieged Gaza Strip, even more than in Ukraine, and the clearance of it would not only require a "very significant amount of time" but also “hundreds of millions of dollars," said an official.

"At the moment, we haven't been able to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the unexploded ordnance contamination levels in Gaza. So we estimate, based on the heaviness of the bombardment and the intensity of the fighting, there will be significant contamination of explosive ordnance amongst the rubble," Charles Birch, chief of the UNMAS Mine Action Program in the State of Palestine, told Anadolu in an interview.

The UN Environment Program estimates that currently, there are 37 million tons of rubble in Gaza, "which is more than Ukraine," Birch said, comparing the front lines of both places to draw attention to the heavy destruction as the Ukrainian front line is 600 miles (965.6 kilometers) long compared to Gaza's 25-mile (40-kilometer) long front line.

"There's a huge amount of rubble, 37 million tons. Ordnance might be under that rubble," he said.

Asked how long it would take to clear all the ordnance in Gaza, he said: "It's going to take a very significant amount of time."

Calling the situation in the Iraqi city of Mosul a smaller confrontation compared to Gaza, he said the UN estimated that it would take 10 years to clear Mosul, and UNMAS has currently been clearing for eight years. "So Gaza will take a very significant amount of time."

"It's an unprecedented challenge," he said.

- Rafah operation might make the situation more 'dangerous'

Birch warned that an Israeli ground operation in Rafah would cause the situation to be more risky, as it would prompt people sheltering in the city to return to the north, where they do not know where the contamination is.

"There's a huge number of internally displaced people sheltering in Rafah. The most dangerous moment will be when those people start to return north because they don't know where the contamination is, and so they don't know where to avoid accidents," he said.

"That's why we need to scale up explosive ordnance risk education to those people," he said, "so they have at least some basic understanding of safe behavior when they're entering an area contaminated with explosive ordnance."

However, he said that such risk education became "more and more difficult" as the war progressed. It began with the use of mass media, such as social media and radio, to inform people regarding the situation, but after some point, it became "less efficient" as connectivity became an issue and it became more and more difficult to charge devices. So that's become less effective.

"We don't currently have the budget to put face-to-face risk education teams on the ground," he said. "At the moment, we're focused on the distribution of risk education materials -- leaflets, posters for shelters, stickers, etc. with safe behavior messages. It's very basic, but at least we're trying to do something to mitigate the risk."

- UNMAS needs funds, equipment permits, cease-fire to clean Gaza

Birch said that UNMAS is primarily focused on emergency response in Gaza and giving support to humanitarian convoys going north.

"We're also doing explosive hazard assessments of humanitarian infrastructure that has been struck by ordinance to make sure there's no residual contamination so we can return those premises to their work as quickly as possible," he said.

He stressed that a significant amount of equipment should be brought into Gaza for clearing procedures and UNMAS is currently in negotiations with the Israeli authorities for permission.

Regarding what such a cleaning process might require, he said the primary challenge would be access to international staff and equipment.

Israeli authorities are "highly unlikely to let Palestinians be trained in explosive ordnance disposal because it has a military application," he said.

"This is all going to make the clearance of Gaza very expensive," he underscored, adding that the Strip is 87% urbanized, and urban clearance costs twice as much and takes twice as long as initially predicted as a rule of thumb.

On funding, Birch said the service has a budget of $5 million.

"We believe in order to fund our work going forward for the next 12 months, we need an additional $14 million.

"And the sector as a whole, the mine action sector, will need hundreds of millions of dollars to make Gaza safe from explosive ordnance going forward," he added.

He also underscored that the clearance of Gaza cannot begin without a cease-fire, as UNMAS needs to conduct demolitions after ensuring crowd control, and under the current circumstances of the war, it is not possible.

"We wouldn't plan to do it until there's a cease-fire. We won't start even if we get in the equipment today," he said. "We won't start demolitions until there's a cease-fire."

Israel has pounded Gaza following a cross-border attack by the Palestinian group Hamas on Oct. 7 last year which killed about 1,200 people.

At least 35,180 Palestinians, most of them women, and children, have since been killed, and over 79,000 others injured, according to Palestinian health authorities

Over seven months into the Israeli war, vast swathes of Gaza lay in ruins amid a crippling blockade of food, clean water and medicine.

In an interim ruling in January, The Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) said it is "plausible" that Tel Aviv is committing genocide in Gaza, ordering it to stop such acts and take measures to guarantee that humanitarian assistance is provided to civilians in the enclave.

South Africa on Friday asked the ICJ to order Israel to withdraw from the southern Gaza city of Rafah as part of additional emergency measures over the war.

#Charles Birch
#Explosive Ordnance
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