Environmental Destruction is a Human Rights Violation: The Health Crisis in Gaza

Meena Hasan and Meena Aladdin

In April the United States and the world celebrated Earth Day, promoting sustainability and raising awareness about preserving natural resources. Just two days later, President Biden signed a bill securing billions in US funding for Ukraine and Israel for their security efforts.

The US support will bolster Israel’s war efforts and lead to the continued displacement and suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, as well as severe environmental degradation, contradicting US environmental policies. As public health practitioners, we are deeply concerned by the long-term health effects and environmental damage caused by the ongoing Israeli aggression in Gaza. We advocate for a permanent ceasefire and cessation of the sale of arms to Israel to prevent further environmental degradation and its health consequences.

Human rights and the environment are intertwined; human rights cannot be enjoyed without a safe, clean, and healthy environment, and sustainable environmental governance cannot exist without respect for human rights. This relationship is increasingly recognized, with the right to a healthy environment now enshrined in over 100 countries’ constitutions.

The environmental impacts of war extend far beyond the battlefield. In Gaza, the long-term environmental devastation of Israel’s attacks represents a profound crisis demanding global attention.

Israel has an obligation to maintain a safe, clean, and healthy environment in Gaza, as the right to a healthy environment is a fundamental human right. In 2018, the United Nations predicted Gaza would be unliveable by 2020 because of a cratering economy and inadequate clean drinking water resulting from the blockade and occupation. Since October 7, Israel’s military aggression has destroyed over half of Gaza’s infrastructure, and in the first two months the carbon emissions had already exceeded those of 20 small countries. This does not include emissions from the military supply chain or rebuilding efforts. In mid March, UNRWA reported there was 23 million tonnes of debris from destroyed properties, mainly residential units, that will take years to clear, along with unexploded ordnance.

The full range of environmental impacts from the attacks on Gaza has not been completely captured partly because academic institutions in Gaza have been destroyedprofessors targeted, and Israeli restrictions have inhibited attempts to conduct field surveys and collect data on Gaza’s air, water, and soil. This contrasts with the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9-11, where researchers quickly took samples to understand the long-term health impacts.

Estimating the health effects from the attacks in Gaza must draw on aerial assessments and historical examples. Heavy use of weaponry, explosives, and Israeli ground invasion has caused infrastructure destruction that introduced toxic pollutants into the air, water, and soil.

Damage to water treatment facilities has led to untreated wastewater discharging into local water bodies, exacerbating contamination and spreading waterborne diseases. The UN Environmental Programme reports a minimum of 100,000 cubic meters of sewage and wastewater are discharged every day onto land or into the Mediterranean Sea. With limited access to clean water, people in Gaza risk dehydration and exposure to illnesses like cholera and dysentery.

The destruction of buildings releases clouds of toxic particles, significantly degrading air quality. Pulverization of cement releases silica dust into the air, causing severe lung damage and respiratory issues, including COPD. Additionally, buildings in Gaza often contain asbestos, which, when disturbed, disperses microscopic fibers into the air, increasing cancer risk. Munitions and building destruction have created rubble and debris containing harmful substances that absorb into the soil, change its composition, affect crop yield, quality, and food production.

The ecocide’s impact will persist for years. Environmental pollutants are linked to respiratory diseasescancerscongenital malformations, and neurological disorders, as seen in populations exposed to similar conditions in conflict zones like Iraq and post-9/11 New York.

Environmental devastation  also affects local ecosystems, microorganism biodiversity, and marine life. The ecological damage in Gaza will extend beyond its borders, affecting the broader Middle Eastern region and potentially the global environment. Pollutants released during conflicts do not respect national borders; they spread to neighboring countries and contaminate shared water resources, making the environmental impact of the military campaign a transnational issue.

Moreover, Israel, as the occupying power, is obligated under international law to protect the right to health of Palestinians. This obligation includes providing access to adequate healthcare, clean water, and a safe environment. The United States’ financial and political support for military operations in Gaza starkly contrasts with its domestic and international agreements aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy. However, the US Department of Defense is the single largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases in the world. This discrepancy between stated environmental values and actions highlights a critical area for policy alignment, to reconcile the United States’ role in global military engagements with its environmental protection responsibilities.

The international community must hold Israel and its arms suppliers, including the United States, accountable to prevent further military spending without regard for the health of populations and causing catastrophic environmental degradation. We urge the public and policymakers to reject military support that leads to indiscriminate destruction, and instead to champion policies that protect the lives and human rights of civilian populations and our environment. The impacts of climate change are tangible and increasingly pervasive worldwide, underscoring our ethical duty—from a humanitarian standpoint and an environmental one—to advocate for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. The environmental legacy of conflict is a heavy burden—too significant for future generations to inherit. It is imperative that we unite to end this cycle of destruction and work toward a sustainable and peaceful future for all.

Meena Hasan, MD, is an internal medicine physician and a Master of Public Health student at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, US.  

Meena Aladdin, MS, PhD, is a public health scientist and a Master of Public Health student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, US.