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Unexploded ordnance: The growing Gaza challenge that’s not going away

‘Just the sheer amount of ordnance that has been dropped.’

This a picture taken close to the ground. We see the remains of part of an improvised rocket found near a makeshift displacement camp in central Rafah, southern Gaza. Supplied by Humanity & Inclusion UK, ©HI
Part of an improvised rocket found near a makeshift displacement camp in central Rafah, southern Gaza.

In addition to damaging or destroying over half the buildings in the Gaza Strip, Israel’s military campaign – now in its ninth month – has created another massive problem that will remain a deadly threat long after the current war ends: unexploded ordnance, or UXO.

At the end of April, the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) estimated that there was 37 million tonnes of debris throughout Gaza. At least 10% of ordnance being fired fails to explode, so that debris is laced with UXO that – even under ideal conditions – would take 14 years to clear, an UNMAS official said.

However, the conditions that mine removal teams will have to work under in Gaza will be far from ideal. Israeli restrictions are likely to disrupt the usual model of clearing UXO, making a vastly difficult task even harder and more complex, according to Gary Toombs, explosive ordnance disposal expert for Humanity and Inclusion, an NGO.

From bans on bringing in vital equipment, to training local staff to dispose of the lethal weapons – some of which are 2000 lb bombs with a 360-metre-wide killing zone (equivalent to more than three football pitches) – clearing Gaza of UXO is fraught with challenges that must be navigated by the UN and NGOs.

“Unexploded ordnance is going to be incredibly problematic, and it’s going to be a lot,” said Toombs, stressing “just the sheer amount of ordnance that has been dropped”.

Toombs, who worked in Gaza for three weeks in March, told The New Humanitarian that the devastation he witnessed exceeded that of other high-intensity urban bombing campaigns – such as Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria – where he has also operated.

That tallies with the assessment of other experts and historians, who last December – only two and a half months into Israel’s military campaign – were already classifying it as among the most devastating in recent history. 

Daunting challenges

Toombs said UXO clearance work in Gaza has some “extremely sensitive” elements that will likely complicate efforts.

Even prior to the current war, Israel exercised control over many aspects of life in the 361-square-kilometre territory, including what was allowed into the enclave through official border crossings. 

That control has intensified over the past eight months, with Israel imposing a near-total siege on Gaza. Only a trickle of humanitarian aid has been allowed in, pushing almost the entire population into famine conditions. 

Food aid has comprised the vast majority of what Israel has let in, while critical items – including oxygen tanks, refrigerators, electricity generators, and tent poles – have been blocked at the border, hampering the ability of aid organisations to mount a meaningful response.

Toombs foresees that limitations on both equipment and staffing will hinder UXO removal efforts in the future. While Humanity and Inclusion’s standard model focuses on training national staff to dispose of UXO, he said this probably would not apply in Gaza.

For now, Israel’s ongoing bombardment and ground offensive in the enclave is the main obstacle to any meaningful UXO removal efforts.

“I think that it will be – and this is my own opinion – very unlikely that we will be allowed to train Palestinians in the use of explosives and explosive ordnance [EO],” said Toombs. 

“I think what will happen is that there will be training of national capacity on search to locate items of EO, but the actual disposal of items of explosive ordnance will be done by international experts and technical staff. And that’s a lot more costly.”

One key sensitivity concerns dealing with explosives during an ongoing conflict, when protagonists may still want to utilise them.

“Many of these items of ordnance which failed to function [still] have tactical advantage[s],” explained Toombs. “Many of them, as we've seen in other conflicts… are utilised and then being used for main charges and improvised explosive devices.

“I'm not saying that's happening in Gaza, but it's certainly a potential development that might happen.”

Some equipment needed for UXO clearance has also been prevented from entering Gaza.

According to Toombs, explosive charges for controlled detonations, armour plating, and tunnelling equipment for digging down to reach buried bombs all faced restrictions entering the territory even prior to the current conflict. 

Crowd control is another important aspect of UXO disposal.

Teams usually rely on local police or security forces to keep civilians at a safe distance from explosives, Toombs explained. But in Gaza, those local authorities – linked to the Hamas-led government – have largely stopped working or gone underground after being targeted by Israel, leading to a collapse of public order. 

For now, Israel’s ongoing bombardment and ground offensive in the enclave is the main obstacle to any meaningful UXO removal efforts. An “immediate and sustainable ceasefire” is needed to even start the process, Toombs said. “We really can’t do a lot, particularly when it comes to explosive ordnance, without that.”

Edited by Eric Reidy and Andrew Gully.

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