The Unprecedented Destruction of Gaza Demands an Unprecedented Response


Text originally published on the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung international website

Author: Duha Almusaddar

When people asked me about the situation during the first weeks of Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip, which is now being investigated as genocide among other crimes against humanity and war crimes, my response was that Gaza, where I grew up and lived until only a few months ago, was being destroyed. At the time, people probably assumed I was exaggerating, that I was merely being emotional under the circumstances. After all, many analysts predicted that the conflict would be similar to the 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that this time was different. The intense, nonstop bombardment from air, land, and sea, the mass forced displacement of civilians, and the open calls for eradicating Gaza and its residents by Israeli officials all suggested that this was not just another armed attack or war. By November, multiple reports began to emerge concerning the high number of causalities and destruction in such a short timeframe, and UN experts began warning of the risk of genocide. It was this horrific, previously unimaginable destruction that prompted South Africa to initiate legal proceedings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to investigate the crime of genocide. Although the ruling on the genocide charges is expected to take years, the ICJ’s decision affirmed the very real danger of a genocide occurring and put to rest any notion that Israel’s response to the Hamas attack on 7 October was a proportionate or justified response. It had long since become a war of revenge and campaign of outright destruction.

Six months later, that campaign continues. But while calls for a ceasefire have grown louder and louder in recent months, this demand is no longer enough. The destruction of the last six months has made Gaza potentially uninhabitable. The solution thus cannot be a mere ceasefire, but rather comprehensive reconstruction and accountability for both Israel and the states complicit in its war. The people of Palestine need massive amounts of foreign aid to rebuild, but in order to ensure that Gaza is not destroyed once again in the next outbreak of violence, the occupation of Palestine must end. Palestinians must be able to live peacefully in their homeland as citizens with equal rights. There can be no return to the pre-7 October status quo.

Incalculable Human Costs

The current situation in Palestine did not emerge in a vacuum. In 1948, following the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Plan of Partition for Palestine, which had been under British control since 1920, over 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes as a result of the mass ethnic cleansing and atrocities committed by Zionist militias. In fact, 70 percent of Gaza’s current population are descendants of those refugees. In 1967, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Despite Israel’s “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip in 2005, it continues to exercise control over the land, air, and sea, and functions as an occupying power, despite its claims to the contrary.

Since 2007, Israel has imposed a complete blockade of the Gaza Strip, exerting total control over the movement of people and goods. Alongside movement restrictions, the embargo strictly limits imports and exports, with many medical supplies and equipment banned under so-called “dual use” rules that prohibit items which ostensibly could be used for military purposes. Over the past 17 years, the Gaza Strip endured multiple Israeli attacks which led to significant destruction and displacement. The combination of the siege and the impact of Israeli military operations had already resulted in a state of de-development so severe that, in 2014, the UN warned that the Gaza Strip could become uninhabitable by 2020.

Living under these conditions for an extended period of time has had severe impacts on the mental health of Gaza’s: 58 percent of the adult population in the Occupied Territories showed symptoms consistent with depression, while in Gaza the figure reached 71 percent. According to a 2022 study by Save the Children, 80 percent of children in Gaza reported emotional distress.

It is against this backdrop that Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip began after Hamas’ attack on 7 October 2023. The current destruction is not just worse than previous wars — it is unprecedented in recent history, in particular with respect to the number of deaths in relation to the total population. The UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia reiterated that no other armed conflict in this current century has had such a devastating impact on a population in such a short timeframe, with more than 1 percent of the Gazan population having been killed.

Since 7 October, estimates suggest that more than 1,000 children have lost a limb and 5,000 injured Gazans were living with a disability. These numbers will only increase without an immediate ceasefire. An estimated 335,000 children in Gaza under the age of five are at high risk of severe malnutrition as a result of the forced famine caused by the Israeli blockade, placing an entire generation at risk of stunted growth, reduced learning abilities, and a weakened immune system. One million children are in need of mental health support, and 17,000 are unaccompanied or separated from their parents.

Health practitioners warn of the risks facing pregnant women as well as the effects on the development and long-term functioning of the offspring of women exposed to such levels of violence, stress, and starvation, which is likely to have long-lasting generational effects. The unimaginable violence will leave the people of Gaza, most of whom were already struggling with severe psychological stress after 17 years of siege and military attacks, traumatized for the rest of their lives. The human loss is too grave to comprehend or compensate, and it is unclear if it is possible to recover from these long-term effects.

Boy in the rubble of Jibaliya in the Gaza Strip Photo: IMAGO / Xinhua

Material Devastation

Beyond the immeasurable human costs that will take generations to heal, Gaza has also seen its physical infrastructure, which inhabitants repeatedly rebuilt and developed despite the continuous exposure to Israeli attacks, almost entirely destroyed. The Israeli war has ensured that large swaths of residential areas have been reduced to rubble, while vital infrastructure necessary to support life in the Strip has been pulverized by Israeli bombs, tanks, and bulldozers.

A snapshot from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs dated 15 March 2024 documented damages to essential life services such as Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) services. Only one of the water pipelines from Israel was functioning at 42 percent capacity, 83 percent of groundwater wells were not operating, and all wastewater treatment systems were non-operational (one was partially working). In terms of healthcare provision, 126 ambulances were damaged, only 12 out of the 36 hospitals in Gaza Strip were partially functional, and 24 percent of primary health care facilities were functional. More than 60 percent of Gaza’s schools have been damaged.

The targeting of such key infrastructure and services, which will take years to repair, means people in Gaza will continue to be without access to essential services amid intolerable living conditions. Consequently, they will be at higher risk of diseases and pandemics, with limited access to healthcare. The World Health Organization and other humanitarian actors have warned about the unfolding catastrophe and its long-term effects on the population.

Gaza’s agricultural capacity has also been impacted, with 39 percent of farmland in northern Gaza damaged. Maps produced by the BBC show the agricultural damage, as experts express concern that the loss to Gaza’s agriculture will be permanent. The north of Gaza, which is known for both its strawberries and flowers which were exported around the world prior to the Israeli embargo, and where most of Gaza’s factories are located, has been all but destroyed. Similarly, in the south, much of the agricultural land has been damaged. The people of Gaza, who used to be food-sufficient with regard to some vegetables and fruits, will face food insecurity for years until the land is rehabilitated — if such rehabilitation is even possible.

The overall environmental impact of the war is expected to be significant. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) plans to investigate, although it remains impossible to get an accurate picture of its extent as long as the war continues. According to a UNEP spokesperson, “all reports and data received suggest that the conflict has led to a major increase in pollution of land, soil, water — including the release of hazardous materials into the environment.”

In January, Dr. Balakrishnan Rajagopal, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, compared the destruction of Gaza to other recent wars in a piece for the New York Times: “In parts of Aleppo, up to 65 percent of structures were damaged or destroyed in five years of conflict, while in Mariupol, approximately 32 percent of the structures were damaged or destroyed in a year over 2021 and 2022. In about three months of conflict, a shocking 60 percent to 70 percent of structures in Gaza, and up to 84 percent of structures in parts of northern Gaza, have been damaged or destroyed.”

This immense destruction of homes and infrastructure, what experts call “domicide”, seeks to erase the city’s past and future while at the same time making it uninhabitable. These intentions are evidenced by the attempts to forcibly displace Palestinians from Gaza, and echoed in Israeli officials’ calls to make Gaza unliveable.

Domicide is not just a material loss but also psychological, as people’s homes are where their memories are stored, where they once found peace and comfort. According to a UN report, 650,000 Gazans have no home to which to return. At current capacities, the UN expects the removal of rubble caused by Israeli bombings — which already exceeds 12,000,000 metric tons — to take over four years. Removal is likely to be coordinated with the UN Mine Action Service, as it is responsible for conducting explosive ordnance risk assessments and disposal, a complex and lengthy process. Even after clearing the rubble and leftover explosives, however, it is not clear how to address the pollution and contamination, nor how to address the long-term effects on the population.

The Long Road to Recovery

For the people of Gaza, recovering from such mass devastation will not be easy. An optimistic assessment by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, focusing largely on socioeconomic aspects, suggests it will take decades. The UN Special Rapporteur Rajagopal compared the cost and time of rebuilding Gaza to the restoration of destroyed cities after World War II — an effort that took more than two decades and cost billions of dollars, funded by the US Marshall Plan. Ukraine’s recovery costs after one year of conflict were estimated at 411 billion US dollars, with the reconstruction of Mariupol alone expected to cost more than 14 billion dollars and take up to ten years.

As things stand today, there is no clarity as to who will shoulder these costs. There has been no discussion on a mechanism for providing the necessary funds, nor any substantial commitment from states to contribute towards the reconstruction of Gaza. Even when states did so after previous attacks in Gaza, donors often failed to deliver on their pledges. Furthermore, the siege and the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism — established in 2014 between the UN, Palestinian Authority, and the State of Israel — means that any reconstruction will be slow, as all materials must first be approved for entry by Israel. The fact that numerous scars from previous attacks remained visible prior to the current war demonstrates the insufficiency of existing reconstruction mechanisms.

Given the extent of the destruction and the Israeli blockade, Gaza will likely stay in ruins for at least the next decade, with little hope of a return to a normal life for the people living there. Even if reconstruction were to proceed at a faster pace than after previous attacks, the pollution and contamination, as well as the long-term psychological and social effects of the horrific violence wrought upon the population, make it difficult to say how to address or if it would even be possible to recover.

So far, discussions around the “day after” and reconstruction in Gaza have largely adhered to the same, failed pattern of short-lived reconstruction and ceasefire agreements. None of these agreements have ever included an end to the Israeli occupation, yet a long-term political solution is vital to ensure this cycle of devastation ends. The immense material destruction, psychological trauma, mental and physical loss, and extensive environmental and health impacts cannot be recovered from without accountability, justice, freedom, and the rights to self-determination and a life in peace being extended to all Palestinians. Seventy-five years of impunity granted to Israel have allowed and will continue to allow for such crimes. As long as the status quo persists, Palestinians will live in constant fear that the next round of occupation and devastation is just around the corner.

Accordingly, Israel and the governments who supported this unprecedented and possibly irreversible devastation and loss should be held accountable for crimes committed, which includes taking responsibility and paying for reconstruction. An end to the illegal occupation of Palestine and affirmation of Palestinians’ right to self-determination must be ensured. International tribunals should be established granting Palestinians the opportunity to seek retribution for the crimes they were subjected to.

The last six months have seen untold horrors visited upon the people of Gaza. The only solace that could emerge from this dark chapter is if it helps to build momentum to finally end the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and establish a long-term political solution that guarantees equal rights for all people living on the territory between the River Jordan and the Levantine Sea. Only this can ensure peace and security for Gaza, today and in the future.

Duha Almusaddar works as a programme manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Palestine and Jordan Office.

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