Experts weigh in on potential environmental and health challenges Gaza will face after the Israel-Hamas War, and how to solve them


As Israel pounds the Gaza Strip, more than a million Palestinians have been displaced from their homes. A report released earlier this week by The Wall Street Journal claimed that almost 70% of Gaza homes were damaged or destroyed.

When the dust settles, will Gaza be inhabitable?

According to Prof. Amit Gross, several environmental and health hazards in Gaza will require management, and the first is waste.

“There are tons of waste of all kinds,” he told the Magazine – concrete, tires, plastics, organics, ammunition, and explosives. The longer waste sits, the more it can lead to environmental contamination and short- and long-term health risks. For example, the waste can seep into the groundwater and pollute it, making it unsafe to use and drink, said Gross, who is the director of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at the Sede Boqer Campus of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Moreover, he said, if the rumors about flooding Hamas’s extensive tunnel network with seawater are accurate, this would further challenge the water system as it mixes with the groundwater and increases its salinity. The only water source accessible to Gazans within the territory of the Gaza Strip is groundwater from the coastal aquifer, which an expert from the Arava Institute, Clive Lipchin, said was already scarce and polluted.

If the sewage and infrastructure are ruined, this introduces a further risk of bacterial and fungal pollution that can adversely affect both agriculture and the fish in the sea, Gross warned. Soil contaminated with such pathogens must be treated before cultivating fruits and vegetables, as eating them could make people sick. Gross said that food grown with water or in soil contaminated by harmful bacteria has been strongly associated with instances of food poisoning.

At the same time, when the rain washes this pollution into the Mediterranean Sea, it affects the water quality and contaminates the fish population, noted Gross. Consequently, individuals who consume these fish risk falling ill.

In densely populated regions with inadequate sanitation practices, pathogens such as cholera and salmonella tend to be prevalent due to improper disposal of human waste.

“In highly congested areas with polluted water, there can be disease outbreaks,” emphasized Gross. He said vaccination is the most effective solution.

Furthermore, when people leave their homes, animals often take over, such as mice, rats, foxes, and stray dogs, explained Prof. Dorit Nitzan, director of the Masters Program in Emergency Medicine, Preparedness and Response at Ben-Gurion University. She is also the former regional emergency director for the World Health Organization’s European office. Abandoned houses are also a breeding ground for flies and mosquitoes. These insects and animals can carry infectious diseases, such as Shigella or West Nile Virus.

ANOTHER CHALLENGE, Nitzan said, could be asbestos, a commonly used material in building construction, especially prevalent in developing or socioeconomically challenged countries and communities.

Improper demolition of buildings constructed with asbestos-containing materials can release hazardous asbestos fibers into the air, posing a threat to public health. Inhaling these fibers can inflict damage to the lungs and increase the risk of various cancers, notably mesothelioma – a rare and highly lethal cancer affecting the thin membranes lining the chest and abdomen. Nitzan emphasized that mesothelioma ranks among the most deadly cancers, with individuals diagnosed typically surviving between four and 18 months, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Medicine website.

Asbestos would be a potential threat to both Palestinian civilians and the teams of workers expected to engage in post-war clean-up and reconstruction efforts in Gaza. Additionally, Israelis are also at risk due to the airborne nature of asbestos fibers which, when carried by the wind, could travel across the border.

How will Gaza be made inhabitable and better than before?

But Nitzan said that she believes Gaza will be inhabitable – and maybe even more so than it was before. All it would take is “money, experts, and political, diplomatic decision-making.”

She highlighted several steps that Israel and the international community could take to help rehabilitate Gaza.

“First and foremost, we have to ensure that the population is living in safe and very good shelters with water, sanitation, hygiene, and education, as well as good health services,” Nitzan said, noting that this would include the vaccinations that Gross mentioned.

Next, Nitzan said the rehabilitation team must systematically identify potential hazards, assess associated risks, and devise strategies to mitigate and prevent further damage. This would entail enlisting expert professionals in specific fields for each aspect of the repair process.

Finally, she advocated for what is known as a One Health approach – i.e., simultaneously addressing the health and environment of humans, animals, and plants.

The writer is deputy CEO – strategy and innovation for The Jerusalem Post and a senior correspondent. She also co-hosts the Inside Israeli Innovation podcast.