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Opinion Piece: Conflict, Climate and Migration in the Context of Gaza

Issued on

Zeitoun Preparatory School

Written by Stephen McCloskey

The United Nations (UN) under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Martin Griffiths, has described the six-month conflict in Gaza as the ‘worst humanitarian crisis I have seen in 50 years'.  Israel’s relentless and indiscriminate airstrikes and ground offensive on a highly vulnerable civilian population of 2.3 million, 1.7 million of whom are refugees, since 7 October 2023 has been compounded by a complete siege of the territory which has pushed hundreds of thousands of Gazans to the brink of starvation.  Over the past six months, 33,175 Palestinians, 13,800 of whom are children, have been killed - which is one in every 70 people in Gaza.  More than 75,886 people have been injured and 8,000 are missing, trapped under rubble.  Five per cent of Gaza’s population is dead, missing or injured, with 15 people killed every hour, six of whom are children.  More humanitarian aid workers (203) - mostly affiliated to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and Palestinian - have been killed in Gaza, a total greater than in any other conflict in the UN’s 78-year history; and 95 journalists and media workers, again mostly Palestinian, have died while covering the conflict.   

The civilian infrastructure has been decimated with 60 per cent of residential units and 80 percent of educational facilities damaged or destroyed; only 10 out of 35 hospitals are partially functioning; 267 places of worship have been damaged; and 83 per cent of ground water wells no longer operational.    Since 2007, Gaza has been subject to an Israeli blockade which choked off the economy, sent unemployment rocketing to 46 per cent and reduced most of the population to extreme poverty.  Following Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October 2023 that killed 1,139 people, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has imposed a complete siege including food, water, fuel and medicines.  Oxfam has accused Israel of ‘using starvation as a weapon of war’, a crime under international humanitarian law.  A total of 28 children have died to date from malnutrition with at least one quarter of Gaza’s population (576,000) ‘one step away from famine’. 

Most of Gaza’s population has been internally displaced multiple times and are living in UN shelters, makeshift structures, tents, or out in the open.  Israel has threatened a ground offensive on the southern city of Rafah, where 1.4 million Palestinians have been forced to flee.  Such an operation would not only cause more mass civilian casualties but completely collapse humanitarian aid services with the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, describing its services at ‘breaking point’.  The agency was already under severe financial pressure when the US, Canada and several European states suspended funding to UNRWA in January 2024 following, so far unsubstantiated Israeli allegations, that twelve (of 13,000) UNRWA staff in Gaza were involved in the Hamas 7 October attacks on Israel.  Several of these countries - Canada, France, Finland, Australia, and Sweden along with the European Union - have all restored their funding to UNRWA.  However, the Biden administration is navigating legislation through Congress that would permanently remove its funding from UNRWA.  As the US is UNRWA’s largest donor, this would have a debilitating impact on the Agency’s work. 

The carbon footprint of war 

A significant side-effect of Israel’s six-months war on Gaza has been the carbon dioxide emissions which in the first sixty days of the offensive ‘were greater than the annual carbon footprint of more than 20 of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries’.  ‘A Multitemporal Snapshot of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Israel-Gaza Conflict’ carried out by academics from Lancaster University and Queen Mary University of London, found that Israel’s military response to 7 October ‘was equivalent to burning at least 150,000 tonnes of coal’.  These carbon emissions resulted from ‘aircraft missions, tanks and fuel from other vehicles’ with nearly half emitted by US cargo planes flying military supplies to Israel.  Although the research has yet to be peer reviewed, it almost certainly represents an under-estimate of war-related carbon emissions as it is based on ‘only a handful of carbon-intensive activities’.  The research also estimates that the carbon costs of rebuilding Gaza will result in higher annual emission figures than over 130 countries, putting them on par with New Zealand.  The academic authors call ‘for mandatory military emissions reporting for both war and peacetime through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’.  Unfortunately, carbon accounting by militaries remains voluntary yet ‘5.5% of total global carbon emissions are attributable to militaries, more than double the proportion attributable to commercial airlines’.  The authors argue that this important research ‘will need to be picked up by civil society and academic researchers’.  

The limits of humanitarianism 

The war on Gaza has raised a troubling predicament for international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) that normally operate within the policy bubbles of humanitarianism and development education.  Is it enough for INGOs to retreat into the policy comfort zone of humanitarian responses to the war on Gaza, when the South African government has launched proceedings against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for breaches of the Genocide Convention?  In its preliminary ruling on South Africa’s application, the ICJ ruled that ‘at least some of the acts and omissions alleged by South Africa to have been committed by Israel in Gaza appear to be capable of falling within the provisions of the Convention’.  It went on to indicate with ‘binding effect’ six provisional measures on Israel’s military forces in Gaza including ‘deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’.  One month after the ruling Amnesty International found that Israel ‘has failed to take even the bare minimum steps to comply’.  In these circumstances, INGOs need to go further than advocating humanitarian responses to Israel’s non-compliance with international law to pushing for greater diplomatic efforts toward achieving a ceasefire.  There has been a collective diplomatic failure in the global North to bring about an end to the conflict which demands much stronger political advocacy from INGOs.   

Irish INGOs, Centre for Global Education and Comhlámh, have organised online sessions to galvanise a development education sectoral response that goes beyond pedagogy to solidarity and advocacy.  These sessions have enjoyed strong levels of participation and manifested deep frustration at the lack of mobilisation on Gaza by the national development education network.  There has been dismay among members that the sector inspired by the practice of Paulo Freire appears to have abandoned his core belief that ‘Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary’.  Freire’s pedagogy is a reminder, too, for those sitting out the war on Gaza and not taking action to end the conflict that: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral’. 

Stephen McCloskey is Director of the Centre for Global Education, a development non-governmental organisation based in Belfast and editor of the journal, Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review.  He is the author of Global Learning and International Development in the Age of Neoliberalism (2022, Routledge). 

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