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As famine looms, Israel’s offensive is destroying Gaza agriculture

More than six months after the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the Strip’s ability to produce food and drinking water has been severely hampered.

Israeli airstrikes and bulldozers have devastated farms and orchards. Crops abandoned by farmers seeking safety in southern Gaza have withered and livestock left to die.

Ashraf Omar Alakhras had a family farm in Beit Lahia, in northern Gaza, near the border with Israel. In late January, he said, Israeli bulldozers razed it, along with its greenhouses and solar energy projects, to clear space for a militarized buffer zone.

Ashraf Omar Alakhras harvests strawberries on his family farm in Beit Lahia in December 2022. (Courtesy of Ashraf Omar Alakhras)
A view of the Alakhras farm on January 30, after it was demolished during Israel’s ground invasion. (Ashraf Omar Alakhras)

“We work on our big farm that we inherited from our ancestors,” he told The Washington Post, sharing photos and videos of a life that no longer exists. “We grow oranges, lemons, potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes and cucumbers.”

The fate of Alakhras farm has become the history of agriculture in Gaza.

A Post analysis of agricultural data, satellite images and interviews with experts and Palestinians in the Strip reveals how an already vulnerable agricultural system is on the brink of collapse.

Asked for comment on the level of destruction in Gaza’s agricultural sector, the Israel Defense Forces said: “Hamas and other terrorist organizations illegally embed their military assets in densely populated civilian areas.” The IDF added that its actions are “based on military necessity and in accordance (with) international law.”

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Even before the war, most of Gaza’s fruits and vegetables were imported into the enclave. Gaza’s ability to feed its people has been limited for nearly two decades due to the severe blockade by Israel and Egypt, which was implemented after Hamas seized power in 2007. Israel controlled all but one of the border crossings; limited supply of electricity and water; prohibited access to deeper offshore fishing waters; and restricted the import and export of goods.

As a result, farming and fishing were often small-scale but essential activities. Gazans farmed and fished where they could, built rooftop greenhouses, collected rainwater for irrigation, and rigged boats to run on cooking oil or car engines. Small olive groves and fruit trees dotted the landscape.

Young women pick olives during the harvest season at a farm in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza Strip, 2022. (Yousef Masoud/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Local produce—tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, herbs, and red and green chili peppers—went to markets or directly to kitchen tables. Households relied on local production for more than 40 percent of their fruits and vegetables as of 2022, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Agriculture accounted for almost half of Gaza’s total area before the war, according to UNOSAT, the United Nations satellite center; 45 percent of that agricultural land has now been damaged.

UN agricultural damage analysis

Damaged agricultural land

Under international humanitarian law, warring parties cannot deny access to food or water to civilians caught in a conflict, legal experts said. This also extends to food infrastructure.

“With very few exceptions, attacking, destroying, removing or disabling such objects is prohibited,” said Tom Dannenbaum, associate professor of international law at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Dannenbaum added that when civilians face hunger and food and water infrastructure (such as irrigation works and agricultural fields) they do not lose their protected status just because combatants conduct operations from within a civilian population.

He Yin, a satellite image analyst and assistant professor at Kent State University, found that about half of the Strip’s olive and fruit trees were damaged or destroyed on April 3. In northern Gaza, he said, losses could be as high as 71 percent. He used machine learning (a type of artificial intelligence that identifies visual patterns in data) to detect damage to tree crops and greenhouses through satellite images.

Damaged tree crops

Yin discovered that almost a quarter of the enclave’s 7,000 greenhouses have been destroyed; 42 percent were damaged and are likely to be unusable.

Damage to greenhouses

Damage to greenhouses south of Gaza City

Gazans, historically dependent on assistance from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, are now even more dependent on the limited aid allowed. Many forage for edible plants and some, according to the United Nations, have been forced to eat grass and animal feed. . In northern Gaza, residents told The Post they had been surviving on khoubiza, a green leaf that grows naturally in the winter. But when spring came, this source of sustenance disappeared.

A child cries as he waits for food distributed by a charity in Gaza City on February 26. (Omar Qattaa/Anadolu/Getty Images)

Máximo Torero, chief economist of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, said that the level of food insecurity is at a critical stage.

“This is completely man-made,” he said. “And there are thousands of lives, and potentially hundreds of thousands of lives, that are now at risk.”

Compounding the impact of the war, parts of Gaza have lost much of their water supply infrastructure. According to Torero, 50 percent are unusable in northern Gaza, 54 percent in central Gaza, 50 percent in Khan Younis and 33 percent in Rafah. Furthermore, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, only two of the three desalination plants are partially functioning and many Gazans survive on brackish water.

Damage to desalination

Undoing all this damage could take decades.

Georgina McAllister, an assistant professor at Coventry University in England, highlighted the unprecedented path ahead for Gaza’s reconstruction.

“In 30 years of working as a food and agricultural systems specialist in conflict situations, I have never faced this level of devastation and precariousness.”

Methodology

To assess the extent of damage to Gaza’s food infrastructure, The Post reviewed photographic and video evidence, analyzed satellite images and spoke to experts.

He Yin, a satellite image analyst and assistant professor at Kent State University, identified the impact on tree crops and greenhouses with a machine learning program to locate and assess damage visible in satellite images.

Yin manually verified 1,200 randomly distributed samples on high-resolution satellite images from Planet Labs; he estimates a confidence rate of 95 percent. To understand the levels of damage to agricultural land in Gaza, The Post mapped data from the United Nations Satellite Center (UNOSAT), which was obtained by conducting a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) analysis on satellite images from 24 April of this year and comparing this against images from April of the previous seven years.

Satellite images included in this story were provided by Planet Labs.

About this story

Design and development by Talia Trackim. Additional development by Frank Hulley-Jones. Edited by Reem Akkad, Leila Barghouty and Elyse Samuels. Design edition by Junne Alcantara. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent.