Sunday, August 9, 2009

Gaza: Cleaning up explosives, mines, and white phosphorus

GAZA CITY, 9 August 2009 (IRIN) - The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has begun removing 600,000 metric tons of rubble and debris left over from Israel's Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.

More than six months later, the most deadly threat to civilians emanates from unexploded ordnance (UXO) in rubble and underground. Falling rubble and hazardous material, including UXO, have killed 17 and injured at least 25 Palestinians, mostly children, since the operation ended on 18 January, according to UNDP in Gaza.

At least 31 munitions containing white phosphorus have been found. Israel's use of white phosphorus in Gaza was initially denied but was recently acknowledged in an official report but with the claim that it was used only in a manner consistent with relevant international law.

Kerei Ruru, head of the UN Mine Action Team Gaza Office (UNMAT-GO), has been working in Gaza since the end of January to locate and neutralize the UXO.

"Some 4,000 housing units were completely destroyed in the bombardment and UXO risks assessments are conducted on each of the sites," said Ruru.

Most surface contamination was removed by the Gaza authorities, according to UNMAT.

UNMAT is now working to remove UXO buried in thousands of destroyed buildings and in 12,000ha of agricultural land. Ruru's teams are still awaiting permission to access the border areas in the north and east, also a major threat.

Ruru leads five teams operating on the ground in Gaza from British-based NGO Mines Advisory Group (MAG), the implementing partner.

MAG teams located 120 pieces of UXO and 31 unexploded white phosphorous shells in Gaza as of 23 July, said Ruru. As of early June, 28 percent of items discovered contained white phosphorous and 72 percent contained high explosives, according to UNMAT.

After the end of the Israeli operation, UNMAT opened all arterial roads in Gaza, permitting access for humanitarian relief; cleared UXO from 38 UN Children's Fund and government supported schools and four UN Relief and Works Agency schools, industrial and residential areas, and other high-priority buildings, including hospitals and UN facilities.

MAG director Mark Russell has uncovered seven anti-tank mines at one site alone in the Abu Eida area in Jabaliya, where the UNDP will clear rubble.

"Anti-tank mines are used as demolition charges, placed at the base of a structure to level the building, producing a layered effect" said Russell.

Spotting UXO

"The best detection of UXO is done by examining fragmentation from ordnance, entry holes, assessing how much damage the building sustained and eyewitness accounts," said Ruru.

UNMAT also trained UNDP and CHF International NGO rubble removal teams in UXO safety awareness before undertaking rubble removal activities.

The UNDP has found 2,533 sites, all private homes, in addition to 23 public buildings, according to UNDP officer Amran el-Kharouby in Gaza.

The rubble removal project is an essential step to recovery and restoration of services for residents, and aims to safeguard public health and environment and create job opportunities for more than 200,000 Gazans.

UNMAT conducts a risk assessment at each rubble removal site. If the risk is determined to be low, rubble removal continues. If medium, trained members of the rubble removal teams observe potential threats and an UNMAT team remains on call in the area. If the risk is high, UNMAT maintains an UXO team on site daily.

In addition to private homes, hundreds of other targets, including 700 private factories and more than 100 public buildings, were damaged or destroyed during the operation, said El-Kharouby.