Palestine: poisoned by Israel’s nuclear industry?

Sep 2, 2020

Research in the Hebron region of Palestine shows its inhabitants are suffering the effects of nuclear radiation contamination – and that this radiation is almost certainly emanating from nuclear activities taking place nearby in Israel, and the suspected dumping of Israeli nuclear waste inside Hebron. It may also be a result of weapons containing depleted uranium having been used against the Palestinian people in the past. 

Research Overview

Our meta-analysis looks at research published between 2003 and 2016, including laboratory tests conducted by the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority and the Palestinian Ain Shams and Hebron Universities. It considers levels of specific radionuclides in air, plant, rock, soil and water samples, comparing results with those found elsewhere in the world and with limits established by the World Health Organisation. The samples were tested for radioactive caesium, radon, radium and uranium, and likely sources considered.

Threats to Environmental Human Rights Defenders

Undertaking and disseminating this ground-breaking research is highly risky for Defenders of Territories and related organisations, especially given the shrinking space for human rights Defenders who work on monitoring and documenting violations of international humanitarian and human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

This is particularly the case for those who have tried to monitor transfers of nuclear waste and document related violations. Attacks intended to silence people’s voices include shootings, the burning of people’s properties and limitations on donor funding. The Israeli occupation threatens human rights Defenders, and violates the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, access to information, and the freedom of movement that would enable field research to confirm the suspected use of Palestinian land as a dumping site for Israeli nuclear waste

Research Results

Health Impacts

The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Hebron Governorate reports a significant increase in the number of deaths due to cancers of more than 35 types, especially leukaemia, and prostate, lung, liver, brain, breast, stomach, thyroid, bone, pancreas, colon, ovary, bladder, skin and tongue cancer. Cancer rates are increasing year on year as well – rates in the West Bank doubled between 2010 and 2017. There are also increasing rates of organ, respiratory, skin, eye and chest diseases, and a growing number of cases of infertility, damage to chromosomes, repeated abortions and birth defects (such as children being born without hands). Related immune system deficiencies enable the spread of other diseases as well.

Doctors Accounts

In recent years medical professionals have also told of torn bodies, deep wounds and strange-smelling burns which are strongly suggestive of the use of radioactive materials such as depleted uranium in Israeli weapons. This would cause widespread contamination as well: upon impact depleted uranium shells release radioactive uranium oxide dust into the atmosphere.

Plant, Water and Soil Testing

Soil samples from Wadi Hebron/southern Dhahria contained more than six times the level of radioactive uranium-238 that might be expected to occur naturally. Plant samples similarly contained more than five times the expected level. These exceptionally high levels are almost certainly the result of the burial of depleted uranium from nuclear weapons or nuclear fuel enrichment.

Radium-226 and caesium-137 were found in plant samples as well. Radium-226 was also found at concentrations of up to nine times the World Health Organisation’s allowable concentration, making it the highest level found globally. This isotope is a product of the radioactive decay of uranium-238, and its presence at these levels, in spring waters in particular, is again indicative of nuclear waste buried nearby. In some mineral water samples – especially those from the Ain Gedi springs – radon-222, a decay product of uranium-238 and radium-226, was also found at levels that constitute a radiation hazard. 

Concentrations of radioactive caesium-137 in soil were similarly some of the highest found globally. This isotope does not occur naturally on Earth, it is a product of the nuclear fission of uranium235 and other isotopes in nuclear reactors and weapons. This particularly dangerous radionuclide can contaminate the environment via spent nuclear fuel, nuclear accidents, and leakages from nuclear reactors. It is highly likely that Israel’s antiquated Dimona reactor, which is one of the largest nuclear reactors in the Middle East and the oldest in terms of construction, is a key source.

Community Reports

Anecdotal reports support conclusions that Israel is burying radioactive residues in Hebron, seemingly in some fifty landfill sites across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In the town of Yatta, for example, suspicious Israeli trucks and bulldozers have been reported. Yatta is contaminated with caesium and radioactive uranium, and has high levels of people suffering from cancer, disabilities and deformities (of which more than half are congenital malformations). In Bani Na’im, Bedouin residents confirmed that a large cave had been sealed with cement and bolts by the Israelis. In the town of Dora, rates of lymphoma in children are two to four times higher than in the rest of the West Bank, and in Arab and Jewish communities in Israel. Of these cases, 54% are Burkitt’s lymphoma – which attacks the immune system – compared with just 18% in the rest of the West Bank.

Call for International Solidarity

The international community needs to take immediate action, in the first place by sending an international technical team to the region to examine the nuclear contamination described here and its devastating impacts. All relevant official bodies – including local, Arab and international media, relevant scientific and legal institutions, and human rights and environment stakeholders – also need to act to curb Israeli violations of Palestinian environmental rights, and to ensure Israel implements relevant international treaties such as the Basel Convention.

Palestine also needs support to introduce stronger and more inclusive processes for monitoring and addressing nuclear radiation contamination and its impacts, including support and training for Defenders of Territories enabling them to properly monitor and document violations.

Read the full story of Palestine: poisoned by Israel’s nuclear industry? here (pg14).

In the last few years, Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific’s member groups’ staff, activists and supporters have been beaten, kidnapped, jailed and even murdered while fighting for environmental justice. Our report exposes these injustices and highlights the ongoing struggle for those on the frontlines.

Find out more in our report
Defending territories, Defending our lives: Protecting human rights and the environment in Asia Pacific through system change.

Watch the interview
Rizwana Hasan (FoE Bangladesh), Vitaly Servetnik (FoE Russia) Abeer Butmeh (FoE Palestine) on the repressions against EHRDs .

Listen to our special report on Real World Radio
“International human rights day: cases of serious violations across Asia”

For more information contact:
Emma Harvey
Commutations Coordinator
Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific