Tragic deaths in Gaza are a reminder of a world full of unexploded bombs


A man inspects an unexploded Israeli bomb lying in the road in Deir al-Balah, between Gaza City and southern Gaza, on Aug. 1.  (Max Becherer/Polaris/Eyevine)

An Italian videojournalist with the Associated Press, his interpreter and four Palestinians were killed in a string of explosions at an ordnance dump in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday. As The Washington Post's William Booth reports, Simone Camilli and Ali Shehda Abu Afash were filming a crew of Gazan police tasked with defusing the collected munitions. The assignment, for all involved, took a deadly, tragic turn.

Booth describes what happened:

The unsecured dump, protected by a few strands of barbed wire and a drop cloth, was being used to store artillery shells, mortar rounds and other munitions. The ordnance included duds, empty shells, tail fins and casings, alongside pieces of missile cones, firing tubes and unexploded rounds.

Police at the scene said all the ordnance was gathered during the current operation, although some of the casings appeared rusted. They said it was all fired by the Israelis, but it appeared possible that the dump contained spent munitions left behind by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, and other militants.

Unexploded ordnance, the remnants of cluster bombs and fizzled rockets, have long been a danger in the Gaza Strip, which has endured repeated offensives by Israel over the past half decade. Six months after the end of Israel's 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead, the United Nations reported that at least 12 civilians, including six children, had been killed during incidents related to unexploded ordnance, which the U.N. labels "UXO."

By 2012, the casualty rate in Gaza related to UXO incidents was roughly four a month. In February 2013, three children, ages between 4 and 6, were playing near their homes in the Beit Hanoun refugee camp when they unearthed a bomblet that led to serious injuries. Al-Monitor ran a thorough roundup of incidents in 2012 and 2013 here.

It is impossible to know how many of these dangerous devices still sit beneath Gaza's trammeled surface and which fighting force — be it the Israeli army or Hamas militants — is to blame for each incident. Gaza, of course, is hardly the only war-ravaged area that suffers such carnage. Here's the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor's 2012 roundup of casualties from UXOs, land mines and other "remnants of war":

2013_MBT_Casualties

 

From Germany to Hong Kong and many places in between, unexploded bombs from World War I and World War II are still being dug up — and they can often be lethal. Land mines pock-mark former war zones in Africa and the Balkans. Even in the United States and Britain, UXO incidents are still a risk in areas that were once used for military exercises and practice bombing runs.

In Southeast Asia, the legacy of the Vietnam War remains a horribly explosive issue. One glaring example is Laos, where the United States conducted a clandestine bombing campaign between 1964 and 1973, dropping some 2.5 million tons of bombs. A video by Mother Jones illustrates the frequency of the bombing, which, the magazine reports, surpassed "what American planes unloaded on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. Laos remains, per capita, the most heavily bombed country on earth."

Since the 1960s, roughly 50,000 Laotians have been killed by the remnants of these munitions and a quarter of the country's villages remain "contaminated" by Vietnam War-era ordnance, according to the Mines Advisory Group, an organization that monitors unexploded ordnance and other such munitions. Forty percent of the casualties have been children. Unexploded cluster bombs dropped by the United States kill around 100 Laotians annually.

The process of scouring and securing Laos is slow and difficult and costs the United States millions of dollars every year. And that's not the only place where this country has to clean up.

Earlier this year, The Post's Kevin Sieff reported that the U.S. military, which is in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, was leaving behind "800 square miles of land littered with undetonated grenades, rockets and mortar shells." Sieff spoke with an Afghan grazing his flock on the only decent grassland in the environs of a former U.S. military base.

“There’s no other place for us to bring our sheep,” Mohammad Raz Khan, 54, told Sieff. “Every time my sons leave the tent, I worry and worry.”

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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