This article was originally published in The i Newspaper.

Civilians in Gaza could be at risk of “death and injury” from landmines for decades after the conflict ends, the world’s leading mine clearance organisation has warned.

The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) said that clearing Gaza is likely to take several years due to the density of unexploded ordnance following heavy Israeli bombardment.

MAG – which worked to clear Gaza of landmines following conflicts in 2008 and 2009, and has been tracking and attempting to identify unexploded ordnance in the current war – warned that demining the area would require “almost unprecedented” efforts and cost tens of millions of pounds.

This is largely because clearing densely populated urban areas is around 15 times more expensive and lengthier than rural locations, MAG said. 

Israel has carried out intensive attacks on Gaza since Hamas launched its surprise attack on the country on 7 October, killing 1,400 Israeli citizens and kidnapped hundreds more.

The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor reported a month ago that Israel had already dropped more than 25,000 tons of explosives on the Gaza Strip since 7 October. 

It is not clear how many unexploded devices remain in Gaza, but Dave Willey, MAG’s Programme Quality Director, said it was likely to be in the “high tens of thousands” given the number of bombs dropped and proportion likely to have failed to detonate.

“We anticipate an incredibly difficult and painstaking operation, with unexploded ordnance of different types all requiring a different approach to ensure they are rendered safe,” Mr Willey said. 

“It is going to be a highly pressurised environment in which people will want to rebuild and return to their homes while explosive ordnance experts are trying to tackle the unexploded missiles and projectiles in the rubble.” 

Mr Willey said he is particularly concerned about precision-guided missiles and aircraft-dropped bombs, which can be more complex to defuse, and that his teams are already drawing up technical reports and diagrams on each type of ordinance.

But the experts warned that it would require international funding to ensure it can successfully clear the area. 

MAG’s Regional Director for the Middle East, Najat al Hamri, said: “We know from our experience in places like Raqqa, in north east Syria, and Mosul, in Iraq, that there can be no reconstruction without clearance and that such work is likely to take decades unless there is the global political will and funding to accelerate the huge effort required to enable people to rebuild their shattered communities.”

She said that MAG would have to “work very hard” to warn people of the dangers of returning to bomb damaged homes, with some civilians already returning to their homes during pauses in hostilities. 

This places them “at risk from new explosive contamination and damaged buildings,” she said, adding: “Even those buildings with some structural integrity might be littered with explosive devices and we’ve seen all too often in other contexts that lives are lost because people fail to heed warnings about the risks of returning before clearance has taken place.

“But any efforts to begin survey and clearance work will require political stability, of course, a lasting peace, and the ability to quickly move machinery, equipment and our technical experts into the territory.”

Header photo: Mohammed Ibrahim via Unsplash