OCCUPIED GAZA - UN mine action experts warned on Monday that even when current hostilities end, the risk remains lethally high for civilians in Gaza from unexploded weapons and contaminated rubble throughout the devastated enclave.

Briefing reporters late last month, UN Mine Action Service officers said the war has already left behind around 37 million tonnes of debris, and it could take 14 years to make Gaza safe from unexploded bombs.

The development comes amid reports that at least two individuals suffered serious injuries in Gaza after opening tin cans initially misidentified as booby-trapped food, but which in fact contained fuses for mines.

It is these devices that the Israeli military have been using to detonate larger explosive charges to destroy tunnels and demolish buildings allegedly connected to Hamas militants.

Can of worms

To the inexperienced eye, the metal cans appear harmless. The problems begin when they are opened using the old-fashioned ring-pull provided, said Patrick McCabe, explosive ordnance device operations lead at UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) Palestine.

“The fuses are not dangerous if they are handled by a qualified person due to safe to arm features. However, when taken out of the tin and messed with by individuals not understanding what they are and their purpose [this] can and will lead to arming and functioning of the fuse, causing serious injury.”

It is unclear why the pressure-activated fuses were not destroyed and instead left to be found, continued Mr. McCabe, who urged anyone finding anything resembling the containers to report them immediately to UNMAS or other explosive weapons experts.

The Israeli military “were using these as the explosion charges to destroy the tunnels” in the north of Gaza initially, he explained. “Somehow the fuses appear to have got left behind. They're perfectly safe left in the tins.”


Awareness is key

In an appeal for greater support for lifesaving risk awareness education about unexploded ordnance in Gaza, the UNMAS official said that “the message should be ‘do not touch, do not attempt to open and if open do not touch the item inside.’”

Despite his many years as a mine action expert, Mr. McCabe said “it is always heartbreaking when a child, or anyone”, is injured by unexploded ordinance. “But, it's a fact of war and going to happen, and it doesn't happen just to the good guys [or] the bad guys. Nobody is immune to it.”

Going home danger

Although many Gazans who have been uprooted several times by almost seven months of war are well aware today of the need to stick to relatively safe evacuation corridors to protect themselves, it’s when the hostilities finally end and they go home to start clearing their land that the dangers will become apparent.

Speaking from Gaza to UN News, Mr. McCabe noted that displaced Gazans “coming from the north” away from heavy fighting early in the war and Khan Younis further south more recently “do tend to stay tightly packed and stay to the proven route” for safety.

The parents and grandparents do tend to keep the children close to them, reducing the risk of youngsters walking off into potentially dangerous territory, he added.

Safety in numbers

“Bear in mind that they're normally marshalled as well by troops, watching them from both sides of the corridor, so they tend to stay together and not wander off because obviously if they start wandering off again, it becomes dangerous,” the UNMAS official said.

“So, they do tend to keep together, but that doesn't rule out that an accident could very well happen.”

To help protect them in the meantime, the UN agency has already stepped up its awareness-raising campaigns among camps for internally displaced people, or IDPs.

“We tell them if you see anything avoid it. Don't go near it. Tell someone in charge and then get it reported, and then we can mark it and put a safe area around it. There are mitigation measures in place, and these messages have been getting out to the IDP camps,” Mr. McCabe continued.

Deadly asbestos risk

The UNMAS official noted that in addition to the unknown amounts of unexploded weapons in Gaza today, the rubble left by the hostilities likely contains “hundreds of thousands of tonnes of asbestos”.

This serious health threat should also be identified and cleared as a priority, the UNMAS official said.