Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip did not harm the environment, says the UN but the Palestinian government and NGOs disagree.
In a report just published, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) gives Israel's August 2005 Gaza pullout an "environmental clean bill of health".
"The environmental impact of the former Israeli settlements in the Gaza strip was limited and should not constrain Palestinian land-use plans," it said.
"Other than some localised pollution and issues associated with asbestos, the assessment did not find contamination of water, land or buildings that poses a significant risk to the environment or public health."
The UN organisation also noted the presence of household and agricultural waste in dumpsites, adding that most of the soil pollution was at the Erez industrial estate in the northern Gaza Strip.
"Other than some localised pollution and issues associated with asbestos, the assessment did not find contamination of water, land or buildings that poses a significant risk to the environment or public health"
UNEP report in March 2006
The Israeli army destroyed the vast majority of the buildings it evacuated from the Gaza Strip in September last year.
The more than 1.2 million tonnes of rubble left as a result of the pullout has yet to be cleared or recycled.
The responsibility of clearing it lies with the government of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Middle East quartet of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia.
Amjad al-Shawa, who heads the Palestinian NGO Network, a consortium of Palestinian NGOs in the Gaza Strip, disagreed with the UN's findings.
Rubble not cleared
"The rubble has not been removed more than six months after the Israeli pullout and this is causing some serious environmental problems," he told Aljazeera.net.
"We fear that the asbestos could pollute the Gaza aquifer (underground source of water)."
Khamess Mahlwi from the Palestinian environment ministry also expressed concern. "Though asbestos was not used in water pipes but only in buildings, the fibres lying around could easily penetrate the ground and hence the aquifer," he said.
"The solid waste and asbestos lying around are serious health hazards, all the more so that the destroyed sites were pillaged by local residents"
Nahed Abu Daya, Palestinian Hydrology Group in Gaza
Nahed Abu Daya from the Palestinian Hydrology Group in Gaza City, agreed.
"The solid waste and asbestos lying around are serious health hazards, all the more so that some of the destroyed sites were pillaged [by local residents]," she said.
She also said the UN report had failed to take into account the extensive destruction of Palestinian agricultural land during Israel's occupation and settlement of the Gaza Strip.
"In certain areas, the land was systematically levelled so that it doesn't yield as much as it used to," she said.
"It is no surprise that the UN report said water wells were not contaminated by settlers. Gaza lies too close to Israel for them to do so. What happened in Palestinian agricultural areas and after the pullout is the real problem," Abu Daya added.
Separately, the Palestinian environment ministry said in a statement that the report, which was conducted in December 2005 "under difficult circumstances with restricted freedom of movement due to [Israeli army] security measures ... doesn't give the full picture of environmental damage in Gaza" and asked that a more thorough study be undertaken.