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Israeli Plans to Pump Seawater into Alleged Tunnels under Gaza Could Render it Uninhabitable and Destroy Historical Cultural Heritage Sites
19، Dec 2023

Since 7 October 2023, Israel has waged a genocidal campaign against the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip, preceded by explicit statements of intent by Israeli political and military officials – a critical constitutive and distinctive element of the crime of genocide. A key feature of Israel’s ongoing military aggression against 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza is the escalated weaponisation of water, among other necessities vital for the survival of the population. Israel declared total warfare on Gaza’s civilian population, including by announcing a complete siege on Gaza, and employing starvation and thirst as a method of warfare.

Referring to Palestinians in Gaza as “human animals”, Israeli Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant stated on 9 October 2023, “[w]e are imposing a complete siege on Gaza. There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel. Everything is closed”. In a similar vein, May Golan, the Minister for the Advancement of the Status of Women of Israel, also stated, on 7 October 2023, that “[a]ll of Gaza’s infrastructures must be destroyed to its foundation and their electricity cut off immediately”, adding that, “[t]he war is not against Hamas but against the state of Gaza”. The former head of the Israeli National Security Council, Giora Eiland, stated, “Israel should not allow any economic assistance. The people should be told that they have two choices; to stay and to starve, or to leave”. Eiland goes further by outlining a contingency plan in the case that the Israeli-imposed energy shortage in Gaza did not prevent Palestinians from accessing desalinated water sourced from wells in Gaza. He said: “If the energy shortage in Gaza makes it so that they stop pumping out water, that’s good. Otherwise, we have to attack these water treatment plants to create a situation of thirst and hunger and I would say, signal an unprecedented economic and humanitarian crisis”.

As the military offensive approaches its 11-week mark, Israeli officials have acted on these genocidal statements with impunity and blanket support from several Third States, including the United States (US); creating a humanitarian crisis in Gaza that international humanitarian organisations have labelled ‘unprecedented’. Widespread and systematic attacks against Gaza’s civilian population and infrastructure have resulted in the killing of at least 19,453 people, 70% of whom are children and women; the destruction or damage of over 60% of all Gaza’s housing units; and the displacement of around 1.9 million Palestinians, nearly 85% of the population. Simultaneously, targeted attacks on hospitals and the blocking of fuel and electricity have crippled the healthcare system in Gaza, rendering only eight out of 36 hospitals functional.

  1. Background to the alarming health issues

Israeli actions have indeed caused widespread hunger and thirst throughout the entire Strip, as advocated for by Eiland. To exacerbate an already disastrous humanitarian situation caused by the 16-year-long closure, bombing, total siege and widespread famine, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that, eventually, disease could kill more people than Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment of the Gaza Strip if the health system is not repaired. Displaced people, crowded together without clean water or sanitation, are fertile ground for disease. Alarmingly, staph infections, chickenpox, rashes, urinary tract infections, meningitis, mumps, scabies, measles and food poisoning are all reportedly rising, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza. The WHO is particularly concerned about bloody diarrhoea, jaundice and respiratory infections.

While a trickle of aid, including food, water and medicine, has entered Gaza, such aid remains insufficient and inadequate, as well as ineffective without the necessary fuel for collection and distribution, water purification and pumping, as warned by the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), Antonio Guterres. Against this backdrop, the abovementioned death toll is likely to further increase, considering the number of Palestinians reported missing and presumed to be trapped or dead under the rubble, injured Palestinians who might succumb to their wounds,  and Palestinians who might die as a result of hunger, thirst, or disease. The deliberate and persistent denial of access to medical and rescue teams in areas where the Israeli occupying forces (IOF) are deployed, coupled with the absence of adequate medical care, is also poised to increase the number of Palestinians killed.

This latest instance of weaponisation of Palestinian water, among other vital necessities in the Gaza Strip, is a continuation of decades-long systematic denial of Palestinians’ right to water through Israel’s apartheid regime. In Gaza, the water crisis reached a critical juncture in 2007, when Israel imposed its land, air, and sea blockade and closure, which amounts to illegal collective punishment. The closure has, inter alia, severely restricted the entry of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Infrastructure (WASH) items essential for the development and maintenance of water and sanitation infrastructure. Since then, this has only been exacerbated and compounded by six large-scale Israeli military aggressions which have directly and indirectly destroyed crucial WASH infrastructure, in violation of international humanitarian law (“IHL”). Notably, prior to 7 October 2023, the sole water resource in Gaza was already severely overexploited and heavily polluted by agrochemicals and wastewater infiltration, rendering 97% of Gaza’s water unfit for human consumption.

  1. Legal analysis

2.1. Applicable law

The Genocide Convention provides that, when “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”,[1] “[d]eliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” comprises acts of genocide.[2] The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) reproduces this definition and its list of underlying crimes.[3] According to the Elements of Crime accompanying the Rome Statute, “conditions of life” include, inter alia, the “deprivation of resources indispensable for survival, such as food and medical services, or systematic expulsion from homes”.[4] Under the case law of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), these further include “the creation of circumstances that would lead to a slow death, such as lack of proper housing, clothing and hygiene”.[5] Israel’s deliberate deprivation of essential supplies necessary for the survival of the population of Gaza due to the imposed siege, coupled with the admissions of intent by Israeli officials, amounts to a genocidal act.

Furthermore, employing starvation and thirst as a method of warfare is absolutely prohibited under IHL.[6] The blocking  of basic supplies necessary for the survival of the population, including food and clean water, amounts to a war crime.[7] In addition, the core IHL principle of proportionality prohibits “[l]aunching an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”.

2.2. The Gaza Strip: an open-air prison now threatened by underground floodings

Even prior to 7 October 2023, the conditions in the Gaza Strip had already prompted discussions of genocide – as concerns had been raised by, inter alia, National Lawyers Guild in 2014, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in 2014, and the Center for Constitutional Rights in 2016. Scholars, over the years, have warned that the closure and blockade of Gaza may amount to a “prelude to genocide” or a “slow-motion genocide”. In 2007, Israel imposed a land, air and sea closure of the Gaza Strip which further fragmented the Palestinian people and constitutes a prohibited collective punishment.[8] Israel’s fragmentation policy, enacted including through the closure, has not only infringed upon Palestinians’ freedom of movement, but also de-developed Gaza’s economy and undermined all social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights; ultimately violating their collective and inalienable right to self-determination. As a consequence, Gaza is crippled by high levels of poverty, aid dependency, food insecurity, and unemployment, which, coupled with the collapse of essential services such as healthcare and water facilities, has rendered it unliveable, as stressed by several UN reports. Despite this dire reality, Israel has further tightened and maintained its illegal closure and blockade of Gaza.

In November 2023, media reports of Israeli plans to flood alleged tunnels in Gaza with seawater began circulating. This alarming move, vehemently cautioned against by the Palestinian Water Authority and other environmental experts, poses an imminent threat to  Gaza’s only functioning aquifer, which is already on the brink of collapse. If implemented, this action could inflict irreversible environmental damage, leaving a lasting impact for generations to come and worsening the already described ‘uninhabitable’ situation in Gaza. While the Israeli government has not publicly confirmed and acknowledged this, US officials have independently confirmed to media outlets that Israel has begun implementation of the ‘flooding strategy’. Furthermore, an analysis of ground footage and satellite images by Forensic Architecture has successfully geolocated and confirmed the presence and existence of water pump infrastructure installed since the start of Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza. This infrastructure operates beneath one of Palestine’s most important archaeological sites, situated near the al-Shati refugee camp on the Gaza coast.

This reported flooding violates the aforementioned principle of proportionality. Indeed, the alleged targeting of members of armed resistance groups, if any, does not outweigh and fails to justify the enduring of such durable adverse consequences and severe repercussions on Gaza’s environment, the civilian population and essential objects indispensable to the survival of Palestinians in Gaza. Targeting such objects, including “foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works”, further violates IHL, regardless of proportionality considerations.

Moreover, this move, which could have long-term environmental implications, further contributes to mounting evidence that Israel is “[d]eliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”, as per the Genocide Convention. Coupled with the destruction of over 60% of Gaza’s housing units amid poor weather conditions as winter looms, and the complete siege imposed on Gaza, this move not only exacerbates the dire consequences of Israel’s ongoing military campaign but also severely hampers the ability of Palestinians in Gaza to survive as a people.

2.3. The Erasure of Palestinian Culture

For decades, Israel has relentlessly sought to erase Palestinian identity, history, and presence, denying the Palestinian people their fundamental right to self-determination. Such attempts derive from the Zionist settler-colonialism, premised on the removal and replacement of the indigenous Palestinian people from the land. In Gaza, these efforts have been implemented, including through the 16-year-long closure and blockade of the Gaza Strip, along with the different Israeli military offensives against it, which have included the unlawful destruction of Palestinian cultural heritage. This is a fundamental element that enables Israel to further its colonial project in Palestine and to entrench its apartheid regime over the Palestinian people as a whole and their lands, by erasing their cultural identity as a people. As previously warned by Al-Haq, “Israel’s bombardments [...] aim at gradually erasing Palestinian cultural heritage to deny the Palestinian people their right to self-determination over their cultural resources, and by extension threatens their existence as a people”. Indeed, the right of peoples to self-determination includes the right to cultural development.[9]

Israel’s destruction of Palestinian cultural property in its ongoing assault on Gaza exemplifies its decades-long attempts to erase Palestinian presence, history, and identity, is indicative of genocidal intent. In terms of intent to commit genocide through killings,[10] the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”) has considered that the “destruction of historical, cultural and religious heritage [...] may be highly significant since it is directed to the elimination of all traces of the cultural or religious presence of a group”. Considering how relevant is this for a finding on genocide, it endorsed “the observation made in the Krstic case that “where there is physical and biological destruction there are often simultaneous attacks on the cultural and religious property and symbols of the targeted group as well, attacks which may legitimately be considered as evidence of an intent to physically destroy the group.””[11]

Since 7 October 2023, Israel has reportedly damaged or destroyed several Palestinian historical and cultural sites and centres during its aerial bombing campaign and ground invasion of Gaza, in a manner indicative of a pattern that aligns with Israel’s calculated campaign to erase any sign of Palestinian presence, whether human or cultural. According to Heritage for Peace, 104 out of the 325 heritage sites in the Gaza Strip have been fully destroyed or partially damaged, as of 7 November 2023. In particular, it was reported that the Israeli military extensively damaged the Al-Omari Grand Mosque, the largest and oldest in the Gaza Strip, and impacted the Monastery of Saint Hilarion at Tell Umm Amer, which is listed on the tentative list of World Heritage Sites, and the Hammam of Smara, which was constructed over 1,000 years ago. The IOF have further reportedly bombed various cultural institutions, including the Orthodox Cultural Centre, and the Rafah Museum, completely destroying the former.

The Gaza coastline, well-known to be of major archaeological significance in the region, was already under existential threat from repeated Israeli bombings and a 16-year-long closure before the ongoing military aggression and genocidal campaign. Excavations have led to significant archaeological discoveries including a Roman-era city wall and adjacent streets and buildings, a defensive wall (rampart) from the Iron Age – dating to the late 7th century B.C.E. and a fountain, houses, an emporium and a villa from the Greco-Roman City of Anthedon during the Hellenistic and Roman periods between 332 B.C.E. and 324 C.E. It is now mostly ruined beyond repair by the ongoing Israeli military aggression and ground invasion of Gaza, according to analysis carried out by Forensic Architecture. Airstrikes, ground-level bulldozing and the current installation of water pumps under the site have caused the present destruction. For example, Anthedon, a Hellenistic/Roman-era city, has been subjected to over 30 craters caused by air-dropped munitions, ranging in size from 8 to 16 metres in diameter. Large vehicles, (likely bulldozers and tanks) were also used to turn the coastal area into what is likely a military outpost, creating earth mounds raised three or four metres high, likely containing damaged archaeological remnants and artefacts.       

Applying the aforementioned position embraced by international courts and tribunals, this destruction of Gaza’s rich cultural heritage, which occurs alongside the large-scale killing of Palestinians, significantly testifies to Israeli officials and military commanders’ intent to destroy the Palestinian people as well as erasing their identity.

Many of the above-mentioned legal basis are jus cogens norms, which designates non-derogable rules of international law. These include the prohibitions of genocide, apartheid, torture, the non-use of force and basic principles of IHL.[12] Third States must act in line with their obligations under the Genocide Convention, including by unilaterally and collectively taking all feasible action to urgently and definitively ensure an immediate end to the ongoing atrocities, and that Israel refrains from the perpetration of conduct prohibited under Article II of the Convention. Furthermore, Third States are under the customary obligations not to recognise as legal the situation arising from such breaches, not to aid and abet in maintaining them and to cooperate to bring this situation to an end.[13] Furthermore, under Common Article 1 to the Geneva Conventions, the High Contracting Parties must “respect and ensure respect” of IHL, notably by exerting “their influence, to the degree possible, to stop violations of international humanitarian law”.


Israel is deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction, in whole or in part, of the Palestinian people. Palestinians in Gaza have been under a 16-year-long land, air and sea blockade and closure, enduring a 56-year-long illegal military occupation and an apartheid regime as part of Israel’s settler colonial enterprise since Al-Nakba of 1948. Statements made by Israeli officials, dehumanising the Palestinian people and proudly expressing genocidal rhetoric, clearly substantiate their intention to destroy the Palestinian people. Israel’s intent was only made clearer by both further genocidal statements as well as the genocidal acts of the Israeli military. The repercussions of these imposed conditions will reverberate for generations to come and are beyond temporary. Israel is inflicting grave and long-term disadvantages to the population’s well-being and ability to lead a constructive life.

Since 7 October 2023, Israel has gone far beyond proper conduct of hostilities and there is unambiguous evidence of Israeli officials and military’s intent to erase and destroy the Palestinian people in Gaza. In particular, the damaging and destruction of Gaza’s cultural heritage and potentially devastating impacts to the environment caused by Israel’s pumping of seawater, only provide more evidence of Israeli officials and military’s genocidal intent. Indeed, flooding the tunnels of Gaza, with the knowledge of the devastating short and long-term consequences experts have warned of, is a deliberate attempt to deprive resources indispensable for the survival of the Palestinian people in Gaza, already suffering from hunger and thirst due to Israel’s full siege on Gaza, imposed for over two months. It also serves Israel’s colonial project, reinforcing its apartheid regime by erasing Palestinian identity. Therefore, we demand that the international community and Third States meet their legal obligations and take concrete and effective measures to prevent the flooding of Gaza’s tunnels and enforce an immediate ceasefire, and push Israel to reinstate the supply of water, food, electricity and fuel, as well as medical and humanitarian aid, necessary for the survival of the Palestinian population in Gaza.

[1] Genocide Convention (1948), Article II.

[2] Genocide Convention (1948), Article II(c).

[3] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998), Article 6(c).

[4]  Elements of Crimes to Article 6(c).

[5] Prosecutor v. Vujadin Popovic (Judgment), IT-05-88-T, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), 10 June 2010, para. 815

[6] Article 54 of Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions provides the absolute prohibition on starvation as a method of warfare, prohibiting parties to the conflict “to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs”. Rule 53 of the ICRC Customary International Law Database further cites the prohibition of starvation as a customary rule of international law.

[7] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998), Article 8(2)(b)(xxv)

[8] Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), Article 33.

[9] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), Common Article 1(1).

[10] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998), Article 6(a).

[11] ICJ, Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, 26 February 2007, para. 344 referring to International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (“ICTY”), Prosecutor v. Krstić, Trial Chamber, Judgment, 2 August 2001, IT-98-33-T, para. 580.

[12] International Law Commission (“ICL”), Report of the Study Group on Fragmentation of International law: Difficulties arising from the Diversification and Expansion of International Law (13 April 2006) UN Doc A/CN.4/L.682, para. 361; Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America), Merits, Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 1986, para. 190, referring to ICL, para. 1 of the commentary of the Commission to Article 50 of its draft Articles on the Law of Treaties, ILC Yearbook, 1966-II, p. 247.

[13] Article 40(1) and (2), Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, International Law Commission (2001).