Refaat Alareer is dead. As we started drafting this piece examining the ecological, ethical, social, and health implications of Israel’s reported plan to flood tunnels in Gaza with seawater, Emily learned from a friend that Israel’s bombing in Gaza City killed him, a writer, poet, and professor.
In a poem Alareer posted one month before his own death, he wrote,
If I die, let it be a tale.
If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
. . .
If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale
There is no period ending Alareer’s poem, as if he knew that his voice would be extinguished long before the killings would stop.
Why “must” he die? How many more “must” die? This verb, “must,” is particularly poignant and troubling. It speaks to priorities and calculations that render Palestinian lives, livelihoods, and environmental futures disposable for the sake of the Israeli military and government’s standard of security. Refaat Alareer is dead. More than nine thousand children have been killed. Overall, more than twenty-two thousand people have been killed. To satisfy its military plans, Israel is preparing to salt the land and water of Gaza, to contaminate the aquifer and farmland that are residents’ most basic foundations of life.
The Israeli army’s methods show an utter disregard for the value of Palestinian lives. Israel has barraged Gazans with 29,000 air-to-ground munitions since October, nearly half of which have been unguided. These unguided bombs can stray ten to thirty times further from their targets than precision bombs and have killed staggering numbers of noncombatants. In a place as densely populated as Gaza, this wanton use of “dumb bombs” demonstrates a clear disregard for the value of the humans living near the military’s intended targets.
Likewise, Israel is using water as a weapon, targeting Gaza residents’ water supplies in indiscriminate and devastatingly broad-reaching ways. In October, Israel’s total siege on the Gaza Strip shut off all food and water to the strip’s 2.3 million residents. The tiny trickle of water that Israel has allowed in recent weeks continues to leave hospitals without running water; everyone without the means for basic hygiene, such as washing hands; and families waiting hours in distribution lines to receive less than one gallon per person per day. Much of this scarce water is unsafe to drink. Meanwhile, at some relief sites for displaced residents, four hundred people share a single toilet, again, without the means to wash hands. Communicable diseases are on the rise, and children are the most vulnerable to these illnesses, which can be fatal.
The Israeli government and military have demonstrated that they deem this level of deprivation and death acceptable. As Israel acts in contravention to international humanitarian and human rights law, many United States politicians and diplomats enable them through unwavering support for their military campaign, and international institutions fail to actin opposition.
This same calculation of acceptable collateral damage is evident in Israel’s most recent proposal to render the tunnels under Gaza unusable by Hamas. The military is testing a system to flood Gaza’s tunnels with seawater. As shockingly callous as the flooding plan is, it is not the first time it has been tried. Bedouins living across the border from Gaza in Egypt have experienced the logic of disposability, too. Over the past decade, Egypt has attempted several times to destroy a smaller network of tunnels leading under the Gaza–Egypt border by flooding them with seawater and sewage water. Egypt’s repeated efforts, followed by its resorting to a forced depopulation of the Bedouin population near the border, throws doubt on the tactical viability of successfully flooding the much larger network of tunnels inside Gaza.
Regardless of the flooding plan’s tactical success or failure, it would be a profound ethical blight—on Israel and on any supporters—to view ecological catastrophe as an acceptable cost for this military aim. The ecological damage of war has deep and long reverberations. In this case, the damage would encompass both immediate and future victims, and could spread over a broad geography, as seeping saltwater becomes a form of Israeli violence.
The most direct destruction would be to Gaza residents’ main source of drinking water. The Coastal Aquifer lying underneath the Gaza Strip is the territory’s only source of freshwater. However, the term “fresh” must be highly qualified, as decades of overdrawing and pollution of this groundwater had already rendered ninety-six percent of it unfit for human consumption by World Health Organization standards prior to October 2023. Heavy pumping of groundwater, both from within Gaza as residents use the only water source available to them, and from wells in Israel, which shares access to the aquifer, have lowered the water table significantly. As a result, seawater is moving in, slowly rendering the groundwater more and more saline. Decades of seepage from raw sewage has also polluted the Coastal Aquifer as fiscal limitations, Israeli bombs, and blockade have hampered sewage treatment plants to the point of dysfunction. Agricultural run-off from Israeli and Palestinian farms has deepened the problem.
Pumping “thousands of cubic meters of water per hour into the tunnels” and continuing to do so over the course of weeks, as is the reported plan, would render this precarious resource even more unusable for thirsty Gazans. Although Israel has been responsible for the majority (sixty-six percent) of withdrawals from this aquifer, Israelis have other options for drinking water. Israel has access to other aquifers and is increasingly using seawater desalination. Only Gaza residents currently rely on this aquifer.
The Coastal Aquifer is highly vulnerable to salination if Israel uses seawater to flood the extensive tunnel network in Gaza. The aquifer is shallow and mainly unconfined, exposing it readily to seepage from above. The dense sea water would sink and diffuse through the aquifer’s remaining fresh water. Given its already compromised state, this further contamination could be truly catastrophic for the people relying on it.
Because water flows through aquifers, water contaminated in one area will not stay still. Although the mixing of waters from different depths is slowed somewhat along the coast by the presence of partially separate sub-aquifers, the entire aquifer becomes hydrologically connected two to five kilometers inland. The Coastal Aquifer is also a cross-border formation—running beneath Israel, Palestine, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula—and it is uncertain the extent to which seawater pumped into the aquifer in Gaza could affect cross-border flows, particularly in Egypt.
The flooding of tunnels, many of which run in a webbed network under Palestinian cities, also risks compromising the structural integrity of building foundations and roads. This likelihood to “damage infrastructure,” as some news reports describe it blandly, would mean the further destruction of Gazans’ homes, businesses, and the livelihoods that depend on them, adding to the sixty percent of homes that were already damaged or destroyed as of December 3.
Like the trailing end of Alareer’s poem, the damage caused by Israel’s widespread bombardment and proposed seawater pumping will linger for years. Under Israel’s relentless bombing, Gaza’s farmland currently lies fallow, a year’s harvest lost. But one day, when the bombs stop, Gazan farmers hope to return to their fields. When they do, they will face soil contaminated by hazardous munitions and wartime destruction (as verified after previous military incursions). The soil would be salinized, not only where Israel pumps in seawater, but also in any places where desperate future farmers might use the salty groundwater to irrigate crops. This could make all of Gaza into a sacrifice zone, or “unviable,” as the Palestinian Authority warned in response to the threatened flooding on December 6. The UN Human Rights Office similarly warned, “Israel’s flooding of tunnels with saltwater could have severe adverse human rights impacts, some long term. Goods indispensable to civilian survival could also be at risk, as well aswidespread, long-term, and severe environmental damage. Civilians must be protected.”
Groundwater sabotage would plague Gaza’s residents for generations to come. How many generations “must” be poisoned for the sake of a war?As thousands die in bombings, blue rivers of body bags are filling mass graves in Gaza. Israel’s ongoing ecocide and threat of more promises to make that river flow longer and wider.
Israel is waging its campaign in Gaza on the premise that the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians and the livelihoods and wellbeing of millions more, both today and in future generations, are acceptable sacrifices for the safety of Israelis. It is time to replace the mortal “must” of Alareer’s poem with the imperative of protecting life and dignity for all. “Civilians must be protected.” Protecting civilians requires protecting the environments within which we live. Protecting Palestinian civilians requires recognizing their equal value and refusing to accept their lives and wellbeing as more disposable than others.
To join a growing group of water and environment scholars who are calling for an end to the weaponization of water, read and sign this Call for Action.
 According to one author’s ethnographic interviews in 2023, although impacts on groundwater in the Egypt case were difficult to assess due to displacement, experts in the area are confident that the magnitude of flooding in the larger Gaza tunnel system would negatively impact the aquifer.
 Ethnographic interviews in 2023, including with longtime residents of the Sinai, further attest to the flooding efforts’ failure to fully shut down the tunnels, the subsequent depopulation of the border area, and residents’ grave concerns about the damage further flooding would do to groundwater sources.