By Shaddad Al-Attili
The world will long remember two stark examples in recent history in which water was used as a weapon. The first was when ISIS took control of dams in Iraq and Syria, controlled the water supply according to its military plans, and repeatedly threatened to blow up dams to flood areas and people, exercising policies consistent with the terrorist doctrine of ISIS. The second example is that of a state, a member of the United Nations – not a terrorist group – that in absence of accountability has practiced organized state terrorism. Since its inception, Israel has enforced a long-term occupation and carried out an enterprise of illegal settlements, land grab, collective punishment, settler violence, and the control and exploitation of the occupied people’s natural resources. On October 9, 2023, Israel decided to cut the water supply for the 2.3 million Palestinians who live in the besieged Gaza Strip. The cutting of water was accompanied by the cutting of electricity, food, and fuel supplies while the besieged people in Gaza were called “human animals.” Israel filmed and broadcasted how water valves were shut down, demonstrating to the international community a complete disregard of international law. It is shocking to see how Western leaders ignore this lack of respect and breach of law and accept the mass killing of innocent civilians while expressing their full solidarity with Israel. As these leaders came to Israel, they asserted their support of a government that has declared its genocidal intent as it wages a war on civilians under the pretext of exercising its right of self-defense! History will remember that Joe Biden of the United States, Emmanuel Macron of France, Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom, Giorgia Meloni of Italy, Olaf Scholz of Germany, Justin Trudeau of Canada, and Ursula von der Leyen of the European Union gave the green light to killing thousands of civilians.
Israel has branded itself as the only democracy in the Middle East and as the “home country of the Jewish people” who experienced one of the worst human tragedies in recent history, the Holocaust, that neither history nor humanity will forget. But it is incomprehensible how those who were oppressed in Nazi European concentration camps, mass-killed in gas chambers, and faced genocide could become oppressors themselves, establish an apartheid regime, and impose a siege on the 2.3 million people in the Gaza Strip – most of whom were forcibly displaced from their towns and villages in 1948. Gazans live in the largest prison on this earth, “concentrated” in an area of 365 square kilometers! Piled on top of each other, with a population density of more than 6,000 habitants per one square kilometer on average; reaching 11,000 in some areas and 17,000 in refugee camps.
On October 9, 2023 Israel launched the war titled “Swords of Iron” in response to Hamas’s military operation “Al-Aqsa Deluge.” Israel declared its war to be a war of the “civilized” against what Yoav Galant, Israel’s defense minister, called “human animals,”*1 cutting off of all means of life support, such as the supply of water, electricity, fuel, food, and medicine.*2
Israel’s 2023 war on Gaza is not only the fifth in 15 years, this assault also exposes the West’s insidious double standards!
By the end of the 27th day of war on Gaza, Israel had dropped approximately 25,000 tons of bombs on Gazans, an explosive force equivalent to two atomic bombs!*3 As of November 1, 8,720 civilian Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and 130 in the West Bank, with over 2,000 remaining under the rubble, two-thirds of them women and children. This number amounts to twice the total number of victims of the previous four wars. The number of injured has approached 30,000, and nearly 200,000 housing units have been destroyed, while 1.4 million people are left outdoors and in shelters.
The cutting of water, food, and electricity supplies is a war crime according to international humanitarian law, and so is the bombing of population centers and residential towers. Other war crimes include targeting and bombing hospitals,*4 forcing displacement under bombardment, using banned weapons, and cutting all kinds of communication, which leaves civilians under fire and bombardment with no means to call for rescue forces to reach the buried and wounded.
Western values have all but disappeared in this war as it has become obvious that (apart from increasingly vocal and numerous crowds) Western leaders and media consider the plight of victims based on their race. The Israeli war on Gaza has Palestinians facing both a brutal war and the Western dehumanization of Palestinians: Palestinian children are considered to be of less value than Israeli children, and Palestinian victims are not worthy of the same sympathy as Israelis and Ukrainians.
A year ago, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen commented on Russia destroying water and gas supplies in Ukraine, saying that the targeting of civilian infrastructure, including water, electricity, and heating gas is a pure “act of terror.”*5 But rather than saying the same thing regarding Israel’s cutting off of water, food, electricity, and fuel to Gaza’s civilian population, she showed solidarity with Israel and green-lighted Israel’s war on Palestinians as an exercise of the right, even the obligation of self-defense!*6 When does an occupying power have the right to defend itself against the population it has occupied? What is certain is that during times of armed conflict, the occupying power has an obligation to protect the occupied civilian population!
Israel is weaponizing water in its war against the Palestinian population in Gaza: The residents of Gaza are exposed to great dangers as a result of Israel cutting off water supplies to Gaza, targeting infrastructure, cutting off fuel and electricity supplies, and putting the Strip’s central sewage treatment plants and small desalination plants out of service.
Von der Leyen’s misrepresentation of EU values has been widely criticized in an open letter signed by more than 700 EU Commission employees.*7 European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell reminded her of EU policies, and before the European Parliament in Strasbourg he underscored that the Union “cannot accept” Israel’s cutting of water supplies to the residents of Gaza, which “clearly” violates international law.*8 Borrell noted the biased position of the European Union president and asserted, “It is clearly stated that depriving a human community under siege of basic water supply is contrary to international law – in Ukraine and in Gaza… If we are unable to say so, for both places, we lack the moral authority necessary to make our voice heard.”*9
Access to clean water and sanitation is a fundamental human right, according to UN Resolution 64/292, adopted in 2010,*10 and any violation is a violation of international law. Cutting off water supplies and destroying the related infrastructure seriously threaten the life and health of the civilian population, especially the most vulnerable groups, such as children, patients, and those displaced to shelter centers. Current water availability has been reduced to less than three liters per person – if available. This forces displaced persons to consume polluted water, regardless of its poor quality, as the Gaza Aquifer is not suitable for human consumption due to its salinity and pollution.*11 According to Fanack Water, an organization that monitors water in the Middle East and North Africa, and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, “More than 97% of the water pumped from the Coastal Aquifer does not meet the standards of the World Health Organization (WHO). This is attributed to two main causes. First, untreated wastewater from effluent is discharged directly into the environment, as 80% of wastewater in the Gaza Strip is not treated at all.”*12 United Nations guidelines are clear – yet have been violated by the Israeli siege on an ongoing basis. The current cutting of water, food, and electricity supplies exacerbates the suffering of the nearly 1.5 million Gazans who are displaced from their homes amid bombardment. Moreover, as close to 2.3 million Gazans are deprived of water, food, and electricity services, they are exposed to the potential outbreaks of pandemics and waterborne diseases.
To force the displacement of Gazans, Israel announced the partial resumption of the water supply in the south of the Strip, using water as a weapon to force displaced people to move towards the south. But the actual resumption of the water supply in Gaza’s south has been minimal, as water cannot be pumped through networks and does not reach reservoirs due to either destroyed facilities or a lack of electric power that would enable pumping.
In the 1976 Madrid Resolution on the Protection of Water Resources and Water Installations in Times of Armed Conflict, the International Law Association addressed the dealing with water and water infrastructure in the context of armed conflict. Article III provides specific prohibitions to protect not only the civilian population but also the natural environment. It states, “The diversion of water for military purposes should be prohibited when doing so would cause disproportionate suffering to the civilian population or significant damage to the ecological balance of the area concerned. Any diversion carried out in order to harm or destroy the minimum conditions for the survival of the civilian population or the balance should be prohibited in any case.” Article VII states, “suspension [of access to water sources] should take place only when the purpose of the war or military necessity imperatively demand the suspension and when the minimum requirements of subsistence for the civil population are safeguarded,”*13 which is clearly not the case in Gaza.
Moreover, the 1997 UN Convention on the Use of Water and Water Infrastructure as a Means of Warfare applies and is violated in this war. Article 29 states, “International watercourses and related installations, facilities and other works shall enjoy the protection accorded by the principles and rules of international law applicable in international and non-international armed conflict and shall not be used in violation of those principles and rules.”*14
The 2019 Geneva List of Principles for the Protection of Water Infrastructure, citing the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, reaffirms that states have the obligation to refrain from using water and water-related infrastructure as a means of war.*15 Israel is violating this obligation in plain sight.
States are obliged to protect the fundamental rights of civilians by prohibiting the use of water as a means of warfare and must secure access to water as a basic human right even in times of conflict.
The Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts outlaws in Article 54 the destruction of “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as …drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.”*16 Likewise, the 2004 Berlin Conference Water Resources Law states under Article 51, “In no event shall combatants attack, destroy, remove, or render useless waters and water installations indispensable for the health and survival of the civilian population if such actions may be expected to leave the civilian population with such inadequate water as to cause its death from lack of water or force its movement.” Article 52 reasserts, “Combatants shall not, for military purposes or as reprisals, destroy or divert waters, or destroy water installations, when such acts would cause widespread, long-term, and severe ecological damage prejudicial to the health or survival of the population or if such acts would fundamentally impair the ecological integrity of waters.”*17 Israel’s actions are leaving Gaza’s civilian population with insufficient water, and water shortages have been used for displacement, which is a clear violation of international and international humanitarian law.
In light of Israeli violations in cutting off water supplies, a group of international jurists, water experts, and activists issued an international appeal that highlights that water is a human right and calls on Israel, as the occupying power, to respect, protect, and implement the human rights of the Palestinians.*18 It notes that the Israeli government’s measures of depriving Gazans of all basic services and supplies constitutes a violation of its obligations under both traditional and customary international law, international humanitarian law, and international human rights law.
The water status in the Gaza Strip was catastrophic prior to October 2023. Its main and only natural water source is the Gaza Aquifer that lies downstream from Israel and suffers from depletion and deterioration due to overextraction, both by Israel and Gazans, and limited replenishment due to low rainfall. Most of the aquifer’s water is unfit for human consumption.*19 While the occupying state recognized Palestinian water rights in the Oslo Accords, the definition of these rights was postponed to the final status negotiations. With no final agreement in sight, Israel has retained control of Palestinian land and natural resources, preventing Palestinians from accessing their water resources that include the Jordan River and the West Bank groundwater basins. Palestinians had planned to supply Gaza with water from the Jordan River, but Israel’s denial of Palestinians’ rightful shares has created a severe water crisis in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The planned corridor between the West Bank and Gaza to ensure territorial contiguity, a corridor with a water link, never materialized.
During Israel’s wars on the Gaza Strip, it has repeatedly targeted and harmed infrastructure – with the international community resuming funding without holding Israel accountable. In the 2014 war, Israel destroyed Al-Mintar water reservoir and the power generation station, paralyzing the water services sector.
Since 2010, combined efforts have been made to alleviate the catastrophic water situation. Nine proposed and partly implemented interventions have included establishing a Regional Seawater Desalination Plant for the southern Gaza Strip, completing the construction and operation of sewage plants, and building small desalination plants. The construction of sewage plants in northern, central, and southern Gaza has been completed, and the necessary electricity for operation was provided, after procrastination from Israel, reducing the amount of untreated wastewater discharged into the Mediterranean Sea. Three water desalination plants supplied approximately 13 million cubic meters, covering approximately 7 percent of the sector’s needs; in addition, purchased water amounted to 18.4 million cubic meters in 2022, covering 10 percent of Gaza’s water needs for domestic use. The remaining need for domestic use is covered by clean water mixed with salinated water or directly pumped from the aquifer.
Currently, with no electricity and fuel, Gaza’s desalination and treatment plants are out of service, and about 130,000 cubic meters of sewage are leaked into the sea on a daily basis. In addition, sewage pools have formed among the rubble and in streets as a result of the damaged infrastructure. The displacement of around 1.5 million Gazans into a so-called security zone – that is cruelly and callously bombarded on a daily basis – has created a sanitary disaster in the shelters, an environment that is conducive to infections and the spread of diseases as water supplies have been cut off. The fear is that disease outbreaks will spread beyond the Gaza Strip.
The day after the war on Gaza ends must take into account UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s comment that the war “did not happen in a vacuum,”*20 meaning that Gaza’s long-term sustainability and stability must be framed within a lasting, meaningful political framework that enables the ending of Israel’s prolonged illegal occupation and that leads to an independent Palestinian state with territorial contiguity. True alleviation of the dire conditions requires that Israel end its occupation and the siege of Gaza. A sovereign Palestinian state must be established to enable peace and security for all. Gaza must be re-empowered to rebuild its port and airport, territorial contiguity must be assured, water rights must be respected, Gaza must have access to energy sources, and commitments must be reaffirmed to build its regional desalination plant. Last but not least, the existing international, human, and humanitarian laws must be enforced.
*1 Emanuel Fabian, “Defense minister announces ‘complete siege’ of Gaza: No power, food or fuel,” the Times of Israel, October 9, 2023; see also “‘We are fighting human animals’ said Israeli defense minister Yoav Galant,” YouTube.
*2 Palestinian water purchases reached approximately 100 million cubic meters, of which approximately 15–20 million cubic meters go to the besieged Gaza Strip. Palestinians also pay for two-thirds of the electricity needs that comes from Israel, while the remaining water is produced from the Gaza Aquifer through desalination plants. See Report of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, Office of the Quartet, May 2023.
*4 “What we know so far about a deadly strike on a Gaza hospital: Palestinian officials say nearly 500 people were killed in an Israeli air raid on Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza,” Aljazeera, October 18, 2023.
*5 “Speech by Ursula von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary on the preparation of the European Council meeting on 20-21 October, 2022,” European Union, October 19, 2022, Strasbourg.
*6 “Press conference by Ursula von der Leyen in Israel,” European Commission, streamed live on October 13, 2023, available on YouTube.
*7 “EU staffers criticize von der Leyen’s ‘uncontrolled’ support of Israel,” Aljazeera, October 20, 2023.
*8 “EU ‘cannot accept’ Israel illegally halting water to Gaza: Borrell,” Euractiv, October 18, 2023.
*9 “EU should oppose Israel stopping water supplies to Gaza as it did in Ukraine,” AlArabiya News, October 18, 2023; see also “EU Should Avoid Complicity in the Commission of War Crimes in Gaza,” Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, October 17, 2023.
*10 “On 28 July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights,” The Human Right to Water and Sanitation, United Nations.
*11 “Gaza in 2020: A Liveable Place?” United Nations, August 2012.
*12 “Water Quality and Use in Palestine,” Fanack Water, July 6, 2023; and The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and the Palestinian Water Authority Issue a Joint Press Release on the Occasion of the World Water Day, March 22, 2021.
*13 Resolution on the Protection of Water Resources and Water Installations, International Law Association, Madrid, 1967.
*14 Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, adopted by the UN General Assembly in May 1997.
*15 The Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure, Geneva Water Hub & The Platform for International Water Law, University of Geneva, 2019, p. 17.
*16 Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, International Committee of the Red Cross.
*17 Berlin Conference (2004): Water Resources Law, International Lawn Association, 2004.
*18 Mohsen Nagheebi et al., “Israel’s Weaponization of Water: An Urgent Call to Provide Full Access to Water Services in Gaza,” FLOWs – The Water Governance Blog at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, October 19, 2023.
*19 “Demand Dignity: Troubled Waters–Palestinians demand fair access to water,” Amnesty International, 2017.
Dr. Shaddad Al-Attili is a senior expert in water and environment issues and conflict resolution. Currently a senior adviser at the Negotiation Department and secretary general of the International Water Bank, he has served as minister at the Palestinian Negotiation Department, water minister, and deputy secretary general of the Union for the Mediterranean, where he headed the water and environmental division. Dr. Attili is also a senior research fellow at Oxford University and in 2013 was admitted to the French Legion of Honor.