By Altaf Moti
According to news reports, Israel has set up pumps near the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, which are capable of flooding the tunnels within weeks by pumping thousands of cubic meters of water per hour into them. The Israeli military has not confirmed or denied this plan, but it has said that destroying the tunnels is a central goal of its campaign against Hamas. Israel claims that the tunnels are used by Hamas to hide hostages, weapons and fighters, and that some of its top leaders such as Yahya Sinwar are hiding underground.
The plan has raised concerns about the potential damage to Gaza’s aquifer and soil, if seawater and hazardous substances in the tunnels seep into them, as well as the possible impact on the foundations of buildings.
Russia has warned Israel against flooding the Gaza Strip tunnels with seawater and said that this step would be a war crime. The US officials quoted by the Wall Street Journal said that opinions in the Biden administration were mixed, with some expressing concern about the Israeli plan while others backing Israel’s efforts to destroy the tunnels.
Israel is considering this method now because it has faced difficulties in locating and destroying the tunnels with conventional means such as explosives and ground forces. It is very unlikely that Israel can disable all Hamas tunnels in Gaza, as they are numerous, hidden, and constantly rebuilt by the militants. Hamas has also learned to adapt to Israel’s methods and improve its tunnel network over time. Therefore, Israel faces a formidable challenge in trying to eliminate the tunnels which are a key asset for Hamas’ military and political strategy.
Potential impacts of flooding the tunnels
The potential impacts of flooding the tunnels with seawater are hard to predict but they could be significant and far-reaching. Here are some of the possible consequences:
Flooding the tunnels could violate international humanitarian law, which prohibits attacks that cause excessive collateral damage or harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.
The legal aspects of flooding the Gaza tunnels with seawater are complex as they involve the application and interpretation of international humanitarian law and human rights law. Some of the main legal questions and challenges are:
– Does flooding the tunnels amount to an excessive and indiscriminate use of force that violates the principle of distinction between combatants and civilians?
– Does flooding the tunnels comply with the rules of environmental protection in armed conflict, or does it cause severe and long-term damage to the natural resources and ecosystems of Gaza and the region?
– Does flooding the tunnels entail the responsibility of Israel to compensate the victims of the harm caused by the operation, or does it fall under the category of lawful acts of war that do not require reparation?
These are some of the legal aspects of the issue that may be raised and debated by different actors such as the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, human rights organizations, and international courts. The legal analysis and evaluation of the issue may depend on the sources and evidence of the law, the facts and circumstances of the case, and the perspectives and interests of the parties involved.
The legal impact of Israel flooding Gaza tunnels could be severe, as it would likely constitute a war crime and a violation of the laws of war. According to the Russian envoy to the United Nations, such a step would be a clear breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the destruction of property and the use of collective punishment against civilians. Israel could also face legal challenges from the International Criminal Court which has jurisdiction over war crimes committed in the Palestinian territories since 2015. Additionally, Israel could be sued by the Palestinian Authority or individual Palestinians for the damages caused by the flooding such as the loss of lives, homes and livelihoods. Israel could also lose the support and trust of its allies especially the United States.
Therefore, Israel’s plan to flood the Gaza tunnels could have serious legal consequences, both domestically and internationally, as well as political and humanitarian ones.
Flooding the tunnels with seawater could have serious negative implications for the local economy such as damage or destruction of buildings, infrastructure, crops, livestock and personal belongings. It could also displace people from their homes and lands and force them to seek shelter elsewhere. It could also affect the livelihoods and incomes of the people especially farmers and fishermen who depend on the land and the sea for their survival. Moreover, it could exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, where poverty, unemployment and food insecurity are widespread. The economic impacts could be both short-term and long-term, depending on the extent and duration of the flooding, and the availability and effectiveness of humanitarian and development assistance.
Israel may face legal challenges and sanctions from the United Nations and other international bodies for violating the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the use of collective punishment.
Israel may face international criticism and condemnation for violating the human rights and dignity of the Palestinians living in Gaza, who already suffer from a humanitarian crisis. Moreover, it could elicit different reactions and opinions from the international community and other actors, such as the US, the Arab countries, the Muslim world, the European countries and other allies of Israel.
Israel may also risk escalating the conflict with Hamas and other militant groups, who may retaliate with more rocket attacks, suicide bombings, and kidnappings of Israeli soldiers and civilians. It may undermine its own security and stability by creating more resentment and radicalization among the Palestinian population, especially the youth, who may lose hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and join the ranks of Hamas and other Palestinian factions.
Flooding the tunnels could damage Gaza’s aquifer and soil, if seawater and hazardous substances in the tunnels seep into them. This could worsen the already dire water crisis in Gaza, where 97 percent of the groundwater is unfit for human consumption and where waterborne diseases are rampant. It could also affect the agricultural sector, which relies on irrigation and accounts for about 11 percent of Gaza’s GDP.
One of the main effects of seawater flooding is soil salinization, which occurs when seawater from floods eventually evaporates but leaves behind its salt content, which accumulates over years in the soil. Soil salinization reduces the fertility and productivity of the soil, and makes it harder for plants to absorb water and nutrients. It also affects the soil structure, texture, and drainage. Soil salinization can be reversed by leaching the salt out of the soil with freshwater, but this requires a lot of water and time, and may not be feasible in arid and water-scarce regions like Gaza.
Flooding the tunnels could endanger the lives and livelihoods of millions of Gazans, who already face severe humanitarian challenges. Gaza is one of the most densely populated and urbanized areas in the world with about more than 2 million people living in an area of 365 square kilometers. About 70 percent of the population are refugees and about 80 percent depend on humanitarian aid. Flooding the tunnels could cause structural damage to buildings, roads and utilities, and force people to evacuate their homes. It could also increase the risk of flooding, landslides and sinkholes especially in the rainy season.
Flooding the tunnels could have profound social impacts on the people of Gaza who have endured decades of occupation, oppression and isolation. The tunnels are not only a source of survival but also of identity, dignity and hope for many Gazans who view them as a symbol of their resilience, ingenuity, and defiance. Flooding the tunnels could affect the social fabric, cohesion and morale of Gaza’s society, which is already fragmented and traumatized by war, violence and displacement. It could also affect the mental health, well-being and coping mechanisms of Gaza’s population especially the children and youth, who make up about half of the population.
Flooding the tunnels could pose technical challenges and uncertainties for both Israel and Hamas, as well as for the experts and engineers involved in the operation.The tunnels are complex and secretive and their exact location, size, depth, and structure are unknown to most of the people. It is unclear how effective and efficient the pumping system is, and how much water is needed to fill and seal the tunnels. It is also unclear how the seawater will behave and interact with the soil and the tunnels, and what kind of reactions and complications it will cause.
Flooding the tunnels with seawater could violate the ethical principles and values of human rights, justice, and dignity which are enshrined in international law and conventions. The tunnels have been used to assert and defend the rights and interests of the people of Gaza, who are subjected to occupation, oppression, and discrimination by Israel and its allies. This Flooding could also challenge the ethical norms and standards of environmental protection and sustainability, which are essential for the present and future generations of Gaza and the region.
Flooding the tunnels could affect the cultural heritage and identity of Gaza, which has a rich and diverse history and culture. The tunnels are part of Gaza’s landscape and memory, and they reflect its character and spirit. Flooding the tunnels could damage or destroy some of the archaeological and historical sites and artifacts that are buried under Gaza, such as the ancient city of Anthedon, the Byzantine church of Jabaliya, and the Ottoman fortress of Qasr al-Basha. It could also affect the cultural expressions and practices of Gaza’s people, such as the art, literature and folklore that are inspired by or related to the tunnels.
In conclusion, Israel’s plan to flood the Gaza tunnels with seawater is a controversial and risky move that could have serious legal, environmental, humanitarian, and political implications for Gaza, Israel and the region. While Israel claims that this is a necessary and legitimate measure to destroy Hamas’ underground network, it could also violate international law and human rights, damage Gaza’s natural resources and infrastructure, and provoke further violence and instability.