The plan could spell a humanitarian disaster for water-stressed Gaza, the newspaper says
Soldiers walk through what the Israeli army says is a tunnel dug by Hamas militants inside the Al-Shifa hospital complex in Gaza City, on November 22, 2023. © Ahikam SERI / AFP
Israel is considering using seawater to flood the extensive network of tunnels under Gaza, used by Hamas militants to smuggle goods in and out of the Palestinian enclave, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday, citing sources.
According to US officials interviewed by the paper, the Israeli military assembled an extensive flooding system not far from the Al-Shati refugee camp in northwest Gaza in mid-November. The unit reportedly consists of five pumps capable of drawing thousands of cubic meters of water per hour from the Mediterranean Sea, potentially allowing Israel to flood the underground maze within a few weeks.
The Israeli government informed the US, its key ally, of the initiative last month, sparking debate about whether the plan was feasible, as well as its pros and cons, WSJ sources said. They noted that no final decision on its execution has yet been made and that it is unclear how ready Israel is to implement it.
The plan, the report says, could drive Hamas fighters out of the sprawling system of tunnels, which span hundreds of kilometers, with some passages reaching into Egypt.
The network also provides Hamas and other local Islamist groups with formidable cover from missile strikes and allows them to evade Israel’s blockade. Some tunnels are tall enough for an average man to stand up in, are built from reinforced concrete, and boast a network of communication lines.
However, some US officials are said to have serious doubts about the plan. “We are not sure how successful pumping will be, since nobody knows the details of the tunnels and the ground around them,” one source said.
Meanwhile, Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warned in a WSJ interview that it was hard to estimate how much seawater would seep into the ground or what impact the pumping would have on water and sewage infrastructure.
This sentiment was echoed by Wim Zwijnenburg, an environmental expert, who noted that the flooding could wash hazardous materials out of the tunnels, further contaminating the soil. He also recalled that Gaza’s aquifer has been getting saltier recently due to rising sea levels.
The current hostilities between Israel and Hamas were sparked in early October and have resulted in thousands of dead on both sides, while Hamas took more than two hundred hostages, many of whom have since been released. The fighting has also exacerbated the ever-present water crisis in Gaza. According to the UN, Palestinians receive no more than three liters per day, compared to the healthy minimum of 15 liters.