Well poisoning is the act of malicious manipulation of potable water resources in order to cause illness or death, or to deny an opponent access to fresh water resources.

Well poisoning has been historically documented as a strategy during wartime since antiquity, and was used both offensively (as a terror tactic to disrupt and depopulate a target area) and defensively (as a scorched earth tactic to deny an invading army sources of clean water). Rotting corpses (both animal and human) thrown down wells were the most common implementation; in one of the earliest examples of biological warfare, corpses known to have died from common transmissible diseases of the Pre-Modern era such as bubonic plague or tuberculosis were especially favored for well-poisoning.

Additionally, well poisoning was one of the three gravest antisemitic accusations made against Jews during the pre-modern period (the other two being host desecration and blood libel). Similar accusations were also made of Koreans living in Japan in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. In both cases, the accusation was never substantiated, but did lead to wide-scale persecution and pogroms against the group so accused.

History of implementation in warfare


Instances of medieval usage


Well poisoning has been used as an important scorched earth tactic at least since medieval times. In 1462, for example, Prince Vlad III the Impaler of Wallachia utilized this method to delay his pursuing adversaries. Nearly 500 years later during the Winter War, the Finns rendered wells unusable by planting animal carcasses or feces in them in order to passively combat invading Soviet forces.[1]

Instances of modern usage


During the 20th century, the practice of poisoning wells has lost most of its potency and practicality against an organized force as modern military logistics ensure secure and decontaminated supplies and resources. Nevertheless, German forces during First World War poisoned wells in France as part of Operation Alberich.[2] A few religions have laws condemning such scorched earth tactics. Most notably Islam, in its scripture, dictates that water-bodies may not be poisoned even during a battle and enemies must be allowed access to water.[citation needed]

Israel poisoned the wells and water supplies of certain Palestinian towns and villages as part of their biological warfare program during the 1948 Palestine war, including a successful operation that caused a typhoid epidemic in Acre in early May 1948, and an unsuccessful attempt in Gaza that was foiled by the Egyptians in late May.[3]

In the late 20th century, accusations of well-poisoning were brought up, most notoriously in relation to the Kosovo Liberation War.[4][5] [6] In the 21st century, Israeli settlers have been condemned due to accusations in the Occupied Territories.[7][8] [9]

As libel against Jews


Medieval accusations against Jews

2000 Jews burned to death in Strasbourg 1349 during the Black Death
A medieval picture showing the libel of a jew poisoning a well and so causing the black death

Despite some vague understanding of how diseases could spread, the existence of viruses and bacteria was unknown in medieval times, and the outbreak of disease could not be scientifically explained. Any sudden deterioration of health was often blamed on poisoning. Europe was hit by several waves of Black Death (often identified as bubonic plague) throughout the late Middle Ages. Crowded cities were especially hard hit by the disease, with death tolls as high as 50% of the population. In their distress, emotionally distraught survivors searched desperately for an explanation. The city-dwelling Jews of the Middle Ages, living in walled-up, segregated ghetto districts, aroused suspicion.[10] An outbreak of plague thus became the trigger for Black Death persecutions, with hundreds of Jews burned at the stake, or rounded up in synagogues and private houses that were then set aflame. With the decline of plague in Europe, these accusations lessened, but the term "well-poisoning" remains a loaded one that continues to crop up even today among anti-Semites around the world.

Walter Laqueur writes in his book The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day:

There were no mass attacks against "Jewish poisoners" after the period of the Black Death, but the accusation became part and parcel of antisemitic dogma and language. It appeared again in early 1953 in the form of the "doctors' plot" in Stalin's last days, when hundreds of Jewish physicians in the Soviet Union were arrested and some of them killed on the charge of having caused the death of prominent Communist leaders... Similar charges were made in the 1980s and 1990s in radical Arab nationalist and Muslim fundamentalist propaganda that accused the Jews of spreading AIDS and other infectious diseases.[11]

Modern instances of antisemitic libel


Allegations of well poisoning entwined with antisemitism have also emerged in the discourse around modern epidemics and pandemics such as swine flu, Ebola, avian flu, SARS, and COVID-19.[12][better source needed]

EU address by Mahmoud Abbas

In his address to the European Parliament on 23 June 2016, in Brussels, Palestinian Authority president and PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas made an unsubstantiated allegation, "accusing rabbis of poisoning Palestinian wells".[13] This was based on false media reports saying Israeli rabbis were inciting the poisoning of water of Palestinians, led by a rabbi Shlomo Mlma or Mlmad from the Council of Rabbis in the West Bank settlements. A rabbi by that name could not be located, nor is such an organization listed.[14]

Abbas said: "Only a week ago, a number of rabbis in Israel announced, and made a clear announcement, demanding that their government poison the water to kill the Palestinians ... Isn't that clear incitement to commit mass killings against the Palestinian people?"[15] The speech received a standing ovation.[13][14][16] The speech was described as "echoing anti-Semitic claims".[16] A day later, on Saturday 26 June, Abbas admitted that "his claims at the EU were baseless".[17][18] Abbas' further said that he "didn't intend to do harm to Judaism or to offend Jewish people around the world."[19] Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated in reaction, that Abbas had spread a "blood libel" in his European Parliament address.[19][20]

See also



  1. ^ Trotter, William R. (2003). The Winter War, the Russo-Finnish War of 1939–40. London 2003: Aurum Press Ltd. ISBN 1-85410-932-4.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  2. ^ Murray, Williamson; Lacey, Jim (eds.). The Making of Peace: Rulers, States, and the Aftermath of War. Cambridge University Press. p. 218.
  3. ^ Morris & Kedar 2023, pp. 752–776, "[p. 752] Taken together, these documents revealed that the Acre and Gaza episodes were merely the tip of the iceberg in a prolonged campaign ... But bulldozing or blowing up houses and wells was deemed insufficient. With its back to the wall, the Haganah upped the ante and unleashed a clandestine campaign of poisoning certain captured village wells with bacteria – in violation of the Geneva Protocol ... The aim of Cast Thy Bread ... like the demolitions, was to hamper an Arab return. Over the weeks, the well-poisoning campaign was expanded to regions beyond the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road and included Jewish settlements captured or about to be captured by Arab troops, and then to inhabited Arab towns, to facilitate their prospective conquest by the Haganah or to hinder the progress of the invading Arab armies ... [p. 768] The Yishuv’s decision to use the bacteriological weapons was taken at the highest level of the government and military and was, indeed, steered by these officers, with Ben-Gurion’s authorization, through the campaign ... [p. 769] The use of the bacteria was apparently fairly limited in Israel/Palestine during April-December 1948, and apart from Acre, seems to have caused no epidemic and few casualties. At least, that is what emerges from the available documentation."; Nashef 2018, p. 143 n. 4 (quoting Pappe 2006); Carus 2017, p. 145, "Some BW programs relied on extremely crude methods, about as sophisticated as those employed by some terrorist groups or criminals ... The same was true of the reported activities associated with the early Israeli program in 1948."; Docker 2012, pp. 19–20, "The urbicide of May 1948 directed against the old Crusader city of Acre involved biological warfare, including poisoning of water, Pappé writing that it seems clear from Red Cross reports that the Zionist forces besieging the city injected ‘typhoid germs’ into the water supply, which led to a ‘sudden typhoid epidemic’. There was a similar attempt to ‘poison the water supply in Gaza’ on 27 May 1948 by injecting typhoid and dysentery viruses into wells; this attempt was fortunately foiled."; Martin 2010, p. 7, "Israeli biological warfare activities included Operation Shalach, which was an attempt to contaminate the water supplies of Egyptian Army. Egypt reports capture of four ‘Zionists’ trying to infect wells with dysentery and typhoid. There are also allegations that a typhoid outbreak in Acre in 1948 resulted from a biological attack and that there were attacks in Egypt in 1947 and in Syria in 1948."; Sayigh 2009, "A unit had been formed to develop biological weapons, and there is evidence that these were used during 1948 to poison the water supplies of Akka and Gaza with typhoid bacteria."; Ackerman & Asal 2008, p. 191, "Egyptian Ministry of Defense and, later, Israeli historians, contend that Israeli soldiers contaminated Acre’s water supply."; Pappe 2006, pp. 73–4 ("The flame-thrower project was part of a larger unit engaged in developing biological warfare under the directorship of a physical chemist called Ephraim Katzir ... The biological unit he led together with his brother Aharon, started working seriously in February [1948]. Its main objective was to create a weapon that could blind people.") and 100–101 ("During the siege [of Acre] typhoid germs were apparently injected into the water. Local emissaries of the International Red Cross reported this to their headquarters and left very little room for guessing whom they suspected: the Hagana. The Red Cross reports describe a sudden typhoid epidemic and, even with their guarded language, point to outside poisoning as the sole explanation for this outbreak ... A similar attempt to poison the water supply in Gaza on 27 May was foiled."); Abu Sitta 2003, "The Zionists injected typhoid in the aqueduct at some intermediate point which passes through Zionist settlements ... The city of Acre, now burdened by the epidemic, fell easy prey to the Zionists. ... Two weeks later, after their "success" in Acre, the Zionists struck again. This time in Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of refugees had gathered after their villages in southern Palestine were occupied. The end however was different. ... The biological crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians in Acre and Gaza in 1948 are still being enacted today."; Leitenberg 2001, p. 289, "As early as April 1948, Ben Gurion directed one of his operatives in Europe (Ehud Avriel) to seek out surviving East European Jewish scientists who could “either increase the capacity to kill masses or to cure masses: both things are important.” At that time, that ‘capacity’ meant chemical and biological weapons ... These were ultimate weapons that could be used either for offense or defense (and the context of the immediate military operations, as well as those that had preceded it, would be the critical factors in that categorization)."; Cohen 2001, p. 31, "It is believed that one of the largest operations in this campaign was in the Arab coastal town of Acre, north of Haifa, shortly before it was conquered by the IDF on May 17,1948. According to Milstein, the typhoid epidemic that spread in Acre in the days before the town fell to the Israeli forces was not the result of wartime chaos but rather a deliberate covert action by the IDF—the contamination of Acre's water supply ... The success of the Acre operation may have persuaded Israeli decisionmakers to continue with these activities. On May 23, 1948, Egyptian soldiers in the Gaza area caught four Israeli soldiers disguised as Arabs near water wells ... It seems that many people knew something about these operations, but both the participants and later historians chose to avoid the issue, which gradually became a national taboo ... Despite the official silence, it appears there is little doubt now about the mission of the failed Gaza operation."
  4. ^ "050228IT". Archived from the original on 7 April 2005.
  5. ^ "International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia – United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia". www.icty.org.
  6. ^ Rohde, David. "Bosnian Serbs Poisoned Streams To Capture Refugees, Muslims Say". Columbia University.
  7. ^ "Settlers suspected of well attack". BBC News. 13 July 2004.
  8. ^ "Settlers suspected of polluting wells". Archived from the original on 22 August 2004. Retrieved 22 August 2004.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link), Maariv, 13 July 2004, retrieved from Wayback Machine on 18 August 2008.
  9. ^ Pearce, Fred (1 March 2006). "Running on empty". The Guardian.
  10. ^ Barzilay, Tzafrir. Poisoned Wells: Accusation, Persecution and Minorities in Medieval Europe, 1321-1422, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022.
  11. ^ Laqueur, Walter (2006). The Changing Face of Antisemitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day. Oxford University Press. p. 62. ISBN 0-19-530429-2.
  12. ^ Angelika Königseder/Carl-Eric Linsler/Juliane Wetzel. "From medieval well-poisoning myths to COVID-19. Antisemitic conspiracy fantasies during epidemics (Object of the Semester, Winter Semester 2020/21)". arthur-langerman-foundation.org. Retrieved 28 February 2023.
  13. ^ a b Khoury, Jack (25 June 2016). "Abbas Retracts Claim That Rabbis Called for Poisoning of Palestinian Wells". Haaretz. Retrieved 27 June 2016.
  14. ^ a b Ravid, Barak; Khoury, Jack (23 June 2016). "Abbas Repeats Debunked Claim That Rabbis Called to Poison Palestinian Water in Brussels Speech". Haaretz Daily Newspaper Ltd. Reuters and The Associated Press. Retrieved 27 June 2016.
  15. ^ Speyer, Lea (26 June 2016). "State Department Refuses to Condemn Abbas's Blood Libel in Speech to European Parliament (VIDEO)". Algemeiner Journal. Retrieved 27 June 2016.
  16. ^ a b Hadid, Diaa (24 June 2016). "Mahmoud Abbas Claims Rabbis Urged Israel to Poison Palestinians' Water". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 June 2016.
  17. ^ "Abbas retracts rabbis 'water poisoning' comment". Al Jazeera Media Network. Source: Agencies. 26 June 2016. Retrieved 27 June 2016.
  18. ^ "Abbas retracts charge that rabbis called to poison Palestinian water". The Jerusalem Post. Reuters. 25 June 2016. Retrieved 27 June 2016.
  19. ^ a b Hadid, Diaa (24 June 2016). "Abbas Retracts Claim That Israeli Rabbis Called for Poisoning Water". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 June 2016.
  20. ^ Emmott, Robin; Williams, Dan (23 June 2016). "Abbas says some Israeli rabbis called for poisoning Palestinian water". Reuters. Reuters. Retrieved 27 June 2016.

Works cited