- For the logical fallacy, see poisoning the well.
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 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 this 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 widescale persecution and pogroms against the group so accused.
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Well poisoning has been used as an important scorched earth tactic at least since ancient times. In 1462, for example, Prince Vlad III the Impaler of Wallachia utilized this method to delay his pursuing Ottoman Turk adversaries. Whilst retreating through Turkish-controlled Bulgaria, across the Danube River and back to the capital of Wallachia that same year, Vlad's army employed the poisoning of wells and other sources of water, as well as other scorched earth tactics en route to his country on both sides of the Danube, meaning that he deliberately polluted the water supplies of his fellow Romanians even at the cost of their lives if it slowed down his Muslim foes. 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. 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. 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.
Medieval accusations against Jews
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Part of Jewish history
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. 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.
At the end of World War II, Lithuanian Jew Abba Kovner was one of the founders of a secret organization Nakam (revenge), also known as Dam Yisrael Noter ("the blood of Israel avenges", with the acronym DIN meaning "judgement") whose purpose was to seek revenge for the Holocaust. Two plans were formulated. Plan A was to kill a large number of German citizens by poisoning the water supplies of Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich, and Nuremberg. Plan B was to kill SS prisoners held in Allied POW camps. In pursuit of Plan A, members of the group were infiltrated into water and sewage plants in several cities, while Kovner went to Palestine in search of a suitable poison. Kovner discussed Nakam with Yishuv leaders, though it is not clear how much he told them and he doesn't seem to have received much support. According to Kovner's own account, Chaim Weizmann approved the idea and put him in touch with the scientist Ernst Bergmann, who gave the job of preparing poison to Ephraim Katzir (later president of Israel) and his brother Aharon. Historians have expressed doubt over Weizmann's involvement, since he was overseas at the time Kovner specified. The Katzir brothers confirmed that they gave poison to Kovner, but said that he only mentioned Plan B and they denied that Weizmann could be involved. As Kovner and an accomplice were returning to Europe on a British ship, they threw the poison overboard when Kovner was arrested. He was imprisoned for a few months in Cairo and Plan A was abandoned, meaning no well poisoning had actually occurred.
In recent years, unconfirmed reports of well contamination by Israeli settlers in the West Bank have surfaced. Cases include that of rotting chicken carcases found in a well at At-tuwani near Hebron in 2004, although suspected settlers blamed Arab infighting. In the following years, various NGOs reported similar occurrences, accusing settlers of deliberately contaminating cisterns.
Accusations of well-poisoning have also been brought up against Serbs. Most notoriously, Serbs were accused of poisoning Kosovo Albanians. There are also accusations of well-poisoning as a part of the Srebrenica massacre.
- The Winter War, the Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40, William R. Trotter, Aurum Press Ltd, London 2003, ISBN 1-85410-932-4
- The Making of Peace: Rulers, States, and the Aftermath of War edited by Williamson Murray, Jim Lacey Cambridge University Press page 218
- Walter Laqueur (2006) The Changing Face of Antisemitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-530429-2. p.62
- Abba Kovner#Nakam
- Settlers suspected of well attack, BBC News, 13 July 2004.
- Settlers suspected of polluting wells at the Wayback Machine (archived 22 August 2004), Maariv, 13 July 2004, retrieved from Wayback Machine on 18 August 2008.
- AT-TUWANI: Cistern contaminated in Humra Valley, CPTnet, 19 January 2008.
- Water Wars, Channel 4, retrieved on 18 August 2008.
- Running on empty, by Fred Pearce, The Guardian, 1 March 2006
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- David Rohde: Bosnian Serbs Poisoned Streams To Capture Refugees, Muslims Say