October 18, 2004

VI. A VIOLENT SEASON: DESTRUCTION IN RAFAH, MAY 2004

In May 2004, while Israeli society debated the merits of Ariel Sharon's proposal to "disengage" from the Gaza Strip and a handful of West Bank settlements, the IDF launched a major military campaign in the Gaza Strip that resulted in widespread destruction unprecedented in the current uprising.

Rafah bore the brunt.During forays into the camp, the IDF razed entire rows of houses along the buffer zone and destroyed extensively deep inside Rafah.Armored Caterpillar D9 bulldozers plowed through houses and shops, indiscriminately ripped up roads, destroyed water and sewage systems, and turned agricultural fields into barren patches of earth.Fifty-nine Palestinians were reportedly killed in Rafah during a series of incursions from May 12-24, including eleven people under age eighteen and eighteen armed men.[179]In total, these incursions left 254 houses destroyed and nearly 3,800 people homeless; another forty-four houses were razed in the Rafah area during the same month in smaller operations.May 2004 witnessed a level of destruction unprecedented in Gaza during the uprising the number of homes destroyed that month was 8.75 times the monthly average for Rafah.[180]

Most of the destruction took place between May 18 and 24 during the major incursions into Tel al-Sultan and Brazil.Instead of attempting to control the heart of the camp as many residents expected, the IDF focused its attack on specific neighborhoods whose wide streets facilitated the movement of their forces and would have deprived Palestinian gunmen of cover to move undetected.Israeli forces converged from multiple directions, quickly overwhelming armed resistance with Apache helicopter gunships and Merkava tanks.Based on interviews with the IDF, two Palestinian armed groups, international aid agencies and residents of Rafah, as well as physical examination of the town, Human Rights Watch found little evidence of a sustained battle or resistance in Rafah during the incursions into Tel al-Sultan and Brazil.Instead, extensive destruction of infrastructure and property occurred mostly in areas already under direct Israeli control.Human Rights Watch's research strongly indicates that the nature and scope of the destruction could not have been justified by absolute military necessity.One of the most egregious examples was in the neighborhood of Tel al-Sultan, where two large agricultural fields were destroyed after the area was effectively secured (see below).

During the May 18-24 incursions, the IDF says it found three[181] tunnel entrances: One was in the vicinity of the Termit outpost in the buffer zone.Another, in the Brazil neighborhood, was an incomplete shaft that Rafah residents say had already been sealed by the PNA weeks earlier (see Chapter 4).The third was in the town of Dahaniya, located four kilometers outside Rafah and not connected to any demolitions.[182]The IDF reportedly killed thirty-two Palestinian civilians, of whom ten were under age eighteen, as well as twelve armed fighters.According to UNRWA statistics, the IDF destroyed 166 houses, leaving 2,085 people homeless.

Rampage in Rafah: An Overview

On May 12, an IDF armored personnel carrier (APC) was destroyed in the Rafah buffer zone near Block O, apparently by a rocket-propelled grenade.The APC was heavily laden for explosives to be used in an antitunneling operation.It is unclear whether the APC was on its way to an incursion into the camp or if it was to be used inside the buffer zone only.The powerful explosion killed five soldiers and showered the area with fragments.The military wing of Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.

The attack on the APC more than doubled the number of Israeli fatalities in Rafah over the past four years.And it came one day after the death of six soldiers in an APC during an incursion into the GazaCity neighborhood of Zaytoun.The back-to-back incidents with eleven deaths prompted calls for both strong action and accelerating the "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip.

Shortly after the APC was destroyed in Rafah, IDF troops entered the buffer zone to collect the soldiers' remains.Within hours, tanks, Caterpillar D9s, and helicopters moved against Block O on the evening of May 12, firing shells and missiles as residents fled.Rafah residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch saw small groups of armed fighters approaching Block O as they fled.The flight of the civilians under IDF fire, leaving few eyewitnesses, makes a detailed assessment of the nature and extent of hostilities in Block O difficult.The IDF insists that soldiers engaged in the recovery operation came under constant fire from the area.While there were hostilities in Block O, the nature and extent of the destruction suggest that bulldozing was indiscriminate and excessive.The IDF demolished several rows of houses in Block O, including homes that had been separated from the buffer zone by several others.As nearly all of the housing in this area had been composed of one-story houses and were located on level ground, it is unlikely these homes could have been used to fire at the APC or the recovery teams.

On the second day of the incursion, Israeli forces moved into Qishta, a neighborhood next to Rafah, also facing the border, and spent one day methodically bulldozing shops and small houses, while commandeering taller buildings as sniper outposts.Many residents did not expect an incursion there and were still at home, as Qishta has experienced relatively few demolitions.Eyewitnesses insisted that Palestinian fighters were not operating in the area, and Human Rights Watch researchers found no evidence of battle damage on the sides of remaining buildings that did not face the border.The IDF also destroyed homes that were several rows from the buffer zone; some homes were demolished even though their view to the buffer zone was obstructed by taller buildings that are still standing.Two Israeli soldiers were killed in Qishta and two more wounded late in the operation, but they were apparently shot by snipers stationed outside of Qishta.

[179] As mentioned in the summary of this report, Human Rights Watch's investigation was focused on the pattern of property destruction rather than deaths.Figures on deaths were compiled from an analysis of reporting by local human rights organizations, media accounts, and statements by Palestinian armed groups, supplemented in some cases by Human Rights Watch's own documentation.

[180] The IDF destroyed 429 houses throughout the entire Gaza Strip in May, as well as numerous factories, shops, and fields.Statistics from UNRWA.

[181] This figure conflicts with a list of tunnel discoveries provided by the IDF to Human Rights Watch on July 20, 2004, which lists only two tunnels discovered during this period (on May 22 and May 23).

[182] Human Rights Watch interview with Major Assaf Librati, Spokesman, IDF Southern Command, Tel Aviv, May 25, 2004; Letter from Major Sam Wiedermann, Head of International Organizations Desk, IDF Spokesperson's Unit, to Human Rights Watch, August 22, 2004.