The Israeli armed forces have illegally razed thousands of homes, regardless of military necessity, to clear Palestinians from the Gaza-Egypt border and create a “buffer zone,” Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Israeli government is calling for the destruction of hundreds more homes to widen the zone as part of a plan to “disengage” from the territory.
The Israel Defense Force (IDF), which regularly comes under fire along Gaza’s southern edge from Palestinian armed groups, claims that the destruction is militarily necessary. Human Rights Watch found the IDF has made 16,000 people homeless over the past four years, regardless of whether their homes posed a genuine military threat.
According to international law, Israel as an occupying power may destroy civilian property only when “rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.” Destroying property to improve the occupying power’s general security or as a broad precaution against hypothetical threats is prohibited.
“Israel’s conduct in southern Gaza stems from the assumption that every Palestinian is a suicide bomber and every home a base for attack,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This policy of mass home destruction leads to serious violations of international humanitarian law meant to protect civilians.”
The 135-page report, “Razing Rafah: Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip,” focuses on the southern Gaza town of Rafah, where more than 10 percent of the population has lost their homes. As well as research and interviews conducted in Gaza, Israel and Egypt, the report uses satellite imagery, maps, graphs and photographs to document a pattern of illegal demolitions by the IDF. Such a pattern, the report says, is consistent with the political goal of having a wide and empty border area to facilitate long-term control over the Gaza Strip, rather than absolute military necessity.
The IDF gives two main arguments for widening the buffer zone: to close smugglers’ tunnels from Egypt and to enhance the security of IDF forces on the border. While the tunnels and the security of Israeli soldiers are legitimate concerns, the government’s arguments do not withstand scrutiny on either account, Human Rights Watch said.
There is no dispute that Palestinian armed groups use tunnels to smuggle arms for use in attacks against the Israeli military and civilians. But evidence strongly suggests the IDF is using their existence as a pretext to justify home demolitions and illegally expand the “buffer zone.”
In addition to exaggerating tunnel numbers, the IDF has apparently failed to explore well-established methods to detect and destroy tunnels—like seismic sensors, electromagnetic induction and ground-penetrating radar—which would obviate or reduce the need for IDF incursions into Rafah that have resulted in destroyed homes and sometimes loss of life. In some cases, the IDF destroyed groups of houses in order to “close” tunnels that Palestinian authorities had reportedly sealed.
“Instead of destroying the tunnels under the border they control, the Israeli military is launching incursions deeper and deeper into Rafah” Roth said. “This leaves Palestinians homeless and even places IDF soldiers at greater risk.”
Along the Rafah border, IDF forces and Palestinian armed groups regularly exchange fire. But under the pretext of protecting its soldiers, the IDF has taken steps that go far beyond what international law allows and what the security of IDF forces requires. In 2003, for example, the IDF completed construction of an 8-meter-high metal wall in the already cleared “buffer zone” to protect its troops. Despite this extra protection, the rate of home demolitions in Rafah tripled in 2003 in comparison with the previous two years.
“The IDF has a series of sophisticated arguments to justify the destruction in Rafah,” Roth said. “But these arguments crumble under scrutiny, revealing a pattern of unjustified abuse and destruction.”
In mid-May, the Israeli government approved a plan that calls for further widening the “buffer zone” by demolishing “dozens or perhaps hundreds” of homes. The IDF then reportedly recommended demolishing all homes within 400 meters of the border. Such destruction would leave thousands more Palestinians homeless in one of the most densely populated places on earth.
The report also documents Israel’s extensive destruction of Rafah homes and infrastructure in May in apparent retribution for the killing of five IDF soldiers by Palestinian militants. Major IDF operations that month resulted in the destruction of over 200 homes, many of them deep inside the town away from the border. Armored bulldozers plowed through houses and shops, indiscriminately tore up roads, destroyed water and sewage systems, and turned two large agricultural fields into barren patches of earth.
The IDF claims that the destruction was militarily necessary because its soldiers came under attack, but evidence indicates that Palestinian resistance was light, limited and quickly overwhelmed within the initial hours of each incursion. In some cases, the destruction in areas away from the border took place after the IDF had secured the area, in a manner that was time-consuming, deliberate and comprehensive, rather than in the heat of battle.
The United States and European governments have failed to hold Israel accountable for its unwillingness to comply with international law. On the contrary, they fund repairs and re-housing after demolitions occur. The report urges foreign governments to demand that Israel either pay reparations to victims or compensate donors for funds spent to repair unlawful destruction.
The report also criticizes Caterpillar Inc., the U.S.-based company that produces the powerful D9 bulldozer the IDF uses to destroy Palestinian homes and infrastructure. Human Rights Watch called on Caterpillar to suspend sales of D9 bulldozers, parts or maintenance services to the IDF so long as they use this machinery in illegal demolitions. The company should take steps to ensure that it does not knowingly sell its goods and services to customers that will use them to abuse human rights.