I am writing out of deep concern about the proposed demolition of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip. It has come to our attention that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has recently presented you with plans for a trench along the Gaza-Egypt border in Rafah which would involve substantial new home demolitions. I strongly urge you to reject the proposal.
I am writing out of deep concern about the proposed demolition of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip. It has come to our attention that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has recently presented you with plans for a trench along the Gaza-Egypt border in Rafah which would involve substantial new home demolitions. I strongly urge you to reject the proposal. Despite the plans’ devastating impact on the civilian population of Rafah, the IDF has failed to seriously explore less destructive techniques for detecting tunnels and neutralizing the threat they may present. Under these circumstances, the destruction of Palestinian homes would violate international humanitarian law.
As reported in the press, the IDF presented you this week with three plans for digging a trench to block arms smuggling along the Philadelphi route. The project would reportedly entail the destruction of between 200 and 3,000 Palestinian homes, depending on the trench’s width.
Human Rights Watch recognizes that the Philadelphi route is a particularly volatile area and that arms smuggling via tunnels into Rafah does occur. However, in light of alternative, less-destructive methods to stop the tunnels, there is no legal or practical justification for the scale of destruction that even the least extensive version of this project would demand. Rather, these plans are consistent with previous attempts by the IDF to establish a wider border area, empty of Palestinians, to facilitate Israel’s long-term control over the Gaza Strip. The record testifies to an ever-expansive notion of security, by which the IDF destroys homes to expand the buffer zone, builds fortifications closer to Rafah, and then destroys more homes to protect these new positions.
Under international humanitarian law, the summary large-scale destruction of private property cannot be justified solely for the proclaimed purpose of generally enhancing security for an occupying power’s military force, as the IDF has proposed. Even the least extensive of the three options reportedly presented to you would not stand the test of international law. The proposal of the IDF, and its past behavior, strongly suggest that it considers any vestige of civilian structure or presence to constitute a potential military threat. Such an assumption has no validity under international humanitarian law.
Our detailed investigation and analysis of the Rafah border zone—presented in the recent Human Rights Watch report Razing Rafah—found that the IDF has used general security concerns to justify measures that go far beyond what international law allows and what the security of its forces requires. Since 2000, the IDF has continually destroyed homes to expand the buffer zone, which is now 300 meters wide in some areas. In 2003, the IDF completed construction of an eight-meter-high metal wall in the already cleared “buffer zone” to protect its troops patrolling the border. Despite this additional protection, the rate of home demolitions in Rafah tripled in 2003 in comparison with the previous two years.
The trench presented in the current plan is reportedly justified as necessary to block the smuggling of arms from Egypt. It is known that Palestinian armed groups use tunnels to smuggle arms for use in attacks against the Israeli military and civilians (although our research found that the IDF has exaggerated the number of actual tunnels, as opposed to exit shafts, as a pretext to justify further home demolitions and illegally expand the “buffer zone”).
However, our investigation found that the IDF has failed to explore well-established methods to detect and destroy tunnels—like seismic sensors, electromagnetic induction and ground-penetrating radar. Such techniques, which have been used successfully along the Korean demilitarized zone and the U.S.-Mexican border, would obviate or sharply reduce the need for IDF incursions into Rafah that have resulted in many destroyed homes and frequent loss of life. Before insisting on a trench, the IDF should be required to demonstrate to you and the public that these non-lethal and much less destructive alternatives have been tried and found wanting. When Human Rights Watch met with senior IDF officials in October, they provided no such evidence, only blanket and unsupported summary claims.
IDF officials have repeatedly articulated a strategy of home destruction without regard to demonstrated need. “These houses should have been demolished and evacuated a long time ago,” former head of the IDF Southern Command, Major-General Yom-Tov Samiya, told Voice of Israel radio in January 2002. “Three hundred meters of the Strip along the two sides of the border must be evacuated … Three hundred meters, no matter how many houses, period.”
Satellite images published in Razing Rafah show that the IDF has destroyed increasing numbers of homes and other types of property at Rafah’s southern edge. Over the past four years, sixteen thousand people, more than ten percent of Rafah’s population, have lost their homes. Destruction as requested in the current plan would leave thousands more Palestinians homeless in one of the most densely populated places on earth.
Further widening the buffer zone would entail the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods, regardless of whether the homes in them pose a specific threat to the IDF, and would greatly exceed the IDF’s security needs. It is based on the assumption that every Palestinian is a potential military threat and every home a potential base for attack. Such an assumption is incompatible with a most fundamental principle of international humanitarian law (IHL): the duty of an Occupying Power to protect the civilian population under its control and meet its humanitarian needs.
On these grounds, I strongly urge you to reject the IDF’s request in its entirety. If you have any questions about our report Razing Rafah, or you wish to discuss its legal conclusions, I look forward to engaging in that discussion. Attached you will find the Hebrew summary and recommendations from the report.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East and North Africa Division