Israel’s Attorney General should reject the Israeli military’s proposal to destroy up to 3,000 Palestinian homes under the guise of building an anti-smuggling trench along the Gaza-Egypt border, Human Rights Watch said today. The proposal would have a devastating impact on the civilian population and would violate international humanitarian law.

According to press reports, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) presented Attorney General Menachem Mazuz with three plans for constructing a trench on the so-called Philadelphi route, which runs along the southern edge of Rafah on the Gaza-Egypt border. The narrowest route would destroy 200 homes, and the widest would demolish 3,000.

In a letter to the attorney general, Human Rights Watch said that the IDF have failed to seriously explore techniques less destructive to civilian property in order to detect tunnels and neutralize the threat they may present.

“Israel’s security does not require the massive destruction of civilian homes that these trench proposals would entail,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of employing methods to detect and destroy tunnels like those used along the Korean DMZ, the Israeli military is using smuggling as a pretext to demolish more Palestinian homes along the Rafah border.”

An Israeli official has said the widest route would not withstand legal scrutiny. Human Rights Watch has found that even the narrowest option cannot withstand legal scrutiny either. According to international humanitarian law, Israel as an occupying power may destroy civilian property in these circumstances only when “rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.” Destroying such property to improve the general security of the Occupying Power’s military force, or as a broad precaution against hypothetical threats, is prohibited.

“This proposal is consistent with the IDF’s campaign to establish an ever-widening buffer zone empty of Palestinians,” Whitson said. “The IDF destroys homes to expand the zone, builds fortifications closer to inhabited areas, and then destroys more homes to protect these new positions.”

Since 2000, the IDF has illegally destroyed hundreds of homes to expand the buffer zone south of Rafah, which is now up to 300 meters wide. Sixteen thousand people, more than 10 percent of Rafah’s population, have lost their homes. In 2003, the IDF completed construction of an eight-meter-high metal wall in the already cleared zone to protect its troops, and IDF soldiers patrol the border behind this wall. Despite this extra protection, the rate of home demolitions in Rafah tripled in 2003 in comparison with the previous two years.

Human Rights Watch’s detailed investigation of the Rafah border zone, published as a 133-page report in October 2004, found that the IDF has greatly exaggerated the number of actual tunnels as a pretext to justify home demolitions and illegally expand the buffer zone. The IDF has apparently failed to explore well-established methods to detect and destroy tunnels—like seismic sensors, electromagnetic induction and ground-penetrating radar—that have been used effectively on the Mexican-U.S. border and the Korean demilitarized zone.

“Before insisting on a trench, the IDF should show that these non-lethal and much less destructive alternatives have been tried and failed,” Whitson said.