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I. Summary

These houses should have been demolished and evacuated a long time ago … 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.
- Major-General Yom-Tov Samiya, former head of IDF Southern Command1
I built homes for Israelis for 13 years.  I never thought the day would come when they’d destroy my house. … They destroyed the future.  How can I start all over now?
- Isbah al-Tayour, Rafah resident,former construction worker in Israel2

Over the past four years, the Israeli military has demolished over 2,500 Palestinian houses in the occupied Gaza Strip.3  Nearly two-thirds of these homes were in Rafah, a densely populated refugee camp and city at the southern end of the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt.  Sixteen thousand people – more than ten percent of Rafah’s population – have lost their homes, most of them refugees, many of whom were dispossessed for a second or third time.4

As satellite images in this report show, most of the destruction in Rafah occurred along the Israeli-controlled border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.  During regular nighttime raids and with little or no warning, Israeli forces used armored Caterpillar D9 bulldozers to raze blocks of homes at the edge of the camp, incrementally expanding a “buffer zone” that is currently up to three hundred meters wide.  The pattern of destruction strongly suggests that Israeli forces demolished homes wholesale, regardless of whether they posed a specific threat, in violation of international law.  In most of the cases Human Rights Watch found the destruction was carried out in the absence of military necessity.

In May 2004, the Israeli government approved a plan to further expand the buffer zone, and it is currently deliberating the details of its execution.  The Israeli military has recommended demolishing all homes within three hundred meters of its positions, or about four hundred meters from the border.  Such destruction would leave thousands more Palestinians homeless in one of the most densely populated places on earth.  Perhaps in recognition of the plan’s legal deficiencies, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are not waiting for the government to approve the plan.  Ongoing incursions continue to eat away at Rafah’s edge, gradually attaining the desired goal.

This report documents these and other illegal demolitions.  Based on extensive research in Rafah, Israel, and Egypt, it places many of the IDF’s justifications for the destruction, including smugglers’ tunnels and threats to its forces on the border, in serious doubt.  The pattern of destruction, it concludes, is consistent with the goal of having a wide and empty border area to facilitate long-term control over the Gaza Strip.  Such a goal 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 suicide bomber and every home a potential base for attack.  Such a mindset is incompatible with two of the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law (IHL): the duty to distinguish combatants from civilians and the responsibility of an Occupying Power to protect the civilian population under its control.

This report also documents—through witness testimony, satellite images, and photographs—the extensive destruction from IDF incursions deep inside Rafah this past May. In total, the IDF destroyed 298 houses, far more than in any month since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising four years ago.  The extent and intensity of this destruction was not required by military necessity and appears intended as retaliation for the killing of five Israeli soldiers in Rafah on May 12, as well as a show of strength.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to “disengage” from the Gaza Strip holds little hope of relief to the residents of Rafah.  Under the plan, the IDF will maintain its fortifications and patrols on the Rafah border indefinitely.  The plan explicitly envisions the possibility of further demolitions to widen the buffer zone on the basis of vague “security considerations” that, as this report demonstrates, should not require a buffer zone of the kind that currently exists, let alone further mass demolitions.

This report recommends that the Israeli government cease its unlawful demolitions, allow displaced Palestinians to return, pay reparations to victims, pay to repair unlawful damage, and address the emergency needs of the displaced.  The international community, which funded some of the infrastructure destroyed by the Israeli military and continues to pay for emergency relief, should press Israel to take these steps.  In the meantime, if donors allocate funds to rehouse victims and repair unlawful destruction, they should demand compensation from Israel.

A Pattern in the Rubble

The Israeli military argues that house demolitions in Rafah are necessary primarily for two reasons: to deal with smuggling tunnels from Egypt that run underneath the IDF-controlled border and to protect IDF forces on the border from attack.  Rafah is the “gateway to terror,” officials say – the entrance point for weapons used by Palestinian armed groups against the Israeli military and civilians.  Under international law, the IDF has the right to close smuggling tunnels, to respond to attacks on its forces, and to take preventive measures to avoid further attacks.  But such measures are strictly regulated by the provisions of international humanitarian law, which balance the interests of the Occupying Power against those of the civilian population.

In the case of Rafah, it is difficult to reconcile the IDF’s stated rationales with the widespread destruction that has taken place.  On the contrary, the manner and pattern of destruction appears to be consistent with the plan to clear Palestinians from the border area, irrespective of specific threats.


The IDF argues that an extensive network of smuggling tunnels from Egypt require incursions into Rafah that result in house demolitions.  According to the IDF, a typical tunnel-hunting operation requires Israeli forces to destroy a house covering a tunnel exit as well as houses from which Palestinian gunmen fire at them during the operation.

Based on interviews with the IDF, Rafah residents, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), members of Palestinian armed groups, and independent experts on clandestine tunnels, Human Rights Watch concludes that the IDF has consistently exaggerated and mischaracterized the threat from smuggling tunnels to justify the demolition of homes.  There is no dispute that tunnels exist to smuggle contraband, including small arms and explosives used by Palestinian armed groups, into the Gaza Strip.  But despite the tremendous burden that demolitions have imposed on the civilian population, the IDF has failed to explain why non-destructive means for detecting and neutralizing tunnels employed in places like the Mexico-United States border and the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) cannot be used along the Rafah border.  Moreover, it has at times dealt with tunnels in a puzzlingly ineffective manner that is inconsistent with the supposed gravity of this longstanding threat.  The report makes three main points:

  • Shafts vs. Tunnels.  Israeli officials claim to have uncovered approximately ninety tunnels in Rafah since 2000, giving the impression of a vast and burgeoning underground flow of arms into Gaza.  When pressed about these claims, the IDF admitted the figure refers to tunnel entrance shafts, some of which connect to existing tunnels and others of which connect to nothing at all.  Rather than digging new tunnels, an IDF spokesman told Human Rights Watch, smugglers are often trying to connect to cross-border tunnels that already exist.  This is possible in part because, until 2003, the IDF did not seek to close the tunnels themselves, but merely demolished the Rafah homes in which tunnel entrance shafts – operative or inoperative – were found.  This tactic caused much destruction and homelessness while leaving tunnels largely intact.  Soldiers have been venturing inside tunnels since 2003, though an IDF spokesman told Human Rights Watch that the military does not have the technology to collapse lateral portions of tunnels.  In response to an inquiry from Human Rights Watch, the IDF refused to specify how many tunnels versus entrances had been discovered and destroyed.  The IDF’s approach – namely, the use of ineffective methods for two years, followed by unclear improvements – contrasts sharply with alarmist Israeli statements on tunnels and the flow of arms.
  • Inoperative Tunnels.  In at least three cases, the IDF has destroyed houses containing inoperative tunnels.  In July 2004, residents discovered and reported to the PNA an incomplete shaft in an empty house.  A few days later, the IDF destroyed the house and seventeen other houses nearby, leaving 205 people homeless as well as a factory.  Human Rights Watch’s onsite assessment just after the incursion, as well as interviews with eyewitnesses and a representative of a Palestinian armed group, indicated that the destruction was militarily unnecessary; even in the home with the tunnel entrance, demolition of the whole house was an excessive response to an incomplete shaft that could have been effectively sealed with concrete.  Human Rights Watch documented two other cases in which the IDF appears to have destroyed houses with tunnel shafts that had already been sealed by the PNA.  The IDF claims that PNA closures are incomplete.
  • Alternatives to Home Demolition.  According to tunnel experts consulted by Human Rights Watch, a number of less destructive alternatives exist for the effective detection and destruction of smuggling tunnels.  No one method is guaranteed to work in all situations, but different techniques can compensate for each other’s shortcomings, and overall conditions in Rafah favor the IDF: Only four kilometers of the border run alongside Rafah, and tunnel depth is limited by the water table – approximately forty-five meters in the camp.  In this environment, the IDF could install an array of underground seismic sensors along the border.  Known as an “underground fence,” this method has successfully detected digging activity on the U.S.-Mexico border.  Other methods, such as electromagnetic induction and ground-penetrating radar, could be used to detect tunnels at the point where they cross the IDF-controlled border, and detection is more likely if the tunnels contain electrical wires, lights, and pulley mechanisms, as the IDF claims. Once the IDF detects tunnels underneath the border, it could dig down and neutralize them with concrete or explosives, obviating the need for incursions into Rafah that result in destroyed homes and sometimes loss of life.
Israel in all likelihood has access to such sophisticated technology, either domestically or through the U.S. government, its closest ally.  But the IDF insists it has exhausted all alternatives, and that the current tactics are the only effective way of dealing with the tunnel threat.  Despite three requests from Human Rights Watch, the IDF declined to explain the alternative methods it has attempted to detect tunnels and why they did not work.  While some information regarding tunnels may be sensitive, the enormous impact on the civilian population of demolitions places the burden on Israel to make the case as to why the only way of dealing with tunnels that run underneath IDF positions is to demolish houses deeper and deeper into the camp.

Protecting the Border

Rafah is one of the most violent areas in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).  Over the past four years, the IDF and Palestinian armed groups have regularly exchanged fire at various points along the border.  What follows is a brief description of the fighting on the border rather than a chronology of how it unfolded.

IDF positions fire with large caliber machine guns and tanks at civilian areas.  Based on multiple visits to the area by Human Rights Watch since 2001 and interviews with local residents and foreign diplomats, aid workers, and journalists, this shooting appears to be largely indiscriminate and in some cases unprovoked.  In July 2004, nearly every house on Rafah’s southern edge was pockmarked by heavy machine gun, tank, and rocket fire on the side facing the border.  Bullet holes were not only clustered around windows or other possible sniper positions, but sprayed over entire sides of buildings.  Human Rights Watch researchers also witnessed indiscriminate use of heavy machine gun fire against Palestinian civilian areas in nearby Khan Yunis, without apparent shooting by Palestinians from that area at the time.

On a regular basis, IDF positions and patrols on the border come under attack from Palestinian armed groups using small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.  During three nights in July Human Rights Watch researchers spent in Rafah, Palestinian small arms fire was sporadic while IDF heavy machine guns fired long bursts into the camp.  Representatives of Palestinian armed groups in Rafah told Human Rights Watch that the IDF-controlled border is well-fortified and attacking it is largely in vain, especially because a single 7.62 mm bullet in Rafah costs U.S. $7 (a figure also cited by the IDF as evidence of their success in blocking arms).

Both the IDF and Palestinian armed groups use tactics that place civilians at risk.  Under customary international law, civilians must be kept outside hostilities as far as possible, and they enjoy general protection against danger arising from hostilities.  Human Rights Watch documented multiple cases where the IDF converted civilian buildings into sniper positions during incursions and forced residents to remain with them inside.  In some cases, the IDF coerced civilians to serve as “human shields” while searching Palestinian homes, a practice strictly prohibited by international humanitarian law.5  By attacking the IDF from within populated areas, Palestinian armed groups also place civilians at risk, but Human Rights Watch found no evidence that gunmen fire from inhabited homes or force residents to let armed groups use their homes.

Despite the intense daily gunfire, most homes at the edge of the camp are still inhabited, at least part of the time.  Some residents remain despite the risk, lest the IDF consider their homes abandoned and target it for destruction.  Even when they do leave, however, absence does not constitute abandonment, especially when indiscriminate IDF shooting forces civilians to flee.  One Palestinian, living in the municipal stadium after the IDF bulldozed two of his homes in 2001 and 2004, explained how IDF tactics force Palestinians near the border to leave their homes. “If [the Israelis] want to make you leave the home, they shoot the walls, they shoot the windows,” he said.  “Then they can come and say ‘It is empty,’ and bulldoze the house.”6

Comprehensive statistics on combatant and civilian deaths are unavailable and there is no consensus on how many Palestinian casualties from IDF fire are civilians.  The IDF does not appear to keep statistics of civilian deaths or injuries inflicted by its forces. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 393 residents of the Rafah governorate were killed between September 29, 2000, and August 31, 2004, including ninety-eight children under age eighteen.7  The lowest possible percentage of civilian victims in Rafah is twenty-nine, which is the percentage of women and children killed over the past four years.  The actual figure is undoubtedly much higher because twenty-nine percent presumes that every adult Palestinian male killed was directly participating in hostilities.  In the same period, Palestinian armed groups killed ten Israeli soldiers in Rafah.  One was killed while patrolling the border, in February 2001; four others were killed during incursions inside the camp.  The other five soldiers were killed on May 12, 2004, when Islamic Jihad fighters destroyed an Israeli armored vehicle with a rocket-propelled grenade.8  The IDF invoked this latter incident to justify the further expansion of the buffer zone through wholesale demolition of homes.  As discussed below, it better demonstrates the effects of the IDF’s expansive notion of security.

In this context, the IDF has taken steps that go far beyond what international law allows and what the security of its forces requires.  The IDF has built improved fortifications on the border that by themselves would contribute greatly to the protection of patrols; but these new fortifications were placed deeper inside the demolished area, bringing them closer to the houses, and effectively creating a new starting point for demolitions.  The IDF’s expansive notion of security erodes the spirit of international humanitarian law and is a recipe for ongoing demolitions.

The border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt is 12.5 kilometers long, of which four kilometers run alongside Rafah.  The IDF refers to this border area as the “Philadelphi” corridor or zone, but it is better understood as two distinct areas: a shielded patrol corridor (between the border and IDF fortifications) and a buffer zone (the space between IDF fortifications and the houses of Rafah).  The expansion of both of these areas is illustrated in the satellite imagery included in this report.

Before the uprising, the IDF maintained a patrol corridor along the border some twenty to forty meters wide, separated from the camp in most places by a concrete wall, approximately three meters high, topped with barbed wire.  In some areas, especially the densely populated Block O section of the camp, houses were situated within several meters of the patrol corridor.

Beginning in 2001, as armed clashes erupted in the border area, the IDF launched nighttime raids in Block O and other areas of Rafah, demolishing up to one or two dozen homes in each attack and expelling all residents from the cleared area.  The IDF argued that these demolitions were necessary responses to attacks from Palestinian armed groups, as well as part of anti-tunneling efforts.  These demolitions resulted in a de facto buffer zone between the patrol corridor and the camp, littered with rubble and empty of Palestinians.

By late 2002, after the destruction of several hundred houses in Rafah, the IDF began building an eight meter high metal wall along the border.  This wall, now 1.6 kilometers long, faces the parts of Rafah that used to be closest to the border.  Such a structure would have greatly enhanced the security of IDF patrols by allowing armored vehicles to patrol without being seen by Palestinian snipers, while fortified IDF towers in the patrol corridor and built along the wall could monitor and respond to attacks on the wall from Rafah.  Other security measures permitted under international law, such as restricting access to areas near the wall or taking control of property9 along it (i.e. seizing homes and closing them off in a reversible manner), could have supplemented these moves.  Instead of attempting any of these measures, the IDF resorted to demolitions en masse, without warning, often in the middle of the night.

Most importantly, the IDF built the wall inside the demolished area, some eighty to ninety meters from the border.  Such an expansion doubled the width of the patrol corridor and was not required to safeguard the border, as the previous twenty to forty meter-wide patrol corridor was amply wide enough for multi-lane use by armored vehicles. The IDF’s Merkava tank is 3.72 meters wide, while Caterpillar D9 armored bulldozers, used in demolition operations, are 4.58 meters wide without armor.

The expansion of the patrol corridor brought IDF fortifications closer to the camp, exposing them to risks subsequently invoked to justify further demolitions.  According to satellite imagery taken in May 2004, some two hundred meters of demolished houses separated the metal wall from the last rows of remaining houses.  In total, some fifteen percent of central Rafah’s pre-2000 built-up area has been razed in order to make way for the expansion of both the patrol corridor and the buffer zone.  The IDF invoked the death of five Israeli soldiers in Rafah on May 12, 2004, to demonstrate the need for a wider buffer zone.  This incident instead illustrates the effects of Israel’s inherently expansive notion of security: the armored vehicle carrying the soldiers was conducting an anti-tunneling operation between the metal wall and the camp, not inside the patrol corridor.

According to this logic, the IDF could continue to relocate its positions progressively closer to homes and then destroy them for security purposes.  This explains in part why the rate of house demolitions in Rafah tripled in 2003 compared to the previous two years, after the completion of the wall, even though it should have reduced the perceived need to protect the border.  Similarly, the IDF’s recommendations for further razing are based in part on the perceived need to safeguard a proposed anti-tunneling trench in the buffer zone.  While such a trench in theory could be lawful, it cannot be invoked as a reason to further expand the buffer zone, especially in light of the existence of less destructive methods to detect and neutralize tunnels.

This inherently expansive notion of “security” is incompatible with Israel’s duty as an Occupying Power to balance its own interests against those of the civilian population.  As one IDF officer put it, “I have no doubt that the clearing actions [i.e. house demolition and land razing] have an element of tactical value, but the question is, where do we draw the line?  According to that logic, what prevents us from destroying Gaza?”10

Rampage in Rafah: May 2004

In May 2004, Rafah witnessed a level of destruction unprecedented in the current uprising, resulting in 298 demolished homes.  After Islamic Jihad destroyed the armored personnel carrier (APC) on May 12, the IDF launched a two-day incursion to recover the soldiers’ remains.  IDF tanks and helicopters also led an assault on Block O, reportedly killing fifteen Palestinians, including one fifteen-year-old.  Six others were identified as combatants.11  Claiming that it came under intense fire during the entire operation, the IDF razed eighty-eight homes in Block O and neighboring Qishta area, including houses that had been separated from the buffer zone by three or four rows of homes and could not have been used to fire at the APC or the recovery teams.  Towards the end of the incursion, two Israeli soldiers in Qishta were killed by Palestinian snipers.

From May 18-24, the IDF conducted a major assault called “Operation Rainbow” that penetrated deep into two areas of Rafah – Tel al-Sultan in the northwest and the Brazil and Salam neighborhoods in the east – reportedly leaving thirty-two Palestinian civilians dead, including ten people under age eighteen, as well as twelve armed men.  The IDF also destroyed 166 houses.  The offensive was ostensibly aimed at searching for smuggling tunnels, killing or arresting suspects, and eliminating “terrorist infrastructure.”  The IDF claimed to have discovered three smuggling tunnels during the operation, though later admitted that one of these was an incomplete shaft and another was outside of Rafah and not linked to any house demolitions.

In investigating the events of May 2004 and other demolitions, Human Rights Watch documented systematic violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights abuses by the Israeli military.  During the major May incursions of May 18-24, the IDF destroyed houses, roads, and large fields extensively without evidence that the destruction was in response to absolute military needs, including in areas of Rafah far from the border.  In areas of Brazil further from the border, where incursions were not expected, most of the residents were inside their homes as armored Caterpillar D9 bulldozers crashed through the walls.  Bulldozers allowed residents to flee but proceeded with the destruction before they could remove their belongings.  In some cases away from the border, like the Rafah zoo, the destruction 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 IDF claims its forces came under attack from Palestinians using anti-tank weapons, explosives, and small arms.  Based on interviews with thirty-five Rafah residents and two members of Palestinian armed groups, information provided by the IDF, public statements by Palestinian armed groups and the Israeli government, and after surveying the affected areas, Human Rights Watch believes that armed Palestinian resistance to the May 18-24 operation was light, limited, and quickly overwhelmed within the initial hours of each incursion.  Both sides made tactical choices to maximize their respective advantages: the IDF limited their operations mostly to Brazil and Tel al-Sultan, where they were not expected and Palestinian armed groups laid ambushes in the densely populated heart of the original camp, where they would be more likely to engage the IDF at close quarters.  The main two streets in Tel al-Sultan and Brazil are relatively wide and arranged in grid-like patterns.   The Israeli government designed them in this way during the 1970s to facilitate the movement of its forces and limit cover for Palestinian gunmen.  As a result, throughout the operation there was minimal direct engagement between the IDF and Palestinian armed groups. This contrasts sharply with the fierce multi-day battle in the densely populated heart of Jenin refugee camp in April 2002, which resulted in the death of fifty-two Palestinians, including twenty-seven confirmed civilians and thirteen IDF soldiers.

During the incursions into Tel al-Sultan and Brazil, the IDF employed armored Caterpillar D9 bulldozers in a manner that was indiscriminate and excessive, resulting in widespread destruction of homes, roads, and agriculture that could have been avoided:

  • Houses. In Brazil, Caterpillar D9 bulldozers cleared “tank paths” inside the camp by plowing through blocks of houses as a general precaution against possible attacks with RPGs or roadside bombs, irrespective of the specific threats that international law requires.  The IDF also used D9s to destroy homes near suspected smuggling tunnels and in other areas on a preventive basis, not in response to specific threats.  Other house demolitions had no discernible reason.
  • Road destruction. In both Tel al-Sultan and Brazil, the IDF used Caterpillar D9s to indiscriminately tear up roads, destroying water and sewage networks, and creating a significant public health risk in an already vulnerable community.  In some areas, water shortages forced residents to leave their homes in search of water, putting them at risk of being shot by IDF snipers for breaking curfew.  In total, the IDF destroyed fifty-one percent of Rafah’s roads, usually by dragging a blade known as the “ripper” from the back of the D9 down the middle of the road.  The IDF gave various explanations for this tactic, including the need to clear paths of potential bombs (improvised explosive devices, or IEDs), to sever wires that could be used to detonate explosive devices and to prevent suicide car attacks on Israeli forces. If the IDF was truly concerned about wires and IEDs, it would have used a front mounted device.  Instead they used rear-mounted rippers that afforded no protection for the D9 bulldozers or their drivers from explosive devices in the road.  In addition, as a photograph in Chapter 6 taken from another incursion shows, the ripper creates a path of debris down the middle of the road, leaving side lanes intact for use by suicide car attacks.  Tearing up paved roads also creates loose debris that facilitates the concealment of explosives and booby-traps.
  • Razing Agricultural Land. The IDF razed two large tracts of agricultural land outside the Tel al-Sultan housing project away from the border.  Such destruction after the IDF had secured the area was disproportionate to any potential military gain and had a harmful impact on an area where agricultural production plays an important role.  The IDF told Human Rights Watch that military vehicles destroyed agricultural land because they had to avoid booby-traps on roads, but this does not explain why bulldozers spent more than two days systematically destroying two large fields of greenhouses. 

While research focused on the extensive destruction in the Rafah camp, Human Rights Watch also documented other abuses during the incursions into Tel al-Sultan and Brazil, including unlawful killings of civilians and IDF troops coercing civilians to serve as “human shields.”  Most egregiously, on March 19, an Israeli tank and helicopter opened fire on a demonstration, killing nine, including three children under age eighteen.  The IDF did not claim that its troops had come under fire, only that gunmen were in the crowd; eyewitness accounts and video evidence contradict this.  In response to an inquiry from Human Rights Watch, the IDF said that one those killed had been listed in its records as a “Hamas activist” but did not substantiate or even reaffirm the claim that he had been armed at the time.

Doctrines of Destruction

As the Occupying Power in the Gaza Strip, the IDF has two roles: an administrator with police and security powers, and a potential belligerent who may engage in fighting.  But at all times it is responsible for protecting the civilian population, in accordance with both international humanitarian law (the laws of armed conflict) and human rights law.

International humanitarian law permits an occupier to take the drastic step of destroying property only when “rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.”12  According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), military operations are “movements, manœuvres and actions of any sort, carried out by the armed forces with a view to combat.”13  A belligerent occupation cannot be considered a “military operation” in itself, nor can every activity conducted by the Occupying Power be considered a military operation; rather, a military operation must have some concrete link to actual or anticipated fighting.  Destroying property to improve the general security of the occupier or as a broad precaution against hypothetical threats is prohibited.  As the ICRC stated during the May incursions in Rafah, “the destruction of property as a general security measure is prohibited.”14  Even during military operations, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilian objects are not allowed.  Civilian property may not be destroyed unless it is making an effective contribution to military action and its destruction offers a definite military advantage.  In cases in which the targeted object is normally dedicated to a civilian purpose, such as a house, the presumption under the law is that it is not a legitimate target.

Outside of combat, the Occupying Power may take measures to enhance its security.  Among other things, it can temporarily take control of property to prevent its hostile use, build fortifications, and prohibit access to certain areas, but these measures must be compatible with a fuller range of human rights protections, including the right to compensation for properties seized.  Although it has denied the applicability of international human rights instruments to Palestinians in the OPT, Israel is widely considered to be bound by these laws.   International human rights law obliges Israel to provide effective judicial remedies for victims of forced eviction and to ensure adequate housing for Palestinians

The IDF’s unlawful policy of destruction is consistent with public statements by Israeli officials, the IDF’s disturbingly permissive interpretation of international law, and its own admission that destruction has been excessive:

  • The IDF has publicly admitted destroying houses to “weaken the fear of tunnels”15 or in response to other hypothetical risks.  This doctrine conflates the legal requirement of absolute military necessity – a strict standard requiring that any property destruction must be connected to combat – with the much broader notion of security.  This conflation is consistent with the expressed desire of senior IDF officers, from Sharon’s days as head of the IDF Southern Command in the early 1970s16 through Yom-Tov Samiya’s statements quoted at this summary’s beginning, to raze all homes near the border.
  • The IDF’s military manual misinterprets international law to permit destruction even when it violates the laws of armed conflict, a standard that is far more permissive than that of other major militaries.  According to the IDF manual, “The Hague Conventions state that unnecessary destruction of enemy property is forbidden. … The only restriction is to refrain from destroying property senselessly, where there is no military justification, for the sheer sake of vandalism.”17  The IDF manual does not mention that military necessity is commonly understood among major militaries to exclude actions that are expressly prohibited by the rules of IHL, since military necessity was incorporated into the formulation of those rules.18  The manual also does not require that property destruction be absolutely necessary or that it conform to fundamental principles of IHL, such as the duty to refrain from indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks.  The IDF manual is far more permissive than, for example, the U.S. and Canadian military manuals, which require some connection between destruction and the overcoming of enemy forces.19
  • Senior IDF officers have admitted that not all property destruction is authorized or justified in such operations.  After the IDF destroyed approximately sixty houses in Block O in January 2002, Major-General Doron Almog, then head of the Southern Command, announced that some of the houses had been inadvertently destroyed due to “navigational errors.”20  Brigadier-General Dov Zadka told the press on one occasion that he had approved a particular scope of “clearing,” only to find that troops had exceeded the approved amount.  “You approve the removal of thirty trees, and the next day you see that they removed sixty trees,” he said.21  Even if these were mistakes, compensation and/or reparation should be made in such cases.  Despite this, the IDF has apparently not investigated any cases of improper or unlawful house demolitions.

Rafah is not the only place where the IDF has extensively destroyed property in the name of security.  Throughout the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces have created buffer zones near IDF bases, illegal settlements, and Israeli-only bypass roads by systematically leveling houses and agricultural fields.22

For decades, the IDF has demolished homes for various reasons.  Most prominent have been punitive – or “deterrent” – demolitions aimed at the family homes of Palestinians engaged or suspected of engaging in armed activities.  Such collective punishments are strictly forbidden by international humanitarian law.23  Israeli authorities have also destroyed Palestinian houses in the West Bank and Israel ostensibly for violating building code regulations.  These demolitions are not the focus of this report but have been extensively addressed elsewhere.24

Nowhere to Turn

Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) have nowhere to turn in Israel for legal protection against unlawful demolitions and forced evictions.  The IDF, the Supreme Court, and the Knesset have all played a role in denying effective remedies.

An IDF spokesman and an IDF legal officer told Human Rights Watch that  they had no knowledge of any investigations into cases of unlawful or improper house demolition,25 even though the IDF military police had opened 173 investigations of damage to property in the OPT as of May 2004 (thirty-four percent of the total number of investigations opened in the OPT).26  The Israeli Supreme Court has consistently sanctioned IDF policies that violate international law, including house demolitions aimed at collectively punishing families of militants and those destroyed to make way for the illegal “separation barrier” under construction inside the occupied West Bank.27  And under Israeli law, compensation is ruled out in cases of “combat activity,” which the Knesset amended in 2002 with an expansive definition that includes virtually every IDF action in the OPT.

The international community has forcefully condemned unlawful destruction in Rafah and elsewhere in the OPT.  But donors who have invested heavily in Gaza, including in infrastructure and facilities destroyed by the IDF, have found themselves entangled in a dilemma.  On the one hand, the knowledge that international aid money will pay to reconstruct what has been destroyed is likely to fuel the IDF’s sense of impunity for unlawful destruction.  On the other hand, donors know that restricting or reducing aid would harm Palestinian victims.  Under international law, Israel is responsible for unlawful damage caused by its forces and cannot misuse aid meant for Palestinians to evade its own obligations.  As such, Human Rights Watch recommends that the international community press Israel to either pay reparations to victims or to compensate donors directly for any funds spent on repairing unlawful destruction.


A Human Rights Watch team of three researchers spent a combined total of one month in the Gaza Strip, Israel, and Egypt to research this report.  The team interviewed over eighty individuals, including thirty-five residents of Rafah who were victims of and/or eyewitnesses to house demolitions or other abuses, corroborating and cross-checking their accounts.  Researchers also spoke to first-hand participants in and observers of events in Rafah, including representatives of two Palestinian armed groups, Palestinian National Authority security personnel, and municipal officials.  Representatives of international relief organizations and local human rights groups in Gaza City also provided information.

In Israel, the researchers met with three representatives of the IDF and an official from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as foreign diplomats, military specialists, local and international journalists, and local human rights organizations.  The IDF shared information about its operational and legal doctrines, as well as its unclassified assessments of the Rafah border situation.  In Egypt, researchers met with officials from the Egyptian Interior Ministry, local activists, and journalists.  The research also included analysis of public statements by Israeli government entities and Palestinian armed groups.

Human Rights Watch also conducted on-site examination of physical evidence in Rafah, including ballistics, especially in cases of recent demolitions.  In all cases, researchers recorded the precise Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates of locations visited, including those of demolished houses, using handheld GPS devices.  The geospatial data has been incorporated into the maps and satellite images in this report.  Researchers took hundreds of digital photographs, some of them reproduced in this report, and were given access to extensive photographs and video taken by local journalists and human rights organizations during the May 2004 incursions.

In analyzing the broader patterns of destruction, Human Rights Watch was aided by satellite imagery of Rafah taken since 2000 and provided by Space Imaging North America, Space Imaging Eurasia, Space Imaging Middle East, and DigitalGlobe.  Human Rights Watch also drew on detailed statistical data on house demolitions compiled by UNRWA and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR).

[1] Voice of Israel Radio, January 16, 2002, cited in B’tselem, Policy of Destruction: House Demolitions and Destruction of Agricultural Land in the Gaza Strip, February 2002.

[2] Tsadok Yehezkeli, “Regards from Hell,” Yediot Ahronoth, June 11, 2004 (Hebrew).

[3] Unless otherwise stated, statistics for homes demolished and persons rendered homeless were provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) based mostly on assessments by its social workers.  UNRWA classifies damage in three categories: total destruction, partial destruction (rendered uninhabitable, in need of reconstruction), and damage (habitable, in need of repair).  References to homes “demolished” or “destroyed” in this report refer to all those rendered uninhabitable, i.e. the first two categories, unless otherwise stated.  UNRWA statistics also include data on the demolition of non-refugee homes.

[4] UNRWA’s operational definition of “refugee” includes descendents of those who fled or were expelled from what became Israel (“Who is a Palestine refugee?” UNRWA website, available at, accessed September 24, 2004).

[5] Human Rights Watch has extensively documented this practice in recent years.  See In a Dark Hour: The Use of Civilians During IDF Arrest Operations (Human Rights Watch, April 2002).

[6] Human Rights Watch interview with Ibrahim Abu Shittat, Rafah, July 13, 2004.

[7] Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics,, (accessed October 4, 2004).

[8] Figures on Israeli fatalities are drawn from the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, (accessed October 4, 2004) In response to an inquiry from Human Rights Watch, the IDF did not disclose figures on injuries in Rafah.

[9] While major militaries affirm the right of an occupying power to temporarily control property for security purposes, confiscation (permanent seizure and transfer of ownership) is prohibited by Article 46 of the Hague Regulations.

[10] Avihai Becker, “The Black List of Captain Kaplan,” Ha’aretz, April 27, 2001, cited in B’tselem, Policy of Destruction: House Demolitions and Destruction of Agricultural Land in the Gaza Strip, February 2002, p. 34.

[11] Because in this investigation HRW focused on the pattern of property destruction, 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.

[12] Fourth Geneva Convention, Art. 53.

[13] ICRC, Commentary to the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977, p. 67.  See virtually identical language in “Interpretation by the ICRC of Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 12 August 1949, with particular reference to the expression ‘military operations,’” Letter to al-Haq signed by Jacques Moreillon, Director of Department of Principles and Law and Jean Pictet, ICRC, November 25, 1981 (“… with a view to fighting”) and “Occupation and international humanitarian law: questions and answers,” ICRC press release, August 4, 2004 (“…when absolutely required by military necessity during the conduct of hostilities”).

[14] “ICRC Deeply Concerned Over House Destructions in Rafah,” ICRC press release, May 18, 2004.

[15] “Transcript of GOC Southern Command Regarding the Findings of the Investigation of the Demolition of the Buildings in Rafah (10-11.01.02),” IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, January 27, 2002.

[16] Sharon wrote in his memoirs that “it was essential to create a Jewish buffer zone between Gaza and the Sinai [then under Israeli control] to cut off the flow of smuggled weapons and – looking forward to a future settlement with Egypt – to divide the two regions” (Warrior: The Autobiography of Ariel Sharon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), p. 258).

[17] Laws of War in the Battlefield (IDF Military Law School, Department of International Law, 1998), p. 69.  The manual is available in English at, (accessed October 4, 2004).

[18] See, inter alia, U.S. Army Field Manual 27-10: The Law of Land Warfare (Department of the Army, July 1956), p. 4; The Manual of the Law of the Law of Armed Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 21-23; The Law of Armed Conflict at the Operational and Tactical Level (Office of the Judge Advocate General, Canadian military, September 2001), section 2-1.

[19] U.S. Army Field Manual 27-10: The Law of Land Warfare, pp. 23-24; The Law of Armed Conflict at the Operational and Tactical Level, section 12-9.

[20] “Transcript of GOC Southern Command Regarding the Findings of the Investigation of the Demolition of the Buildings in Rafah (10-11.01.02),” IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, January 27, 2002, available at

[21] Guy Zadkham, “Zadka under fire,” B’Mahanah [IDF magazine], December 28, 2001, cited in B’tselem, Policy of Destruction: House Demolitions and Destruction of Agricultural Land in the Gaza Strip, p. 29.

[22] See, inter alia, periodic reports on land leveling in the Gaza Strip by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, available at and B’tselem, Policy of Destruction: House Demolitions and Destruction of Agricultural Land in the Gaza Strip, February 2002.

[23] Fourth Geneva Convention, Art. 33.

[24] On punitive demolitions, see, inter alia, al-Haq, Israel’s Punitive House Demolition Policy: Collective Punishment in Violation of  International Law, 2003; al-Haq, A Thousand and One Homes: Israel's Demolition and Sealing of Houses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 1993; and B’tselem, Demolition and sealing of homes in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a Punitive Measure During the Intifada, 1989.  On administrative demolitions in East Jerusalem, see B’tselem, A Policy of Discrimination: Land Expropriation, Planning and Building in East Jerusalem, 1995.

[25] Human Rights Watch interviews with Major Assaf Librati, Spokesman, IDF Southern Command, Tel Aviv, July 25, 2004 and Major Noam Neuman, IDF Deputy Legal Adviser for the Gaza Strip, Tel Aviv, July 20, 2004.

[26] IDF correspondence with HRW, May 10, 2004.

[27] See, inter alia, International Court of Justice, “Advisory opinion on Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” July 9, 2004 and “Israel’s ‘Separation Barrier’ in the Occupied West Bank: Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Consequences,” Human Rights Watch, February 2004.

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