January 25, 2005
Israeli Trench Could Destroy 3,000 Palestinian Homes
by Jim Lobe
As Israeli and Palestinian leaders move to increase security cooperation in Gaza, a major U.S. human rights organization is urging the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to reject proposals to build an anti-smuggling trench along the Gaza-Egyptian border that could destroy up to 3,000 Palestinian homes.
Citing recent press reports, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned Sunday that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has presented three plans for constructing a trench along the so-called Philadelphi route that runs along the southern edge of Rafah, the town situated on the border. Such a trench would make it far more difficult for smugglers to build tunnels connecting Egyptian territory with Gaza without being detected, according to the Israelis.
The narrowest option put forward calls for the destruction of 200 homes, while the widest would result in the demolition of 3,000. As many as 20, or even 30, members of an extended family live in many homes in Gaza, including those along the border area.
In a letter sent to Israel's attorney-general, Menachem Mazuz, HRW, which last October issued a report that called Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in southern Gaza unjustifiable under international law, charged that the IDF had failed to seriously explore anti-smuggling techniques that, if applied, would make home demolitions unnecessary.
"Israel's security does not require the massive destruction of civilian homes that these trench proposals would entail," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director.
"Instead of employing methods to detect and destroy tunnels like those used along the Korean DMZ [demilitarized zone], the Israeli military is using smuggling as a pretext to demolish more Palestinian homes along the Rafah border," she added.
The new plans and HRW's appeal to reject them come amid growing optimism that the Palestine National Authority's (PNA) new president, Mahmoud Abbas, is making progress both in asserting control of the PNA's various security forces, preventing rocket attacks on a nearby Israeli town, and negotiating a cease-fire with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
"We are witness to the beginning of positive developments on the Palestinian side," Israel's hawkish military chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, said this weekend. Even his usually dour predecessor, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, suggested that "the year 2005 may be a turning point in which there will no longer be any soldiers," in Gaza or West Bank cities.
Sharon has vowed to "disengage" Israeli troops and settlements from Gaza by the end of this year, a pledge that has drawn angry threats from more-extremist settler groups and their supporters in Israel. Most analysts believe that a withdrawal will be considerably less contentious, however, if the Palestinians suspend their four-year-old Intifada and cooperate with the disengagement process.
In exchange, Abbas' administration wants Sharon to take a series of measures, including ending Israeli raids and selective assassinations in Gaza and the West Bank, releasing many of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, and easing travel restrictions on Palestinians, that would offer tangible benefits to the population.
Carrying out home demolitions would have the opposite effect and, according to the Palestinians, would tend to radicalize the population, undermining Abbas' position.
Over the past four years, IDF operations in Rafah rendered some 16,000 people – or 10 percent of its population – homeless, according to HRW.
Last September, the IDF destroyed some 70 Palestinian homes and partially destroyed 200 others, while last May, some 298 homes were destroyed in counterinsurgency operations by the IDF.
Under international law, Israel, as the occupying power, may destroy civilian property, but only when "rendered absolutely necessary by military operations." Destroying property to improve the occupying power's general security or as a broad precaution against imagined threats is prohibited under the Geneva Conventions.
In its October report, "Razing Rafah: Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip," HRW, which based its findings on interviews in Gaza, Israel, and Egypt, as well as satellite imagery, maps, graphs, and photographs, concluded that absolute military necessity has little, if anything, to do with Israel's recent operations in southern Gaza.
Widening the buffer zone, according to the IDF, has two major military-related aims: to close tunnels from Egypt that have been used by smugglers to bring arms and other contraband into Gaza, and to enhance the security of IDF troops along the border.
But, according to 135-page report, these general justifications don't stand up in practice. "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 report asserts.
While HRW concedes that Palestinian armed groups have used tunnels to smuggle weapons for use in attacks against Israeli targets, it found that "the IDF has consistently exaggerated and mischaracterized the threat from smuggling tunnels to justify the demolition of homes."
In particular, the IDF has never explained why it doesn't use nondestructive means – such as seismic sensors, electromagnetic induction, and ground-penetrating radar – for detecting and neutralizing tunnels, such as those used along the Mexican-U.S. border and in the Korean DMZ.
Instead, the existence of tunnels has been used as a "pretext" for destroying homes, according to the report. It notes, for example, that in some cases, the IDF destroyed houses in order to "close" tunnels that the Palestinian Authority had already sealed.
Moreover, the IDF claims to have discovered some 90 tunnels in Rafah since 2000, but, when pressed to back up these claims, it has admitted that the number refers to entrance shafts some of which connect to sealed tunnels and others of which connect "to nothing at all."
As to the three options presented by the IDF to the government, HRW said there was no military necessity, particularly given the technology available to the security forces.
"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."
"Before insisting on a trench, the IDF should show that these nonlethal and much less destructive alternatives have been tried and failed," she added.
(Inter Press Service)