A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday said the destruction of thousands of homes in southern Gaza along the border with Egypt, could not be justified on military grounds.

Israel has systematically expelled tens of thousands of Palestinians from the border area in the southern Gaza Strip, and plans to expel thousands more as part of its "disengagement plan", the report also said. 

The New York-based group said the Israeli military has razed entire neighbourhoods and displaced over 16,000 Palestinians to widen a "buffer zone" along the densely populated border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.   

Titled Razing Rafah - Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip, the report relied on satellite imagery, maps, graphs and photographs to document a pattern of illegal house demolitions it said were "consistent with the political goal of having a wide and empty border area" that would facilitate long-term control over Gaza.

"During regular night-time raids and with little or no warning, Israeli forces used armoured Caterpillar D9 bulldozers to raze blocks of homes at the edge of the camp, incrementally expanding a 'buffer zone' that is currently up to 300m wide," read the report.

Pattern of demolitions

Israeli authorities have in the past cited security concerns and tunnels used for arms smuggling as justification for raiding Rafah and their mass demolition of homes there. But the HRW report says the Israeli arguments "crumble under scrutiny".

Tens of homes were destroyed
during Israel's March offensive

The Israeli army has reported finding 90 tunnels in Rafah since September 2000.  But according to HRW, the numbers are misleading and a red herring.

HRW executive director Kenneth Roth questioned Israel's insistence that the demolition of more than 2500 houses over the past four years was necessary to destroy underground tunnels used by Palestinian resistance fighters to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Egypt.

"The army is not serious, it wants to use the excuse [of tunnels] to invade, destroy and create a buffer zone," he said at the launch of the report in Jerusalem.

"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 Roth.

Makes no sense

Roth also warned that such a mindset was incompatible with international humanitarian law which dictates an occupying power must distinguish between civilians and combatants and protect the former.

UNRWA chief Hansen (L): Israel's
attacks are a violation of law

"The goal is also to punish civilians for the conduct of militants. It is wrong to attack civilians and civilian property to achieve military objectives and try to influence militants," he said.

"The more seriously you take the Israeli army's excuses for the Rafah demolitions, the less they make sense," said Darry Li, researcher for the Middle East and North Africa Division at HRW. 

"Actually it has found 90 tunnel entrances, and is essentially double and triple counting the same tunnels."

Li says Israeli forces have failed to make use of existing technologies that can detect and destroy tunnels with established accuracy such as seismic sensors and ground-penetrating radar, but rather use their presence as a pretext for illegally widening the buffer zone.

"Instead of trying to close the tunnels themselves, they have often demolished the homes covering the exits.  If the objective is to close tunnels, this makes no sense," he told Aljazeera.net.

Criticising US, EU

"This is a vertical issue, not a horizontal one: The tunnels have to cross beneath the border controlled by the army, and can be dealt with there. Instead, [the Israeli army] is demolishing houses deeper and deeper into the camp."

"Most of what we have seen here in Jabalya over the last two weeks is a gross violation of international and humanitarian law"

Peter Hansen,
UNRWA

The report criticises the United States and European governments for failing to hold Israel accountable for its abuses of international law, and for encouraging Israeli behaviour by funding repairs and re-housing after demolitions occur. 

It also lambastes the US-based company Caterpillar Inc for providing Israel with the D9 bulldozers used to destroy Palestinian homes.

There was no immediate Israeli response to the HRW report.

20,000 homeless

The head of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), Peter Hansen, said a recent offensive in northern Gaza had left up to 700 people homeless.

The UN says more than 20,000
Palestinians have been uprooted

"Most of what we have seen here in Jabalya over the last two weeks is a gross violation of international and humanitarian law," he said, echoing the findings of the HRW report.

Hansen said at least 90 houses had been destroyed but added the figure was "a low estimate but will increase, I am sure, as we get more and more careful surveys".

"That means that hundreds of people - I believe 600 to 700 - will be added to the rows of homeless which is already 20,000 people in Gaza," he said.