Razing Rafah: Mass home demolitions in the Gaza Strip

Destruction in Rafah after Israel’s “Operation Rainbow,” May 2004 (Photo: Johannes Abeling)

Over the past four years, the Israeli military has demolished over 2,500 Palestinian houses in the occupied Gaza Strip. [1] 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. [2]

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 (download the full report at the end of this page) 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.


[1] 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 nonrefugee homes.

[2] 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 online, accessed September 24, 2004).

Related links:

  • Read the full report, PDF file, 779 KB
  • Human Rights Watch
  • BY TOPIC: “Operation Rainbow” in Rafah, Gaza (May 2004)
  • BY TOPIC: House Demolitions