Over the last three years, the Israeli army has demolished or made unliveable the homes of nearly 13,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. This tactic is part of Israel’s strategy to prevent Palestinian attacks in Israeli cities, on new settlements, or where security forces are situated. As Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation continue to use the tactic of suicide bombings to kill and demoralize Israeli civilians, the army steps up house demolitions to punish the families of suicide bombers, to intimidate families of suspected militants, and to clear space for military operations.
After a brief and tense ceasefire, the cycle of attack and reprisal has resumed. Recent months have seen a sharp increase in house demolitions, particularly in southern areas of the Gaza Strip, near the border with Egypt, where houses have been the most heavily targeted in Rafah, Khan Yunis, and area refugee camps.
The demolition of houses and the destruction of agricultural land cause extensive damage to the possessions and livelihood of the Palestinian civilian population. While the Geneva Conventions allow the Occupying Power to take actions based on “pressing military necessity,” this does not encompass the destruction of infrastructure not directly implicated in attacks against the Israeli army and civilians.
The destruction of homes of people uninvolved in attacks against Israel punishes Palestinian civilians for crimes that they did not commit. The objective of these acts is to punish the Palestinians collectively and to deter others from committing similar acts. International humanitarian law expressly forbids collective punishment.
Demolitions often occur at night with little or no warning. Israeli military units, usually accompanied by tanks and helicopters, enter Palestinian areas to destroy one or more houses. In some cases the demolished buildings belong to the families of suicide bombers, suspected militants, or Palestinians detained in Israeli jails. Sometimes explosives rather than bulldozers are used to destroy property, thereby creating widespread collateral damage. Regardless of the method used, furniture and personal belongings can rarely be salvaged, leaving families homeless, impoverished, traumatized, and in the case of refugees, displaced again.
With the help of international donors, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has already provided more than 200 new shelters for families whose homes were demolished. UNRWA is in the process of constructing or will soon begin building some 250 more. The Agency has also provided emergency assistance to the new homeless in the form of tents, blankets, kitchen utensils, and food parcels.
On September 15, UNRWA, with the support of donors including Norway, Japan, the Islamic Development Bank, and the U.S., gave keys to some of the new residents of an 86-unit complex that will re-house some 474 individuals. The Agency is still in need of more than $22 million to meet the current requirements for a further 843 dwelling units.
Standing in front of his new three-room house and perspiring heavily in the mid-day sun, ‘Abdul’ told RI about the struggle of finding shelter for his family of six after the Israeli army demolished their home in the Khan Yunis refugee camp on December 14, 2001. Since that day, Abdul and his family moved from place to place, staying with relatives in Jabaliya, sometimes with his mother-in-law, two months with a friend in a room where there was no kitchen or bath, once with his brother, for a while in a tent provided by UNRWA, and then in a rented flat. Pulling the entire contents from his wallet (100 shekels, or about $23), Abdul said he is not even able to provide transportation for the family to move to the new location. And, despite the help that’s already been provided, he’s still a very long way from getting the refrigerator that he lost.