Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes 'violates international law'

Israel has systematically violated international law by destroying the homes of 16,000 people in Gaza's southernmost town regardless of military necessity, a leading New York-based human rights agency said yesterday.

Human Rights Watch suggested Israel has used weapons-smuggling by Palestinian militants as a pretext for the mass demolitions in Rafah over the past four years, where more than 10 per cent of the people have lost their homes.

In a 135-page report on the destruction, it says the real reason has been to clear Palestinians from the border with Egypt and illegally create a "buffer zone" to protect Israeli troops patrolling the area up to and after Israel's planned disengagement from Gaza.

The report was unveiled here yesterday as Peter Hansen, Commissioner of the United Nations Works And Relief Agency (UNWRA) condemned Israel for flouting international law during its 17-day incursion into northern Gaza, which left 90 homes demolished and between 600 and 700 people homeless.

Visiting the Jebaliya refugee camp, the worst-affected of the areas vacated by troops at the weekend, Mr Hansen said the UN had confirmed 107 Palestinian deaths during the operation and declared: "Most of what we have seen here over the past two weeks is in gross violation of international humanitarian law. We will go on protesting these measures, which are not proportionate [and] not relevant to the targets Israel has chosen to try to hit."

The accusation also loomed large in the Human Rights Watch report on demolitions in Rafah since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising in 2000.The report says destruction of civilian property can be legally justified only when it is "rendered absolutely necessary by military operations". Kenneth Roth, the executive director, said: "Israel's conduct in southern Gaza stems from the assumption that every Palestinian is a suicide bomber and every home a base for attack. This policy of mass home-destruction leads to serious violations of international humanitarian law meant to protect civilians."

The report acknowledges "there is no dispute" that Palestinian militants are smuggling arms through tunnels under the border. But it claims first, that Israel has exaggerated the number of tunnels by confusing the number of entrances - about 90 - with the tunnels themselves; and second, said it has failed to explore the potentially more effective use of seismic sensors, electromagnetic induction and ground radar to detect tunnels.

Using satellite imagery to illustrate the progressive destruction of homes in the Rafah refugee camp's Block O, close to the border, it says an Israeli government plan for further widening of the "buffer zone" would leave "thousands more Palestinians homeless in one of the most densely populated places on Earth".

The report also challenges Israel's defence of its widely publicised incursion into Rafah in May which it says resulted in the destruction of 200 homes, many of them well away from the border. The report says the destruction was committed in a manner that was "time-consuming, deliberate and comprehensive, rather than in the heat of the battle".

It calls on the United States and European countries who fund the rehousing of Palestinians left homeless by Israeli action to demand reparations for victims or compensation for donors because of the unlawful nature of the destruction.

The report also calls on Caterpillar Inc the US-based company that supplies Israel with powerful D9 bulldozers to suspend sales of equipment used in illegal demolitions.

Israel's Foreign Ministry said soldiers did their utmost to avoid harming Palestinian civilians but suggested this was not always possible. "We are operating against terrorist infrastructures set up within residential areas and attacking us from there," a spokesman said.

Israel's embattled Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - facing a growing revolt from right wingers in his own Likud party over his plan for disengagement from Gaza - last night agreed in principle to the establishment of a committee to consider the implications of a referendum on the plan. But he again made clear that he did not favour a referendum and he was determined to force through a decision on the disengagement plan in the Knesset next week.