February 2002, Summary
and Destruction of Agricultural Land in the Gaza Strip
"The bulldozer uprooted a tree and then drove over it and crushed it. After it uprooted and crushed all the trees in the field, the bulldozer dug a big hole, put the trees in, and covered it with dirt. Then it flattened the land and moved on to the adjacent field."
From the testimony of Khaled Taher, whose crops were destroyed by IDF bulldozers in late April 2001
"Around 12:40 A.M., I woke up to the sound of gunfire and shelling and the noise of bulldozers and tanks that we hear on a daily basis. We did not expect them to demolish houses in our area. Neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli side gave us any warning to vacate our houses [...]Suddenly, one of the children screamed, "Get out, the Jews are demolishing the houses," and began to throw stones at the neighbors' doors to wake them up. He was sobbing and shouting."
From the testimony of Mithqal Abu Taha, whose House was demolished by IDF bulldozers in July 2001
On 10 January 2002, IDF forces demolished sixty houses, and partially demolished four more, in the Rafah refugee camp, near the Egyptian border. The action left more than six hundred Palestinians homeless. The media in Israel and throughout the world published pictures of the residents and their demolished homes, and for several days, the demolition was at the heart of the Israeli public debate. The debate focussed primarily on how many houses the IDF demolished and whether the houses were occupied at the time, but it rarely addressed the question of whether the house demolitions were justified.
The reporting on the house-demolition action in Rafah gave the impression that it was a one-time act that was executed in response to the killing of four soldiers the day before. However, since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada, Israel has demolished hundreds of houses and destroyed thousands of acres of agricultural land in the Gaza Strip. These acts have left thousands of residents homeless and harmed the livelihood of thousands. The house demolitions took place mostly at night, without any warning given to the residents, and some were forced to flee from their homes when the bulldozers were at their doorstep, and could not remove their possessions. The IDF uprooted trees and destroyed crops in a manner that severely damaged the land. In some cases, it will be impossible to replant trees on the land for many years to come. The IDF implemented this policy primarily in the Gaza Strip, near the Israeli settlements, bypass roads, and army posts.
The policy of demolishing houses and destroying the agricultural land is part of Israel's defense strategy in the Gaza Strip. Part of this strategy is the creation of "security strips" around places where Israeli civilians or security forces are situated. These strips are intended to prevent Palestinian attacks.
It is impossible to determine precisely the scope of Israel's destruction in the Gaza Strip. However, some assessment of the consequences of the policy exists.
Demolition of houses - According to UNRWA, since the beginning of the intifada, the IDF has demolished 655 houses in the refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, in which 5,124 people lived. In addition, the IDF partially demolished seventeen houses, in which 155 people lived. In comparison, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer stated that, "The total number of Palestinian structures that were demolished in the Gaza Strip stands at about three hundred. This figure includes structures used for residential purposes, farming, and walls. In addition, some 175 greenhouses were destroyed."
Destruction of agricultural land - Regarding the number of trees and fields that were destroyed, Ben-Eliezer contended that, "In total, some 5,500 dunam of orchards of all kinds on the Palestinian side were uprooted and 4,500 dunam of planted fields and uncultivated land were destroyed." The figures reported by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, in Gaza, were much higher: From the beginning of the intifada to the end of July 2001, some 13,500 dunam of agricultural land, constituting some seven percent of the agricultural land in the Gaza Strip, were destroyed.
The demolition of houses generally takes place in the middle of the night without any warning being given to the residents. In areas in which there are exchanges of fire between Palestinians and IDF soldiers, some of the residents, primarily women and children, previously abandoned the houses for safer locations. However, in most cases, several of the residents remained in their homes, primarily to protect their property. The dozens of Palestinian testimonies given to B'Tselem indicate that, in many instances, these residents had to flee from their homes after they were awakened by the noise of tanks and bulldozers that were already at their doorstep. Some of their property was buried under the ruins.
The army also did not give warning of its intention to destroy fields and uproot orchards. Such warning would, at least, have enabled Palestinians to remove the irrigation pipes and other objects from the fields. In some cases, the uprooting caused long-term damage, and in some instances even irreversible damage.
In some cases, IDF soldiers did not allow residents to enter the sites where their property had been destroyed, and fired at residents to keep them away from the area.
Violation of International Law
Israel's policy flagrantly violates international humanitarian law. The demolition of houses and the destruction of agricultural land causes extensive damage to the civilian population, which will bear the consequences for many years to come. Injury of this kind to the civilian population cannot be justified on the grounds of "pressing military necessity," as Israeli officials contend.
The IDF forces destroyed entire residential neighborhoods, claiming that, under some of the houses, tunnels had been dug through which weapons were being smuggled. The IDF also destroyed agricultural areas,, including tomato and squash fields, in which people could not hide, claiming that Palestinians fired from them. The army's actions caused long-term, and in some instances irreversible, damage to the land, and harmed the future income of thousands of people for many years.
Israel's policy constitutes collective punishment, which is forbidden by international law. The houses demolished and the orchards destroyed by the soldiers belonged to Palestinians whom even Israel does not contend were involved in any way in attacks on Israeli civilians or security forces. In some of the cases, the IDF's destruction of property took place immediately after Palestinians attacked Israeli civilians or security forces, though at times in locations other than where the Palestinian attack occurred. This phenomenon raises the concern that the objective of these acts was to punish the Palestinians for the attack and to deter others from committing similar acts. Destruction of property as an act of revenge or punishment is absolutely forbidden.
Arguing "pressing military necessity," Israel denies residents whose houses are demolished or agricultural land destroyed the opportunity to state their claims before any official person or entity. However, the contention that the necessity is "pressing" is inconsistent with the lengthy decision-making process relating to demolitions, and with the IDF Spokesperson's statement that the IDF delayed execution of demolitions to a time that it found suitable.
Even according to the state's argument that there is a pressing need for the destruction and that insufficient time exists for a hearing prior to execution, the state still must, at least, enable the people to leave their houses and remove their property before the houses are demolished. Gunfire in the middle of the night at houses in which civilians, including small children, are living, cannot be deemed an acceptable way to remove people from their homes.
Israel also refuses to compensate Palestinians for the damages that it caused them, even though the IDF actions were in grave breach of international humanitarian law. The duty to pay compensation grounded in international humanitarian law is intended to ensure that states meet their obligation to comply with the law. Paying compensation is a sanction for breaching the law. It supplements the criminal sanctions that the states are supposed to take against those responsible for the breach. The exemption from paying compensation in effect endorses the damage to the property of residents of the Occupied Territories, whose welfare is the responsibility of Israel as the occupier in the Occupied Territories.
Israel remains the occupier in the Occupied Territories. In this capacity, it must protect the safety and well-being of the Palestinian population and employ policies that take Palestinian needs into account. Israel must, of course, protect Israeli civilians and soldiers, but it is not allowed to do that by causing such extensive harm to the Palestinian population and by violating international humanitarian law.
B'Tselem urges the Israeli government to immediately cease the destruction of houses, the uprooting of trees, and the destruction of agricultural land. In addition, Israel must compensate every Palestinian who suffered as a consequence of Israel's policy of destruction.