Demolishing Houses, and Lives
By Jessica Montell
May 26, 2004
Throughout the last week, a macabre exercise has been running through
my head. I imagine I have five minutes to get out of my house, never to
return. What will I take with me? My wallet and checkbook, a change of
clothes for the kids, the photo albums, my daughter's favorite doll, diapers,
bottles. In five minutes, I'd never get it all out.
In my quiet neighborhood in West Jerusalem, this exercise seems absurd.
No one is going to evict me at a moment's notice. Yet just an hour away,
in the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border, this scenario has
been played out hundreds of times over the last week.
On May 15-16, the army destroyed 116 houses in Rafah, rendering more than
1,100 people homeless, according to our organization's estimates. It then
began Operation Rainbow, in which it demolished an additional 67 houses
over the last week. Since January, the army demolished 284 homes in Rafah,
leaving 2,185 Palestinians homeless.
The demolition of houses generally takes place in the middle of the night,
without any warning to residents. Dozens of Palestinians have told us
of awakening to the sounds of tanks and bulldozers at their doorstep.
They grab their children, leaving all their possessions behind.
Israel says these demolitions are necessary and that, in the last six
weeks, army tunnel-busting units have uncovered and destroyed eight arms-smuggling
tunnels around Rafah. Had they not done so, Israel claims, more civilians
would have died in escalating Palestinian attacks. Certainly Israel has
the obligation to protect its citizens, but even the most legitimate ends
do not justify all means. International humanitarian law — formulated
for the most extreme circumstances of war and occupation — must
govern Israel's actions in Gaza. This body of law allows destruction of
private property only in exceptional cases.
Now the military is seeking approval to demolish up to 2,000 more houses
to widen the road along the border. Such an expansive strip probably would
make life easier for the army, but it is hard to argue that the destruction
of each one of these houses is absolutely necessary (or proportional to
the benefit to be gained).
Clearly, armed Palestinian groups must be unequivocally condemned. Attacks
against civilians are grave breaches of the laws of war. Yet no wrong
against us can justify the suffering of thousands of innocent people.
Montell is director of the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem.
2004 Los Angeles Times