Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2018, 13:56 GMT

Israel Escalates Demolition of Palestinian Refugee Homes

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 August 2001
Citation / Document Symbol Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 7
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Israel Escalates Demolition of Palestinian Refugee Homes , 1 August 2001, Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 7, available at: [accessed 17 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In one of the largest collective house demolitions in recent years, Israeli authorities destroyed 40 refugee homes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories on July 9 and 10, rendering dozens of Palestinians homeless and drawing intense criticism from Palestinians and the international community alike.

On July 9, bulldozers and wrecking cranes guarded by a large contingent of Israeli riot police razed 14 Palestinian homes on the edge of Shu'fat refugee camp in Arab East Jerusalem. Hours later in the early morning of July 10, the Israeli army entered Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip with bulldozers and tanks, destroying another 26 Palestinian homes. The Rafah demolitions ignited armed clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, resulting in injuries to five Palestinians and three Israelis. Israeli authorities claimed that the buildings in Rafah were uninhabited and that Palestinian gunmen were using them as cover to fire on Israeli soldiers. As the Israeli bulldozers arrived on the scene, however, dozens of Palestinian residents reportedly fled the homes in question before they were flattened.

In Shu'fat, Israeli authorities reported that they destroyed the Palestinian homes because they had been built illegally. The Palestinians and a variety of Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights organizations countered that the Shu'fat demolitions were part of a larger Israeli strategy to drive Palestinians from Jerusalem through the enforcement unfair building policies that systematically discriminate against Palestinians.

Although the largest in scale to date, Israel's recent destruction of Palestinian refugee homes in Rafah and Shu'fat were the latest in a wave of house demolitions since violence erupted last September.

Demolitions in the Name of Israeli Security

Since the beginning of the ongoing Palestinian uprising, Israel has destroyed hundreds of Palestinian homes, businesses, farms, and other properties, citing security concerns as justification.

The Israeli army defends its destruction of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip and other flashpoints for violence in the Occupied Territories as essential to its security, insisting that Palestinian gunmen are using the homes in question to fire on Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlements. "If a place is used as a military position, it becomes a military objective," said an Israeli army spokesman after the army demolished Palestinian homes in the Rafah camp in early May.

In that round of demolitions and the most recent demolitions in Rafah this past July, the Israeli objective reportedly was to raze homes near Israeli army outposts on the camp's perimeter (which also forms the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt) to create a clear field of vision for Israeli soldiers and deny cover to Palestinian gunmen.

Similarly, the Israeli army flattened dozens of refugee homes during April in the Gaza Strip's Khan Younis refugee camp, which is surrounded on three sides by an Israeli army base and the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim. Khan Younis has been the site of some of the fiercest clashes between Palestinians and Israelis in recent months.

Israeli Stance on Security Refuted

International organizations, journalists, and human rights organizations all have challenged Israel's claim that its actions are essential to its security. While press reports supported the Israeli claim that some Palestinians fired guns and mortar rounds on Israeli positions and settlements, various journalists, human rights workers, and other observers also said that Palestinian fire rarely posed a high enough threat to justify the Israeli response, which often was massive and indiscriminate.

Based on field research in the Occupied Territories conducted in February 2001, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) reported in March that in most cases Israeli troops held positions behind concrete bunkers, where they were well protected from Palestinians throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, and sporadic Palestinian gunfire. According to UNCHR, the absence of Israeli soldier deaths or serious injuries called into question Israel's contention that its actions were defensive in nature.

UNCHR noted that "the widespread destruction of homes along settlement roads cannot, in the opinion of [UNCHR], be seen as proportionate in the circumstances," adding that Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from destroying private property "except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations."

In a March 16 report, UNCHR concluded that much of the Palestinian property destroyed by the Israeli army was not in the interests of military security, but the security of settlers. "Without settlements or settlers, there can be no doubt that the number of deaths and injuries in the present intifada [Palestinian uprising] would have been but a small fraction of their current number and, quite possibly, the present intifada might not have occurred," UNCHR said.

Although Israel maintains that the status of Jewish settlements is a political issue to be decided in negotiations, the settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring segments of its own civilian population to the territory it occupies.

In reporting on the April 11 demolitions in Khan Younis camp that left several hundred Palestinians homeless, Independent journalist Robert Fisk remarked that the Israeli action "was more than disproportionate; it was a deliberate attack on civilians." According to Khan Younis residents, Israeli bulldozers and tanks entered the camp without warning just after midnight. When Palestinians fired with rifles on the bulldozers to resist the demolitions, Israeli tanks and an army attack helicopter began firing shells indiscriminately into the nearest apartment buildings. By daybreak, two Palestinians were dead, 30 were wounded, and 35 homes were flattened.

United Nations and Others Assist Displaced Palestinians

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has provided tents and other assistance to Palestinians displaced as a result of the demolitions and Israeli shelling. In late June, prior to the most recent house demolitions, UNRWA issued an emergency appeal, in part to cover the cost of rebuilding some 200 refugee homes that the Israeli army has destroyed. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is also providing assistance to Palestinians displaced as a result of housing demolitions.

Despite Palestinian demands, Israel has not compensated the displaced for the loss of their homes and property.

Discriminatory Building Policies

In the case of the most recent demolitions in Jerusalem's Shu'fat refugee camp and similar previous demolitions in East Jerusalem and other parts of the Occupied Territories, the Israeli government has argued that it was merely enforcing its building laws. "Demolitions are a legal and not a punitive policy which occur when an Arab or Jew builds a house without a permit on public lands," the Israeli government told the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) in 1997 when USCR voiced its concern over house demolitions in the Shu'fat camp at the time.

USCR noted then, however, that most evidence contradicted the Israeli position, and in an August 1997 letter to the Israeli government USCR questioned a policy that "appears to restrict building permits for Palestinians at the same time that it encourages Jewish settlement in Jerusalem municipality and the West Bank through subsidized construction, low mortgage rates, and low-interest loans."

Little has changed since. Based on field research into house demolitions in the Occupied Territories, Amnesty International reported in December 1999 that "[t]he Palestinians are targeted for no other reason than because they are Palestinians. The demolition of their houses is in no doubt linked with Israeli discriminatory policy to restrict Palestinian development to existing urban areas. For Israelis, it is a different story. They have few problems obtaining building permits and even if they build homes without authorization, the houses are rarely, if ever, demolished."

While estimates on the number of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem in need of housing are in the thousands, the municipality of Jerusalem reportedly issues an average of 150 building permits to Palestinians annually.

As with demolitions conducted on "security" grounds, the number of Palestinian homes that Israel has demolished because of so-called building permit violations reportedly has increased since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.

Nevertheless, permit-driven demolitions are part of a long-standing Israeli policy since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began, according to Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. In an interview with Vancouver Cooperative Radio on May 1, Halper said that Israel has demolished about 7,000 Palestinian homes since 1967. "The policy of house demolitions over the past 20 years has been to confine Palestinians to little islands in the West Bank and Gaza and in East Jerusalem, in order to leave the vast majority of the Occupied Territories free for Israeli settlements and roads and military control," Halper remarked.

Demolitions Draw Palestinian and International Condemnation

Coming on the heals of a shaky cease-fire agreement between Palestinians and Israeli negotiated by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director George Tenet in June 2001, the Israeli demolitions in July sparked considerable criticism from the Palestinian and International Community for inflaming an already volatile situation.

Palestinian officials branded the destruction of houses as a "provocation" that would likely further inflame Israeli-Palestinian tensions. "It's a crime. They have demolished these houses while the residents were sleeping in them" said Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat. A top aide to Arafat added that the United States should "stop Israel from violating the agreements and save the region from deterioration."

For its part, the U.S. State Department called Israeli actions "highly provocative" and "urged an immediate halt to any further demolition of Palestinian homes." UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw remarked that the Israeli actions "raise the temperature on the ground and undermine the efforts of those who are working to rebuild the basis for peace between the Palestinians and Israelis." Also responding to the July demolitions, Javier Solana, foreign policy representative of the European Union, said that "what we need now are positive signs. The destruction of houses is not a positive sign, it is a negative sign."

SOURCE: Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 7 (2001)

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