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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 October, 2004, 13:37 GMT 14:37 UK
Gaza demolitions damage both sides

By Matthew Price
BBC correspondent in Jerusalem

Palestinian man sits by his destroyed house in Jabaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip
The level of destruction has been "gratuitous", Human Rights Watch says

Israel's armed forces have been accused of violating international law by systematically destroying Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip.

The condemnation comes from the US-based organisation Human Rights Watch, in an extensive report.

Israel has denied the charge, saying that if Palestinian gunmen stopped attacking Israel then it would not need to take measures to prevent the attacks.

But the level of destruction has been "gratuitous", according to Human Rights Watch.

Many homeless

Take a look at satellite images of the southern Gaza Strip and you can see clearly how many buildings have been demolished over the last four years.

To venture into Palestinian neighbourhoods is certainly more dangerous to Israeli soldiers
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth

Where once homes ran along the southern Gaza border with Egypt, there is now a wasteland that in some places is a couple of hundred metres wide.

On a trip to the area, an Israeli army commander once told me that he needed to be able to secure the border.

Clearing the buildings used by Palestinian fighters helps to do this.

But many buildings have been cleared. Altogether, about 1,600, Human Rights Watch says.

It estimates that 16,000 people have been made homeless, and more have been made homeless in the rest of Gaza.

Unnecessary tactic?

Human Rights Watch says it does not believe destroying homes helps improve the security of Israel.

Young Palestinian girls walk past destroyed school in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip
Israel says buildings are used to hide tunnels where weapons are smuggled

The Israeli army says it destroys buildings which hide tunnels that are used to smuggle weapons into Gaza. It also says buildings used as hiding places by Palestinian gunmen are demolished to protect its soldiers.

But the Human Rights Watch report says there are other, better ways of achieving the same end.

"With respect to identifying tunnels... a far more efficient way of doing that would be along the border itself, instead of having incursions into Palestinian neighbourhoods," says executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth.

"To venture into Palestinian neighbourhoods is certainly more dangerous to Israeli soldiers."

"Israel actually wants to take these risks, in order to destroy large numbers of homes along the border in furtherance of Ariel Sharon's stated plan to create a 300-400m [980ft-1,300ft] wide buffer zone in which all Palestinian homes are destroyed.

"While that might be nice from a security perspective, it isn't necessary."

And that makes it illegal under international law, says Mr Roth.

No compensation

I asked Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for the prime minister's office, about the report.

Palestinian boy holds flag by demolished homes in Jabaliya refugee camp
There is no compensation for Palestinians made homeless by Israeli demolitions
He told me what Israel does in the Gaza Strip "is an issue of principle".

He said Israel takes all necessary steps to ensure the safety of its citizens.

And he added that "the rules of the game are going to change" as Israel gets closer to pulling out of Gaza.

That is due to happen next year, if the prime minister's plan to pull Jewish settlers out of the Strip goes ahead.

So this time next year, if the plan devised by Israel's prime minister goes ahead, 7,000 Jewish settlers living in the Gaza Strip will be packing up their homes and leaving.

Most will be sharing millions of dollars allocated to help them set up new houses elsewhere.

There is no compensation for the far greater number of Palestinians made homeless by Israeli demolitions in the Gaza Strip.




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