Demolishing Houses, and Lives

Jessica Montell is director of the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem.

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.