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October 19, 2004
Group: Israel Violating International Law
Associated Press

Israel has violated international law by systematically destroying Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah in a bid to create a buffer zone along the border with Egypt, according to a human rights report released Monday.

By GAVIN RABINOWITZ, Associated Press Writer

JERUSALEM - Israel has violated international law by systematically destroying Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip (news - web sites) town of Rafah in a bid to create a buffer zone along the border with Egypt, according to a human rights report released Monday.

The Human Rights Watch report also accused the Israeli military of exaggerating the threat posed by weapons-smuggling tunnels running from Rafah to Egypt — the main justification for the home demolitions.

"We've seen the piece by piece destruction of up to 10 percent of Rafah," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based group.

Since fighting began four years ago, some 16,000 people have been made homeless in Rafah, many of them during an army incursion in May, the report said. Roth called the destruction gratuitous and said the army was retaliating for the killings of five soldiers on the road along the border.

The army, which declined to comment on the report, says the demolitions were needed to prevent Palestinian militants from smuggling arms through tunnels. Also, the houses provide gunmen with cover to attack troops.

"Neither excuse could justify the wholesale destruction in Rafah," Roth said.

The 135-page report says security considerations are secondary to Israel's desire for a large clear border area to "facilitate long-term control over the Gaza Strip."

"The pattern of destruction strongly suggests that Israeli forces demolished homes wholesale, regardless of whether they posed a specific threat," the report said. It said the findings were based on tours of the area and satellite imagery.

The military mind-set "is based on the assumption that every Palestinian is a potential suicide bomber and every home a potential base for attack," the report said.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman David Saranga said the army makes every effort to limit harm to the Palestinians and accused the militants of using civilians as a cover to launch attacks. He refused to address specific charges in the report but said Israel would study it.

The report said Israel has violated international law by failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants and has not lived up to its responsibilities as an occupying power to protect civilians.

It also accused Israel of exaggerating the threat of the weapons-smuggling tunnels, which Israel has called the lifeline of Palestinian militants in Gaza.

The report, citing military experts, said the army has failed to use counter-tunnel measures employed elsewhere, including at the U.S.-Mexican border and the Korean demilitarized zone. Israel could use underground seismic sensors, electromagnetic induction and ground penetrating radar to detect the tunnels, the report said.

By demolishing the homes, the army is only destroying entrance shafts and not the tunnels themselves, allowing the Palestinians to dig new entrances, the report said.

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