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The punitive action executed by Israel at the weekend in the Gaza Strip, and in particular the mass demolition of homes in Rafah on Thursday morning, constitute a war crime. There is no other way to describe and define the collective punishment of hundreds of innocent civilians who have been left utterly destitute. Under the […]

Bulldozing Rafah

by Gideon Levy Ha'aretz

The punitive action executed by Israel at the weekend in the Gaza Strip, and in particular the mass demolition of homes in Rafah on Thursday morning, constitute a war crime. There is no other way to describe and define the collective punishment of hundreds of innocent civilians who have been left utterly destitute.

Under the cover of the media blackout in Israel–it is very difficult to get to the southern Gaza Strip–bulldozers of the Israel Defense Forces turned “homes into a wasteland,” as M., a Rafah resident, said by phone. If there was a time when at least part of Israeli public opinion was in an uproar over the demolition of the home of a terrorist’s family, and there was a public debate over the justice of the act, now Israel is demolishing the homes of hundreds of residents who don’t even have a family connection to terrorism–and hardly anyone says a word in protest.

Can we, the Israelis, even begin to imagine what it feels like to have bulldozers suddenly appear in the middle of the night and plow under everything a family has, as they and their children watch? Did the decision makers take into account the hatred they are sowing in the hearts of the children who witnessed the destruction of their homes? And what will become of these wretched people now, people who even before their homes were razed were doomed to a sordid life in one of the poorest of the refugee camps? Where are they going to spend the bitterly cold nights?

And what was their sin? True, Rafah is a bastion of the Hamas organization, a place where the Palestinian Authority wields little influence; but does that justify the decision to launch war against every person in the city?

According to UNWRA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, the IDF leveled 54 homes in Rafah, leaving 510 people without a roof over their head; according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, the number left homeless is 700. In the past year, before Thursday’s action, Israel had already demolished about 200 homes in Rafah. Even if the version put out by the IDF Spokesman is correct–at first he claimed that “a few houses” were demolished, and then conceded that “some of the houses were connected,” so that a few more homes than originally stated were razed–this was a cruel and unjustified operation.

The demolition of the houses in Rafah, the most extensive action of its kind so far, came in reaction to the killing of four Israeli soldiers in the Africa outpost near Kerem Shalom and the capture of the Karine A weapons ship–but there is absolutely no connection between the victims of the destruction and those two operations.

Even if we believe the IDF’s contention that the Palestinians used the houses as cover for opening fire on the IDF, and that their courtyards may even have been used to dig tunnels into Egypt through which weapons were smuggled, that is no justification for their demolition.

Destroying the homes of civilians is precisely the type of action that an enlightened state does not do, under any circumstances. A country that opposes terrorism against civilians cannot demolish homes of innocent civilians and then claim that what it did is not an act of terrorism.

The impression is that the Rafah action was another brutal manifestation of the Israeli need to “react” immediately, to inflict punishment–really, to exact revenge–even if the reaction is neither morally justified nor politically wise. In this context, the participation in the operation, according to reports, of the Bedouin unit that lost four of its members in the attack on Africa outpost last week, was particularly tasteless.

Israel is now treating the Gaza Strip as its own territory–destroying the airport (and letting it be rebuilt), impounding dozens of fishing boats that serve as a rare source of livelihood in the area, and demolishing homes wholesale. Those who bear responsibility for these acts are not only the “extremist” cabinet ministers, but also the “moderate” ministers of the Labor Party, notably, of course, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. They too will one day have to pay for being part of this government and for the part they played in operations such as the one in Rafah.

Israel will have to explain the difference between the violence it is perpetrating and the violence perpetrated by the other side–and, horrifically, it is hard to believe that the Palestinians will succeed in preventing mass terrorist acts in this state of affairs. The next suicide bomber may well emerge from the ruins of the homes in Rafah.

The officers and soldiers who take part in contemptible operations of this kind will no longer be able to wash their hands of guilt and claim they are only following orders. What do they tell their families on the day on which they demolished dozens of tin huts, and what will they tell their children in the future?

In a meeting sponsored by the Gush Shalom organization–which calls on soldiers to refuse to serve in the occupied territories–last week in Tel Aviv, Colonel (res.) Yigal Shochat, a former combat pilot, called on Air

Force pilots to refuse to obey orders to bomb civilians and liquidate wanted individuals, as such actions constitute war crimes. As far as is known, not one pilot has refused to obey an order to demolish the homes of civilians, an action that can be defined as flagrantly illegal.

“These are disgusting days,” the novelist David Grossman wrote a week ago, referring to the hoopla surrounding the capture of the weapons ship. The IDF’s punitive action in reaction to that affair only lends credence to his despairing description.