Wed, May 19, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Israel guilty of war crimes, says AI

HUMAN RIGHTS The destruction of thousands of homes in the Gaza Strip to improve security on the Egyptian border brought misery to displaced families

AP , JERUSALEM

Israel is guilty of war crimes in its destruction of thousands of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the human rights group Amnesty International (AI) charged in a report yesterday.

Release of the report coincided with an Israeli operation in the Rafah refugee camp on the Israel-Egypt border, where Israel was poised to knock down more houses to widen a buffer zone in its battle against weapons-smuggling tunnels.

The report said the demolition and destruction are "grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention and are war crimes," calling on Israel to halt the practices immediately. Amnesty also said the house demolitions are linked to Israeli intentions to take over West Bank and Gaza land.

According to the report, Israel destroyed more than 3,000 Palestinian homes, most of them in the impoverished and densely populated Gaza Strip, after fighting broke out more than three years ago.

The report also found that 10 percent of Gaza's agricultural land has been destroyed and more than 226,000 trees uprooted there in 2002 and last year.

"In the vast majority of cases, it's wanton destruction," said Donatella Rovera, from the Middle East program of the London-based human rights group and report co-author. "It's unnecessary, disproportionate, unjustified, and deliberate."

Israeli officials were not immediately available for comment but have stated in the past that house demolitions are necessary for security reasons. The Israeli army says that Palestinian militants often use Palestinian homes and agricultural land as cover to launch attacks. Also, they have discovered tunnel entrances under Rafah structures.

Amnesty countered that the destruction of homes, land and other property in the Palestinian territories is disproportionate to Israel's security needs.

Amnesty also accused Israel of collective punishment, demolishing homes and property of Palestinians who are not involved, even according to Israel, in attacks against Israel.

"This is the case with the majority of land and home destruction," Rovera said.

Israel's practice of blowing up homes of the families of suicide bombers is one form of punishment Amnesty criticized in the report. It said that since September 2000, when the current conflict erupted, there have been at least 600 cases.

Amnesty also called on Caterpillar Inc, the American heavy equipment company that provides the Israeli army with the giant bulldozers that carry out many of these demolitions, "to guarantee that its bulldozers are not used to commit human rights violations, including the destruction of homes, land, and other properties."

Caterpillar's chairman and chief executive officer Jim Owens recently wrote a letter to the parents of a US peace activist killed in Gaza when a bulldozer ran over her, saying his company did not have "the practical ability -- or the legal right -- to determine how our products are used after they are sold."

The Amnesty report said most victims of demolitions are already among the poorest in Palestinian society, making it difficult for them to recover.

Most rely on relatives to house them, resulting in overcrowded and tense living quarters, an environment Rovera says "has an enormous effect on internal family relations and the natural development of children."

Rovera said Amnesty released the report to shed light on the long-term social and economic effects of the mass demolitions on the Palestinian people.

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