American Shame in Rafah

The current Israeli campaign in Rafah, which has already killed at least 40 people, and which the U.N. Security Council has condemned in a 14-0 vote (with the United States abstaining), is merely the continuation of a decades-long program of ethnic cleansing that Israel has conducted in the region.

A new report released by Amnesty International chronicles Israel’s tactics in this program. Close to 1,000 homes in Rafah have been seriously damaged or destroyed since 2000. The Israeli government has used various arguments for the demolitions. As Amnesty International reports:

“The destruction in the Rafah refugee camp has been progressive, targeting row after row of houses – contrary to claims by the Israeli authorities that only houses used by Palestinians to shoot at Israeli soldiers patrolling the border and houses used as cover for tunnels used for smuggling weapons from Egypt were destroyed. However, already from the end of 2000 Palestinians living in the refugee camp close to the border told Amnesty International that Israeli soldiers had told them that many rows of houses were going to be destroyed. Statements by Israeli army and government officials confirm that this was indeed the intention. In January 2002 Major-General Yom Tov Samiah, Commander of Israeli army Southern Command at the beginning of the intifada, commenting on the destruction of some 60 Palestinian homes in Rafah refugee camp by the Israeli army on 9 and 10 January 2002 told Israeli Radio:

“‘These houses should have been demolished and evacuated a long time ago…Three hundred meters of the Strip along the two sides of the border must be evacuated… Three hundred meters, no matter how many houses, period.’”

Some Israeli officials said that this destruction was retaliation for the killing of four Israeli soldiers at the Kerem Shalom army base in southern Israel on January 9, 2002. According to Major-General Doron Almog, Commander of the Southern Command, “Most of our operations have focused on the Rafah area, as that is where the two Hamas terrorists came from.” The Israeli army spokesperson’s office claimed that the demolished houses “served as cover for gunmen’s fire” and “were suspected of serving as cover for tunnels used weapon in smuggling operations.”

Israel’s tactics also include zoning restrictions that secure Palestinian areas inside and outside Israel as “agricultural land” where no building can take place. If homes are built in such areas, they are demolished soon afterwards. Another reason given is “security,” which almost always means making way for roads and other infrastructure for Israeli settlers. Even when the Israeli military takes revenge for actual terrorist activities committed by a resident of the home, the demolition often damages or destroys nearby structures.

The Israeli legal system has constructed an ex post facto procedure for justifying these actions. Attacks are carried out without warning; explanations follow later. As the Amnesty report puts it,

“The Israeli authorities contend that destruction of houses and other property is entirely justified and proportionate to their ‘military/security needs’ to prevent or respond to attacks by armed Palestinians against Israeli settlements and Israeli army positions. They describe this kind of destruction as ‘preventive’ or ‘in the course of combat activities.’”

The “preventive” category is extremely broad. It includes destruction of properties from which the army claims attacks were carried out, as well as properties which were used for cover during attacks. It also includes destruction needed to clear lines of sight in sensitive areas, create buffer zones around likely targets, and build fences or military installations. According to the Israeli army,

“The source of authority for the Israeli Defense Forces to harm private property during times of fighting and due to military needs is part of the laws of war, which are part of the international law. Specifically it refers to regulation 23(g) of the Hague Convention of 1907 which permits destruction of property in cases in which ‘such destruction [is] imperatively demanded by the necessities of war…’”

In response to legal challenges by Palestinians, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that “advance notice did not need to be given if it would hinder the success of the demolition, a virtual green light for demolitions to go forward without the possibility of appeal for those affected.” Furthermore,

“In cases of advance notification of intended destruction where the owners of the targeted properties have appealed, the Israeli Supreme Court has usually accepted the Israeli army’s arguments and assessment of what constitutes military/security needs, and has permitted the demolitions.”

In a situation where private property rights count for nothing, chaos will ensue. The Israeli military can, with legal backing, do whatever it wants whenever it wants and simply make up justifications after the homes are gone. One of the recommendations Amnesty makes at the end of the report addresses this injustice:

“The law must be amended in a manner so as to require that, except during the actual conduct of military operations or armed confrontations which make the destruction absolutely necessary, no demolition should be carried out without prior notification to the concerned parties, who should be given adequate time and opportunity to challenge before an independent and impartial court of law any order for the demolition of a house or the destruction of land or other property.”

All of the report’s recommendations could be implemented by all parties in short order if the U.S. would distance itself from Israel. Between 1949 and 1997, U.S. taxpayers spent $23,240 in foreign aid on each Israeli citizen. If this aid were to disappear, the Israeli government would find itself at least somewhat constrained. According to the Arms Trade Resource Center,

“Israel is one of the United States’ largest arms importers. In the last decade, the United States has sold Israel $7.2 billion in weaponry and military equipment, $762 million through Direct Commercial Sales (DCS), more than $6.5 billion through the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program.

“In fact, Israel is so devoted to U.S. military hardware that it has the world’s largest fleet of F-16s outside the U.S., currently possessing more than 200 jets. Another 102 F-16s are on order from Lockheed Martin.”

And the U.S. has given Israel free small arms:

“The U.S. also gives Israel weapons and ammunition as part of the Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program, providing these articles completely free of charge. Between 1994-2001, the U.S. provided many weapons through this program, including:

  • 64,744 M-16A1 rifles
  • 2,469 M-204 grenade launchers
  • 1,500 M-2 .50 caliber machine guns
  • .30 caliber, .50 caliber, and 20mm ammunition.”

In the old system of international law, selling arms and ammunition to warring states was itself an act of war. By selling contraband to one side in what is clearly a war, the U.S. has lowered itself to the status of war profiteer. These subsidized arms sales and handouts should cease immediately. Israel should be responsible for its own defense.

And if Israel wants to stamp out terrorism, the first place they should look is the office of the Prime Minister.