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Amnesty says Israel guilty of war crimes in house demolitions
The human rights group Amnesty International has charged that Israel is guilty of war crimes and grave breaches of the Geneva Convention in its destruction of large numbers of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the course of the Palestinian uprising.
The Tuesday release of the report coincided with the IDF operation in the Rafah refugee camp on the Israel-Egypt border, where Israel was poised to knock down more houses to widen the Philadelphi buffer zone in the army's battle against weapons-smuggling tunnels.
The Amnesty report said that Israel has demolished more than 3,000 homes during the current three-year conflict with the Palestinians, most of them in the Gaza Strip.
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 2003.
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.
The Amnesty report was released a few hours after an annual U.S. State Department report released Monday in Washington leveled criticism at Israel's security forces, calling their record in the West Bank and Gaza Strip poor and noting that the interactions between troops and international activists have deteriorated in the past year.
The report's main points are similar to those made in last year's report. The State Department accuses Israel of excessive use of force, leading to "numerous deaths." Israel was also accused of employing strict closures and arbitrary arrests of Palestinians in the territories, of hindering Palestinian medical personnel and of detaining pedestrians and drivers at checkpoints located throughout the territories.
"In the vast majority of cases, it's wanton destruction," said Donatella Rovera, from the Middle East program of the London-based Amnesty International and a co-author of the report. "It's unnecessary, disproportionate, unjustified, and deliberate."
Responding to the dossier, the Foreign Ministry said the army only demolished Palestinian buildings used by militants to fire on troops or hide weapons smuggling tunnels. It blamed militants for using civilian homes as cover for their attacks.
"When terrorists fire from within civilian structures or activate roadside charges from trees and fields, military necessity dictates the demolition of these locations," it said.
"Under international law, these structures are considered legitimate military targets. Therefore, in the midst of combat, when dictated by operational necessity, Israeli security forces may lawfully destroy structures used by terrorists," it said.
Amnesty countered that the destruction of homes, land and other property in the Palestinian territories is disproportionate to Israel's security needs.
Along with calling on Israel to stop demolitions, the 65-page report also said Palestinian authorities should take "all possible measures" to stop attacks against Israelis and to keep militants from initiating armed confrontations from civilian areas.
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," said Rovera.
Israel's practice of blowing up the 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 such 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 the 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 CEO Jim Owens recently wrote a letter to the parents of an American peace activist killed in Gaza when a bulldozer ran over her, saying that his company does 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.
"We want people to look beyond the immediate effects of the demolitions ... to how they will continue to affect the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians for many years to come," she said.
The State Department said 573 Palestinians and one foreign national were killed by Israeli security forces in the past year.
The U.S. report also criticized the Palestinian Authority, accusing it of "numerous, serious abuses." According to the report, Palestinian terrorists were responsible for the deaths of 378 Israelis in the territories during the past year.
The State Department report deals only with the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, where the human rights situation is particularly poor, and not on the situation within the Green Line.
A separate report deals with the internal situation in nations around the world.
UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations Security Council was due to meet Tuesday afternoon to discuss a request by Arab nations told hold an immediate meeting to consider Israel's widespread destruction of Palestinian homes in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip.
The Arab countries filed the request Monday following international condemnation of last week's demolition of about 100 houses in the camp, leaving about 11,000 Palestinians in Rafah homeless since 2000. The army has said hundreds more houses may be torn down, as Israel wants to widen a military patrol road between Rafah and the Egyptian border after Palestinians blew up an armored vehicle there last week.
Yemen's United Nations Ambassador Abdullah Alsaidi, the current chairman of the Arab Group, sent a letter Monday to Pakistan's UN Ambassador Munir Akram, the current council president, calling on members to take "necessary measures" against Israel for violating international law.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged Israel on Monday to stop bulldozing homes in Rafah, saying the demolitions violate international law and inhibit UN refugee workers from doing their jobs.
European Union foreign ministers on Monday also condemned the demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza, demanding an immediate halt to the action, which they said in a statement was "disproportionate and in conflict with international law." The EU sought to balance its statement by condemning calls for violence and deploring the inhuman treatment of the remains of Israeli soldiers by Palestinians in Gaza.
U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Monday, after a meeting in Berlin with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, that the United States had told Israel "that some of their actions don't create the best atmosphere." A senior Palestinian official told Reuters that Qureia appealed to Rice to stop Israel's mass demolition.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has also joined international criticism of the plan, saying on a weekend visit to Jordan that Washington opposed "wholesale bulldozing of houses" in Rafah.
"We don't think that is productive," Powell said at the World Economic Forum in Jordan. "We know Israel has a right for self-defense, but the kind of actions that they're taking in Rafah with the destruction of Palestinian homes, we oppose."
Amnesty International released a report Tuesday saying Israel has destroyed more than 3,000 Palestinian houses since the second intifada began three-and-a-half years ago, and demanded the army stop razing civilian homes.