The destruction of more than a third of Gaza’s homes, as Israel bombs the territory in pursuit of Hamas, has international legal experts discussing the concept of “domicide” – the mass destruction of homes to make the territory uninhabitable .
In the current war in Gaza, launched after the October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel, independent experts estimate that up to 40% of Gaza’s housing has been damaged or destroyed. The UN says 1.8 million people are internally displaced in Gaza, many of them living in overcrowded UN shelters in the south.
Although Gaza has already been damaged in previous conflicts and rebuilt, largely with money from Gulf countries, the current scale of devastation is of a different magnitude.
The question is whether the scale of damage to infrastructure is a byproduct of Hamas members’ pursuit or part of a secret plan to expel Palestinians from Gaza, erasing the possibility of Gaza becoming a society semi-viable for the foreseeable future.
Domicide, a concept increasingly accepted in academia, is not a distinct crime against humanity under international law, and the UN special rapporteur on the right to housing presented to the UN in October last a report arguing that “a very important gap” needed to be filled.
The destruction of homes in Aleppo in Syria’s civil war, the crushing of Rohingya villages in Myanmar and the destruction of Mariupol in Ukraine have heightened attention to the issue in recent years.
“It is necessary to address ongoing hostilities with the understanding that they will systematically destroy and damage civilian housing and infrastructure, rendering an entire city – such as Gaza City – uninhabitable for civilians,” the Guardian told the Guardian. UN rapporteur, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, professor of law at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.
Rajagopal argues that a gap exists in international law since, while the protection of civilian housing is covered by the Rome Statute which establishes the international criminal tribunal in relation to war crimes in conflicts between states, it is not included as a crime against humanity which could arise in a conflict within a State or which would involve non-State actors.
“This applies to the massive destruction of habitat in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza,” Rajagopal said. “Israel will say this is not an international armed conflict because Israel does not recognize Palestine as a state.
He argued that most of the deadliest conflicts since World War II have been non-international armed conflicts, with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine being an exception rather than the rule.
He said a similar gap regarding famine had just been filled. The Rome Statute listed famine as a war crime, not a crime against humanity, thereby exempting non-state actors. Switzerland lobbied to amend the law and make starvation a crime against humanity, a change finally accepted in 2022.
Rajagopal said: “I would like to ask those countries that oppose what is happening in Gaza, such as South Africa and Spain, to do exactly what they did regarding the famine to protect against this gap (and) ensure that the mass destruction of housing in Gaza can be prosecuted. »
He added that based on the facts and remarks presented by Israeli leaders, he believed the goal of destruction on this scale was not just to eliminate Hamas, but to make Gaza uninhabitable.
Israel says the damage to buildings and loss of civilian life is regrettable, but necessitated by Hamas deliberately hiding in schools and hospitals and refusing to surrender. He says he is making every effort to warn citizens of impending attacks.
Estimating the level of destruction of Gaza’s buildings is controversial, but new use of satellite imagery suggests that 98,000 buildings were damaged by November 29, the start of the now-abandoned temporary ceasefire.
The findings were based on analysis of data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 Copernicus satellite by Corey Scher of the City University of New York and Jamon van den Hoek of Oregon State University. Their work has been cited repeatedly by news organizations ranging from the BBC to the Washington Post, reflecting the difficulty for reporters in mapping the true scale of a bombing.
Rather than using optical images, the assessment relies on publicly available satellite data and an algorithm specifically developed to measure the stability of the built environment in order to infer damage to the building. This solution has the advantage of looking at structures from oblique angles and not just from above.
Imagery from north to south showed 47 to 58 percent damage in Gaza City, 11 to 16 percent in Deir al-Balah, 10 to 15 percent in Khan Younis and 7 to 11 percent in Rafah, the area closest to the border with Egypt. This represents between 67,000 and 88,000 buildings, which means that roughly 70% of the buildings remain intact. The figure for Khan Younis will have increased since the end of the ceasefire and the concentration of military activity in the south.
Among the destroyed or partially destroyed buildings are Gaza’s main Palestinian court, known as the Palace of Justice, the Palestinian Legislative Council complex, 339 school facilities and 167 places of prayer, while 35 of the territory’s hospitals no longer function.
Hugh Lovatt of the European Council on Foreign Relations suggested that Israel was “deliberately and methodically destroying the civilian institutions and infrastructure that will be needed to govern and stabilize post-conflict Gaza.”
Satellite imagery also reveals the destruction of orchards, greenhouses and agricultural land in northern Gaza. Human Rights Watch said Monday: “In northeast Gaza, north of Beit Hanoun, once green agricultural land is now brown and desolate. Fields and orchards were initially damaged during the hostilities that followed the Israeli ground invasion at the end of October. Bulldozers dug new roads, clearing the way for Israeli military vehicles. »
Leaks from the Israeli government, including the Intelligence Ministry, show that officials have explored ways to force Palestinians to leave Gaza, either voluntarily or by force. The Intelligence Department is not a high-ranking branch of government, but conservatives like John Bolton, a former national security adviser, have explored variations of such plans.
Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s national security council, wrote to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth: “The State of Israel has no choice but to make Gaza a place to be, to temporary or permanent, impossible way to live. Creating a serious humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a necessary means to achieve this goal…Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist. »
The United States has repeatedly ruled out such a policy, in part because it knows that two allies, Jordan and Egypt, will not welcome more refugees into their countries, even temporarily.
Translation: J.Ch. for AURDIP