Written by: Dr. Maher Al-Shareef - Researcher and Historian - Palestinian Studies Foundation – Beirut
Successive Israeli governments, especially since the beginning of this third millennium, resorted to all forms of genocide against the Palestinian people. Before the South Africa’s lawsuit against Israel before the International Court of Justice, accusing it of committing acts of genocide in its war on the Gaza Strip, the term "political genocide" had emerged since the 1970s. Israeli socio-critical scholar Baruch Kimmerling used this term in his book published in 2003, titled "Politicide: Ariel Sharon's Wars Against the Palestinians." He accused his country's government of implementing "a wide range of social, political and military activities" aimed at "putting an end to the political and national existence" of the Palestinian people, thereby denying their "right to self-determination."
Following the establishment of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in 2009, some human rights activists and international sociologists accused Israel, especially after the destructive war it waged on the Gaza Strip in the operation known as "Operation Cast Lead" in the same year, of committing acts of "social genocide" with the aim of eliminating the elements of life in the Gaza Strip and preventing it from rebuilding itself.
The widespread use of the term "home demolition" dates back to Israel's occupation of the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in 1967. Since then, Israeli governments have resorted to demolishing Palestinian homes under various pretexts. They demolished the homes of resistance fighters, claiming that they targeted occupying forces and settlers with their operations. They also demolished the homes of citizens, alleging that they were built without permission from the occupying authorities. Additionally, homes of Jerusalemites were demolished on the pretext that Jews "owned them before 1948," and so on.
In its successive wars on the Gaza Strip since late 2008, the Israeli occupying forces, using inadequate pretexts, destroyed tens of thousands of homes or inflicted significant damage on them. However, the current scale of destruction in the Gaza Strip is of a different nature. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu, during the war that has been ongoing for more than a hundred days on the Gaza Strip, widely targeted the homes of Palestinians. The clear objective was to render them uninhabitable, forcing the inhabitants to migrate. Faced with the extent of the destruction inflicted on residential units, the term "domicide" emerged in the writings of analysts and reports of experts who closely followed the events of this war.
This term was first introduced in 2001 in a book written by the geographer J. Douglas Porteous and Assistant Professor of Geography Sandra Smith titled "Domicide: The Global Destruction of Home," published by McGill-Queen's University Press in Montreal. In July 2022, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, employed this term to refer to "widespread or systematic destruction of civilian homes during conflicts." In a report he presented in October of the same year to the United Nations General Assembly after his visit to the occupied West Bank, he explained, "I witnessed how a home, the culmination of a lifetime's effort and a source of pride for entire families, can be destroyed in a matter of moments, turning it into rubble. It is not just a house that has been destroyed; it is also the savings of entire families, memories and the sense of belonging to a place. The destruction of homes causes a social and psychological shock that is difficult for me to describe or even imagine."
On February 13, 2023, in a joint report prepared with Francesca Albanese, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, and Paula Gaviria Betancur, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, delegated by the Human Rights Council, Balakrishnan Rajagopal called for "holding Israel accountable for its deliberate and systematic demolition of Palestinian homes." They added that Israel "systematically demolishes Palestinian homes and deprives them of building permits in the West Bank, while also establishing illegal settlements." They considered "Israeli tactics involving the forcible displacement and expulsion of Palestinian populations to have no limits" and that "direct attacks on homes, schools, livelihoods and water resources of the Palestinian people are nothing but Israeli attempts to limit Palestinians' right to self-determination and threaten their existence." They also mentioned that dozens of Palestinian families are facing imminent risks of forced evictions and displacement "due to discriminatory zoning and planning systems that support Israeli settlement expansion — an illegal act under international law and amounts to a war crime."
A report issued by the United Nations in early November 2023 indicated that 45% of the homes in the Gaza Strip were either destroyed or damaged as a result of Israeli airstrikes. By the 29th of the same month, which marked the beginning of the temporary ceasefire that was later abandoned, satellite images showed that 98,000 buildings had been damaged in the Gaza Strip. Then, in late December of the same year, the "Wall Street Journal" reported that 70% of homes and approximately half of the buildings in the Gaza Strip had been damaged or destroyed, constituting an "unprecedented destruction in modern urban warfare." The removal of debris, according to the report, "will take at least a year," while the reconstruction of the destroyed homes "will take between seven to ten years."
The United Nations described the Gaza Strip as now being a "place of death and despair" and simply "unfit for habitation." Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, expressed regret on Sunday, January 7th,2024, for the fact that the residents of the Strip, especially the displaced amounting to around 1.8 million people, "face daily threats in the eyes of the world." Meanwhile, Julia Grignon, the Scientific Director of France’s Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM), stated that "the term 'home demolition' allows us to describe the reality [in the Gaza Strip]; it is true that this term does not add anything at the legal level, but it draws attention to what is happening." It allows highlighting the violated rights resulting from it, such as "the right to access water, sanitation or the right to education in the case of destroyed schools."
Amongst the buildings that were either fully or partially destroyed are: the main courthouse in Gaza, known as the Palace of Justice, the Legislative Council building, more than 330 educational institutions and more than 160 places of worship. Also affected were: the main public library, four universities and historical buildings in the Old City of Gaza, such as the "Samara Bath" dating back to the Mamluk era, the Grand Omari Mosque and the Saint Hilarion Monastery. Gaza Port and numerous museums, including the Gaza’s main museum of Palestinian Heritage, known as the Rafah Museum, were impacted as well. Meanwhile, 26 out of the 35 hospitals in the sector are no longer operational.
Hugh Lovatt of the "European Council on Foreign Relations" argued that Israel "deliberately and systematically destroys civil institutions and infrastructure that will be necessary for governing Gaza and achieving stability after the conflict." Satellite images revealed "the complete erasure of entire neighborhoods in Gaza from the face of the earth, including the Karama neighborhood in the northern part of Gaza City, extensive parts of the Jabalia Refugee Camp and the town of Beit Hanoun in the northeastern part of the Strip. Regarding the destruction of orchards, agricultural greenhouses and farmland in northern Gaza, Human Rights Watch stated: "In northeastern Gaza, north of Beit Hanoun, once-green agricultural land is now brown and desolate. Fields and orchards were first damaged during hostilities following Israel’s ground invasion in late Oct. Bulldozers carved new roads, clearing the way for Israeli military vehicles."
Can "Homecide" become a distinct international crime?
The number of people in Gaza who no longer have homes has reached hundreds of thousands today. In fact, the word "home" in many languages does not just refer to a place of residence, but includes everything surrounding it, such as security, comfort and access to water and electricity. Therefore, the destruction of a home deprives its owner of the ability to access all these essential aspects of dignified life and entails a painful psychological impact on the person living in it. However, the term "Homecide" does not exist in international law, has no clear definition, is not considered a war crime or a crime against humanity and does not fall under the category of genocide, creating a "gap" in international law. For this reason, several experts, including Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, called for creating a new crime in international law, namely the crime of "Homecide" or "House Killing." In November 2022, he urged the United Nations "to consider ‘Homecide’ as an international crime in its own right, or the fifth international crime after the crime of aggression, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, which can be prosecuted before national and international courts."
After Israel conducted its war on Gaza, he pointed out that Israel's military actions "systematically destroy and damage the homes of civilians and infrastructure, making an entire city like Gaza unfit for civilian habitation." Despite the fact that protecting civilians’ homes is mentioned in the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court to try war crimes committed in conflicts between states, he called on "countries opposing what is happening in Gaza, such as South Africa and Spain, to do exactly what they did in the case of famine to fill this gap and ensure the possibility of prosecuting those responsible for the comprehensive destruction of homes in Gaza." He noted that the widespread destruction of homes in Gaza "is not a side effect of war but a goal in itself, based on facts and the words of Israeli leaders." In this context, it is worth mentioning that the government of South Africa stated in its accusation against Israel for committing acts of genocide that "there is a massive number of destroyed homes in the Gaza Strip, and this may thus satisfy the third criterion of genocide, which involves deliberately subjecting the group to living conditions meant to cause its total or partial destruction."
The Israeli occupation turned Gaza into a "ruin"!
"Densely packed burial grounds for grieving families, exhausted and frightened residents, neighborhoods turned to dust and a health system on its knees." This is how the French newspaper "Le Monde" described the situation in the Gaza Strip in its issue dated January 11th,2024, after a hundred days of the destructive war waged by Israel.
"It's only a hundred days, but it feels like a hundred years," says Abdel Aziz Saadat, who, like the vast majority of residents, fled their homes and now lives in a temporary shelter camp in Rafah. He adds, "The small coastal area densely populated with people is unrecognisable. The neighborhoods that used to have crowded and noisy streets are now nothing but ruins. Some are living in schools, others in the streets, on the ground and some sleep on benches; the war spared no one."
The newspaper continues, stating, "More than 23,300 people have lost their lives, most of them women and minors and about 60,000 have been injured, with thousands still buried under the rubble." It quotes Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalists saying, "Due to the limited space in cemeteries, mass graves have been dug in orchards, hospital courtyards and even in a football field." It adds, "As in an endless horrific day, the scene repeats every day: tearful men and women identifying bodies wrapped in white plastic covers. Many bakeries were affected or closed due to fuel shortages. Stores are empty, and there is no money to buy food; people are dying of hunger."
Away from physical suffering, horror and scenes of destruction, 23-year-old Hadeel Shhata expresses the despair of the youth in this area where half the population are minors: "Children can lose years of their lives living here. Everything has gone in vain, and we've lost everything; we've lost all our dreams."
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's views and not necessarily the Association's or donor's opinion.