During the recent Israeli offensive, ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ (14 – 21 November 2012), Israeli forces attacked streets, family homes, and civilian buildings in densely populated areas, causing injuries and deaths amongst civilians, and extensive destruction to civilian property in the Gaza Strip. 127 civilian houses were completely destroyed, another 153 civilian houses were extensively damaged and more than 600 houses sustained minor damage.
On Sunday, 18 November 2012, at approximately 01:50 am, in an incident of ‘roof-knocking’, 4 warning missiles were fired at a 4-storey house in the Beit Lahia housing project in the northern Gaza Strip. Ten minutes later, the house was completely destroyed in an airstrike. As a result of the attack, 5 more houses were destroyed and a further 6 were severely damaged.
Youssif Hassan Khalil Balousha (56) recalls his experience: “On the night of the incident, I and 11 members of my family were sleeping in our house. At around 01:45 am, my eldest son knocked on my bedroom door and woke me up. He told me that our neighbours’ house had been hit with warning missiles. We decided to evacuate our house, fearing that we might be attacked as well. I got my family members out of the house. I thought of sending them to my brother’s house, which is near our house. I thought my brother’s house would be safer as it is made from concrete, whereas the roof of my house was made of asbestos.”
Youssif describes the air strike that destroyed his home: “When the attack happened, I was standing on the doorstep of my house. My son and my nephew were there too. It felt like a big earthquake, and some debris from my house fell on us. I fainted due to the impact of the attack. I was taken to the hospital, but I don’t remember it. At around 3 am, the doctors in the hospital managed to wake me up. My son came and told me that our house had been destroyed in the attack. I was devastated, and I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I was discharged from the hospital at 5 am. I sent some of my family members to my son-in-law’s house and some others took shelter with neighbours whose houses had survived the attack.”
Later that morning, Youssif and his sons assessed the damage caused to their house: “It was a nightmare. Everything we owned - our belongings, clothes, furniture - had been destroyed in the attack. It was extremely painful, as if all of my family’s hard work had vanished in a few hours. This is the first time that my property was attacked. I had only heard about the difficulties that other people faced after their homes were destroyed. Realising that I had to now build everything again seemed unfair. It is unfair.”
Youssif and his family have had difficulties finding an alternative place to stay, as he explains, “After the war ended, my sons and I tried finding a place where we could all live together again, but we could not find the right place. Right now, we are staying in an apartment in Beit Lahiya, but it is very inconvenient. I cannot afford a big apartment because I am unemployed. The only one of us who is earning a wage is my son. He is a labourer in an aluminium workshop and earns just 10 shekels a day. After the war, I had to take many loans from various people in my community to purchase basic things that my family needs. We are living in a very bad situation. I haven’t been able to pay the rent for this month and the landlord has threatened to evict us if we don’t pay him soon.”
After the attack, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) assessed Youssif’s house: “They told me that it will cost 10,440 US dollars to reconstruct my house. I can’t afford this much money. We received blankets and mattresses from the International Committee of the Red Cross, and some food from other aid organisations. I have received just 700 dollars from the government, but that is not enough. I go to the UNRWA office in Jabalya every Sunday to ask when my house will be rebuilt.”
As the Occupying Power of the Gaza Strip, Israel is must fulfil its obligations under the international human rights treaties and covenants it has signed and ratified. Under international humanitarian law, in particular Article 53 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or cooperative organisations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations. Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that extensive destruction of such protected property, which cannot be justified by military necessity, is a grave breach of international humanitarian law. In addition, Article 8(2)(b)(iv) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court states that it is a war crime to intentionally launch an attack in the knowledge that such an attack will cause incidental loss of life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.
Moreover, in carrying out attacks in densely-populated areas in the Gaza Strip, causing the destruction of civilian homes, Israel violates the right to adequate housing, which is provided for under, inter alia, Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.