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From the field

Qalqiliya, 29 August 2007: Extensive destruction of houses and gross humiliation of residents

Around four o'clock in the morning of 29 August 2007, a large contingent of soldiers, accompanied by bulldozers, entered the Naqar neighborhood of Qalqiliya. According to the media, the soldiers had come to arrest members of Hamas's military wing whom Israeli intelligence indicated were in the area. The forces encircled one of the sections of the neighborhood and around seven o'clock began to call to the occupants to leave their homes. Some of the soldiers took control of two houses, removed their occupants. Later, these residences were used to detain and question residents.

As soon as the occupants left their homes, the soldiers forced the men to undress to their underpants in public, in front of the women and children. Some of the men told B'Tselem that they were compelled, for inspection purposes, to remove their underpants as well, this too in front of everyone. Two residents who refused to undress told B'Tselem that the soldiers beat them severely. Male soldiers, using metal detectors, also checked the women.

In his testimony to B'Tselem, Muhammad Di'ab, 57, who has eight children, described his humiliation:

During the evacuation, one of the soldiers in the jeep called out on to me on a loudspeaker to take off all my clothes and turn around in front of the soldiers to make sure that I wasn't carrying anything'… I asked the soldiers to let me keep my underpants on, but they insisted. I had to lower my underpants in front of my daughters and women from the neighborhood. I felt deeply insulted and it offended my dignity. What they did was beastly, arbitrary, and immoral. It was also disgraceful, this by soldiers who claim they maintain law and order and are humane. After I lowered my underpants, the soldiers allowed my son and I to put them back on.

The soldiers led the occupants to the houses they had taken control of, where they were questioned by the Israel Security Agency. The houses were about 50-70 meters away, a distance that the men walked dressed only in their underpants. Testimonies given to B'Tselem indicate that some of the mail residents were not allowed to dress until the troops left the city that evening, and were interrogated while in their underclothes. When the army's action ended, all the occupants were released.

After the soldiers removed the occupants from their homes, the soldiers continued to call out to everyone to come outside, assuming that the wanted persons were still hiding in the houses. When nobody else came out, the bulldozers began to demolish the houses in the encircled section of the neighborhood. Within a few hours, the bulldozer demolished seven housing units, which were home to forty-eight persons, seventeen children among them. Five housing units (a two-story building and three houses) were completely demolished, and two other houses were partially demolished, making them uninhabitable. None of the occupants were allowed to remove anything from the houses before they were demolished.

Hana'a Qab'a, 42, a mother of six, described the event to B'Tselem:

I saw the bulldozers demolish my house in front of my eyes. It was very painful. All my dreams died in that one moment. My whole house was demolished: three rooms, kitchen, bathroom, living room, and all the contents. I fainted. My sister-in-law called for help. When I opened my eyes, I saw three male soldiers and one female soldier standing around me. The female soldier checked my pulse and asked me to breathe. I asked that I be taken to hospital for medical treatment, but they didn't let me.

It was later learned that the soldiers had faulty information: nobody was found in the houses that were demolished.

During the demolitions, a few young men threw stones and petrol bombs at the soldiers, who then opened fire with "rubber" bullets and tear gas, wounding about thirty young men. The troops left the city at seven in the evening.

Legal analysis

During the action in Qalqiliya, the soldiers flagrantly breached a fundamental principal of international humanitarian law, enshrined in Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention:

Protected persons [the local civilian population in occupied territory] are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honor, their family rights, their religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs. They shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof and against insults and public curiosity.

Even if undressing the males was done as part of an inspection and resulted from legitimate security considerations, primarily the concern that the men had weapons on their bodies, the obligation to respect the honor of the protected persons required the soldiers to conduct the examination in as modest a way as possible under the circumstances, and certainly not in front of a large group of people. Furthermore, no legitimate security consideration can justify keeping the men in their underpants after the check for weapons had been completed, especially during the walk along the street and during the ISA interrogation.

The laws of occupation under international humanitarian law also protect the local population's property. The relevant provision, Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the occupier to destroy property in occupied territory, makes an exception "where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations." The wording of the exception and the interpretation given it over the years indicate that the exception is very narrow and that destruction of property is hard to justify: the destruction must do more than contribute to the success of a military operation, it must be "absolutely necessary" in terms of the military operation.

As the official commentary of the International Committee of the Red Cross points out regarding this article, the occupier, in relying on this exception, must "try to interpret the clause in a reasonable manner in comparing the military advantages to be gained with the damage done." This obligation also applies under other provisions of international humanitarian law and under Israeli administrative law.

Even if the action in Qalqiliya amounts to a "military operation," within the meaning of this term in Article 53, in this case there is reason to believe that the destruction was not "absolutely necessary." There is concern about a number of points: a. whether the intelligence that wanted persons were hiding in the houses that were evacuated was sufficiently certain to warrant such an extreme action; b. whether reasonable, less harmful alternative means were considered to force the wanted persons, who were believed to be inside, to surrender; c. whether the huge damage to the residents' property clearly exceeded the anticipated gain from arresting the wanted persons.

In any event, the occupier has the burden of proving that the destruction was indeed "absolutely necessary." The military authorities have not related to the action at all. Furthermore, the army's Website, which updates its readers on almost every security matter taking place in the Occupied Territories , makes no mention of any action in Qalqiliya on the 29 th of August.

B'Tselem wrote to the Judge Advocate General, demanding that he order a Military Police investigation into the incident, particular in respect of the severe humiliation of the occupants who were removed from their homes, some of whom were beaten, and regarding the destruction of private property in breach of international humanitarian law. In its letter, B'Tselem also demanded that the Judge Advocate General order that the residents, who were not guilty of any wrongdoing, be compensated for their losses.