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EXCLUSIVE: Israeli military demolished homes to make way for US Gaza aid pier

‘Our feelings are very difficult as we talk about seeing the rubble of our homes being used to build this port, without even taking into consideration our memories and our lives.’

Satellite view of the area in Gaza near the town of Al-Zahra where Israeli authorities are building a landing area to receive humanitarian aid from a floating pier being built by the US military. The before image is 27.09.2023, and the after is 29.04.2024. Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2024 processed by Sentinel Hub
A before and after view of the al-Zahra neighbourhood in Gaza showing the area cleared to create a landing zone for the US maritime route to deliver aid. Before image (left) is from 27 September 2023; after image (right) is from 29 April 2024.

The Israeli military has demolished civilian buildings and homes in the Gaza Strip to create a landing area to receive humanitarian aid from a floating pier being built by the US military, residents whose homes have been destroyed, three aid agencies working in the enclave, and a human rights monitoring group told The New Humanitarian.

“My sister’s house… was confiscated for the benefit of this port,” said Ahmed Baliha, a 34-year-old lawyer who has been displaced from his home in al-Zahra, the neighbourhood where the landing area is being constructed on the coast just south of Gaza City.

“Yesterday, we were surprised to learn through pictures published by the Israeli army that it was razed – the area was completely wiped out, and it was confiscated for the benefit of the port, and no one informed us of that in advance,” continued Baliha, who has been displaced to Rafah in southern Gaza. 

“What is shocking is that they did not lose [their home] because of the missiles, but rather it was blown up specifically for the purpose of establishing the port,” he added. 

Referring to the situation in the Gaza Strip, the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing has warned that the widespread destruction of civilian housing and infrastructure is an international crime. 

Some 1.7 million people in Gaza – around 74% of the population – have been displaced from their homes by Israel’s nearly seven-month-long military campaign. At least 62% of homes in Gaza had been damaged or destroyed as of the end of January. 

Demolishing even more homes as part of a US-led project to bring aid to the enclave by sea – which many in the humanitarian community already view with scepticism – raises a host of ethical and legal questions.

“The assumption is that Gaza is free to demolish,” Ali al-Za’tari, a former UN humanitarian coordinator with extensive experience in Syria, Libya, and Sudan told The New Humanitarian. 

“There’s no consideration for the ownership of property, or lives for that matter,” al-Za’tari said. “The assumption there is that this is a land without people.”

Homes, farms, and groves of trees

Using satellite photos and UN satellite monitoring data, The New Humanitarian was able to verify that buildings have been razed around the landing area Israeli authorities are setting up to receive aid from the US-led maritime route, which is expected to begin operating at the beginning of May. 

About half a square kilometre has been cleared around the landing area itself, and satellite photos show extensive demolition of buildings in an area nearby of about eight additional square kilometres in size.

A time lapse from 27 September 2023 to 29 April 2024 showing the destruction of homes, buildings, and agricultural land and the construction of a land area for the US-led maritime project to deliver aid to Gaza.

The Israeli military also posted a video on X (formerly Twitter) showing the large area it is clearing to receive aid. According to the Israeli military, the area will occupy 67 acres, or about 0.3 square kilometres. 

UN satellite monitoring data from November 2023 shows extensive damage to buildings in al-Zahra already at that point in the war. But many buildings remained intact. The scale of damage increased in January and February – when the area around the landing area was under Israeli military control – with further demolitions taking place in March and April as the landing area began to take shape.

Homes, agricultural fields, and groves of trees that were visible in satellite images from before 7 October 2023 – when Hamas launched a deadly raid into Israel that precipitated the current war – appear to have been levelled, with many bulldozed entirely. By mid-April, almost nothing but sand appears to be left of the original buildings in the landing area.

The demolition of civilian property in a territory under military control is illegal under international law, unless it serves a clear military objective that cannot be accomplished in another way, according to Adil Haque, a law professor at Rutgers University and an expert in international law in armed conflict.

“This is a very demanding test to satisfy because, in general, when you have control over the terrain you have a lot of options other than destruction of civilian property to conduct your military operations with minimal harm to civilians or to their homes,” Haque said, noting that this standard would apply even if the military is acting to deliver humanitarian aid.

Neither the Israeli military nor the US Defense Department, which is overseeing the project, responded to The New Humanitarian’s requests for comment on why the civilian buildings were demolished to make way for the landing area and on the legality of the demolitions.

Legal, ethical, and operational questions

Many aid groups and humanitarian experts have questioned the necessity and utility of the US-led project since it was announced by US President Joe Biden in January. 

Nearly half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people face imminent famine due to Israel’s military campaign and near-total siege of the enclave, and the entire population is food insecure and dependent on humanitarian aid. 

Aid officials say any additional route to deliver more assistance is welcome, but they have consistently warned that a sea route cannot replace existing land routes, which, despite consistent Israeli obstruction, remain the most effective way to get assistance into Gaza.

“There continues to be a lot of scepticism around the viability of the port,” said an aid worker with the Association of International Development Agencies (Aida), an umbrella group for aid organisations working in the occupied Palestinian territories. “While we do want to see more aid coming in, the major choke points at this point are internal,” they said.

Organisations receiving and distributing aid from the pier will still have to contend with ongoing hostilities, widespread infrastructure destruction, consistent problems getting Israeli permission to transport and distribute aid, the dissolution of public order in Gaza, and the absence of a functioning deconfliction process between aid groups and the Israeli military – all of which continue to prevent aid agencies from mounting an effective response. 

“If aid groups find that, either in the construction of the dock or securing the roads around it – that the IDF is engaging in illegal conduct – they have to step back and ideally bring that information to investigators.”

According to Haque, the demolition of civilian property to make way for the US-led pier project also raises ethical and legal questions for aid groups participating in or using the pier project, such as WFP, which has agreed to be the on-land delivery partner for the initiative. 

“[Aid groups] have to absolutely be mindful of their own legal responsibilities, and they can’t contribute in any way to unlawful conduct,” he said. “If [aid groups] find that, either in the construction of the dock or securing the roads around it – that the IDF [the Israeli military] is engaging in illegal conduct – they have to step back and ideally bring that information to investigators.”

The International Criminal Court is conducting an ongoing investigation into potential war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. 

WFP did not respond to The New Humanitarian’s request for comment about potential legal and ethical issues stemming from participating in the US-led project. 

People displaced, homes demolished, memories buried 

Al-Zahra used to be an up-and-coming area popular with students and aspiring middle-class Palestinians, according to Muhammed Shehada from the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. 

Now, the area has been largely destroyed, with “significant demolition and destruction of homes and buildings”, he told The New Humanitarian. 

Fourteen other displaced families were sheltering in their family home in al-Zahra when Israeli shells began falling nearby in November 2023, Baliha said. Ordered by the Israeli military to evacuate, they moved first to the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza before moving further south to Rafah. 

All of the homes next to his sister’s have been demolished, he said. Israeli forces have also razed nearby agricultural land, including grape vines and fig trees, which were the main source of income for a neighbouring family who exported fruit from Gaza, he added. His sister’s home and land, just off the beach, cost $300,000, Baliha said. 

“All of these homes and lands have been swept away, and we will not even have the opportunity to see the rubble,” he added. “We will know that everyone who passes by there will walk on our memories, our lives, our souls, and our money, which we spent years collecting.”

Abdullah Abu al-Hinud, 43, lived in an apartment building in al-Zahra. He said he has no idea if he will be compensated for the destruction of his home, which cost $55,000. “The war may end, and people may have the opportunity to reach the rubble of their homes, but even we will not have this,” he said. 

“I am sad and feel that part of my memories and my soul are being used to build a project with incomprehensible goals and identity.”

He said he had heard from other residents and people who have remained in the area that rubble from the destroyed homes had been used in the construction of the port. The New Humanitarian was not able to independently verify this detail. 

Residents were never given the opportunity to try to salvage what remained of their homes and belongings, al-Hinud added. 

“Our feelings are very difficult as we talk about seeing the rubble of our homes being used to build this port, without even taking into consideration our memories and our lives,” he said. “I am sad and feel that part of my memories and my soul are being used to build a project with incomprehensible goals and identity.”

Residents said that the area that has been demolished was home to more than 10,000 people and contained schools – including one for children with special needs – and a hospital for the elderly.  

Logistically and politically complicated

Under the US maritime plan, aid will be shipped from Cyprus to a floating platform currently being built by the US military off the coast of Gaza. Around 1,000 US soldiers are involved in the project, but they will not set foot on shore. 

From the platform, aid will be transferred to smaller boats and delivered to a temporary floating pier where it will be loaded onto trucks, taken to warehouses, and then eventually distributed. 

The complicated process is needed to deliver aid by sea because Gaza does not have an international seaport. Israel has blocked the construction of one for decades.

The landing area is at the end of the Netzarim Corridor, a new road completed by Israeli forces in March that bisects Gaza and provides a direct route from the eastern border with Israel to the coast, ending near al-Zahra. Israeli forces built the road to move troops and materiel across the enclave and to control the movement of Palestinians and aid into northern Gaza.

According to a post from its official X account, the Israeli military is providing “security and logistics support” for the US-led effort. WFP, meanwhile, has agreed to lead the on-ground delivery of aid “on the condition that humanitarian principles can be ensured and that land access is also expanded”, a spokesperson for the UN agency told the Guardian newspaper.

The US government says the pier will at first be able to handle about 90 truckloads of aid per day, and eventually as many as 150. Before 7 October, about 500 truckloads entered Gaza daily; aid groups say as many as 600 are now needed every day to meet basic needs. The pier project will cost at least $320 million, according to a Reuters report.

Plans for the maritime corridor seem technically and logistically feasible, but building such a complex aid delivery pipeline is unlikely to be a smooth process, according to the aid worker from Aida. “It's feeling rushed. It's feeling like there are a lot of gaps, at least for humanitarians to be able to look at and accept this thing and to operate,” they said. 

“We know people are starving. We want to get them aid. But let’s push it through the entries where we know how to operate; where we're familiar with the standard operating procedures,” they added. “We know that it's just 10 times more efficient via land crossing than one of these floating piers.” 

UN agencies and other humanitarian groups have also been hesitant to get involved in the highly politicised project – out of unease over its neutrality, given the involvement of the Israeli military, and also because of safety concerns after the killing of more than 200 aid workers in Gaza during Israel’s military campaign.

Some aid workers have expressed concern that Israel is co-opting the pier plan to pursue non-humanitarian political objectives, including sidelining the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). And aid workers have warned for months that Israel appears to be trying to establish a parallel aid system it can more closely control. 

Under pressure from the US government, Israeli authorities now appear to be rushing to complete the pier, aid workers told The New Humanitarian. They said this was in order to maintain the flow of some aid into Gaza should the Israeli military launch a long-threatened invasion of the city of Rafah in southern Gaza. 

The two border crossings used to deliver nearly all aid allowed to enter Gaza – the Rafah border crossing with Egypt and the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel – are both located in Rafah. An Israeli invasion would almost certainly force both to close as well as have catastrophic consequences for some 1.5 million Palestinians (about 65% of Gaza’s population) sheltering in the severely overcrowded city. 

A UN official also previously told the Guardian newspaper that he feared the US-led aid delivery project was being used as a “smokescreen” to allow the Rafah operation to go ahead. 

Israel has said that it will invade Rafah if Hamas doesn’t agree to a ceasefire currently being considered as part of Egyptian-, Qatari-, and US-brokered talks. 

This article was reported from Paris, London, and Cairo. Edited by Eric Reidy.

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