Israeli tanks manoeuvre inside Gaza as buildings lie in ruin on February 4, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

NAHAL OZ, Israel: Israeli forces in Gaza have systematically destroyed buildings in an attempt to create a buffer zone inside the Palestinian territory, experts and rights groups told AFP, raising fears over the civilian cost.

The plan, not publicly confirmed by Israel, appears to entail taking a significant chunk of territory out of the already tiny Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, something experts as well as Israel’s foreign allies have warned against.

Click here to get exclusive content with Gulf News WhatsApp channel

Since Hamas militants stormed across the border on October 7, Israeli forces have targeted structures in Gaza within a kilometre (0.6 miles) of the border, said Adi Ben Nun, a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has carried out an analysis of satellite imagery.

More than 30 per cent of all buildings in that area have been damaged or destroyed during the war, he said.

Also read

Last month, the Israeli army’s deadliest day since the ground invasion began in late October offered a glimpse of the tactics being used to clear the border area.

Israeli army chief Herzi Halevi said at the time that 21 reservists were killed “during a defensive operation in the area separating the Israeli communities from Gaza” to allow for residents’ “safe return”.

Copy of Israel-Gaza-Buffer-Zones_59850--ad55c-1707039282422
Recent developments in the ongoing war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas indicate the possible development of buffer zones within Gaza. (AP Digital Embed) Image Credit: AP

The troops had laid out explosives to blow up buildings when they were fired upon by militants, the army said.

Displacement of Gazans including from the border area could breach the laws of war, experts said.

“We are seeing mounting evidence that Israel appears to be rendering large parts of Gaza unlivable,” said Nadia Hardman, a refugee rights expert at Human Rights Watch.

Gaza has a nearly 60km (37-mile) border with Israel, with its back up against the Mediterranean Sea. Creating that buffer zone would take some 60 square km (23 square miles) out of the enclave, which has a total landmass of about 360 square km (139 square miles).
Toward the southern part of the Gaza Strip, much of the land in the imagined buffer zone is farmland that abuts the vast $1 billion border barrier constructed on Israeli land that separates it from the territory. But near the town of Khirbet Khuzaa, where the border turns to the northwest, it’s a different story.
Satellite images from Planet Labs PBC analysed by the AP show significant destruction of buildings and land bulldozed in a roughly 6-square-km (2.3-square-mile) area. Just over 4 km (2.5 miles) north, farmland has been torn up into bare dirt along where the potential buffer zone would sit.
Farther north is an area in central Gaza’s Maghazi refugee camp. There, Israeli reservists preparing explosives to demolish two buildings near the Israeli border were killed in January when a militant fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a tank nearby. The blast triggered the explosives, collapsing both two-story buildings onto the soldiers, killing 21.
A large complex of warehouses sits destroyed just southeast of Gaza City, also within the potential buffer zone.
The AP’s visual analysis corresponds with data from scientists studying satellite data to make sense of the war’s damage.
Adi Ben-Nun, the manager of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Geographic Information System Center, has surveyed damage along the potential buffer zone up until January 17. Of some 2,850 buildings that could potentially face demolition, 1,100 already have been damaged, he told the AP. Across the Gaza Strip, he estimates 80,000 structures have been damaged during the war.
Corey Scher of City University of New York and Jamon Van Den Hoek of Oregon State University put the damage even higher. They estimate at least half of all buildings in Gaza, some 143,900 structures, have been damaged or destroyed during the war. The most intense damage has been around Gaza City — the first city targeted in the ground offensive — though damage has increased in the southern city of Khan Younis.
In the area where the 1-kilometer buffer would be, at least 1,329 buildings have been damaged or destroyed since the war began, the US analysts told the AP.
Gaza’s border with Egypt already has a narrow buffer zone known as Philadelphi Corridor, which was created as part of Cairo’s 1979 peace deal with Israel.
In December, Israel informed Western allies and regional Arab nations about its plans to create a buffer zone between the Gaza Strip and Israeli territory, Egyptian and Western diplomats told the AP. The discussions then did not include specifics.
News of the buffer zone sparked worries from the international community about eating further into Palestinian territory, particularly in the US, which has been Israel’s main backer during the war.
“We do not support any diminution of the territory of Gaza,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned on January 25.
The State Department did not respond to questions from the AP on the analysis of the demolition in the possible buffer zone. However, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller on Wednesday told journalists that officials had “raised with (Israel) the issue of the establishment of a buffer zone.”
“I will say we have made clear to them the same thing that we have said publicly, which is we are opposed to any reduction in the size of the territory of Gaza,” Miller said.
Meanwhile, there has been a continued growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
That further undermines the prospects for an independent Palestinian state in the long-sought two-state solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian crisis. The Palestinians want the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — for their future state.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry, under the Palestinian Authority that oversees the occupied West Bank, said in a statement that “Israel continues to implement its occupation and colonial projects in the Gaza Strip, evident in its recent initiation of what it calls ‘buffer zones’ along the borders of Gaza Strip.”
Senior Hamas official Basem Naim said the group, which rules the Gaza Strip, was “determined not to let this happen“ when asked about the possible Israeli plans for a buffer zone. He did not elaborate. -- AP

“One very clear example of that may be the buffer zone — this may amount to a war crime.”

When contacted by AFP, the military declined to comment on the buffer zone.

‘No right’

Cecilie Hellestveit, of the Norwegian Academy of International Law, warned of “the prospect of ethnic cleansing, transfer, or lack of rebuilding, so that the Palestinians will eventually be forced out of the area entirely”.

Scrutiny of Israel’s actions in Gaza is likely to be heightened by last month’s International Court of Justice ruling asking Israel to prevent any acts of genocide.

The United States, Israel’s top ally and provider of military aid, has repeatedly said Gaza’s territory should not change and that a buffer zone would breach that principle.

This satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, Jan 30, 2024. Satellite photos show new demolition along a 1-kilometer-deep path on the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, according an analysis by The Associated Press and expert reports. The destruction comes as Israel has said it wants to establish a buffer zone there, further tearing away at land the Palestinians want for a state over international objections. (Planet Labs PBC via AP) Image Credit: AP

“When it comes to the permanent status of Gaza... we remain clear about not encroaching on its territory,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Rights experts said Israel could use parts of its own territory to create a security zone.

“If the Israeli government wants a buffer zone, it has every right to create one in far larger Israel, but it has no right to seize land in Gaza,” human rights expert Ken Roth, a professor at Princeton University, said on social media.

Border security has become a priority for many Israelis, experts said, and the return to communities near the Gaza border would be seen as a sign that Hamas no longer posed a threat.

In Nahal Oz, a kibbutz barely a kilometre from Gaza that was targeted in the October 7 attack, artillery fire rang out and smoke billowed over the Palestinian territory in the distance.

Like many Israelis who lived along the border before the attack, nearly all of the kibbutz’s 400 residents were evacuated and have yet to return.

“It is still not a place to go back to with children, not yet unfortunately,” Eran Braverman, a 63-year-old farmer, told AFP.

“If there really would be such a (buffer) zone... it could help a lot. I hope it happens.”

‘Back’ after two decades

Hamas’s attack on Israel resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures, with militants also seizing hostages - dozens of whom Israel says remain in Gaza.

In response, Israel launched a withering offensive that has killed at least 27,238 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Israel in 2005 unilaterally withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza, ending a presence that began in 1967 but maintaining near complete control over the coastal territory’s borders.

A narrow no-go area of varying width was maintained along the full length of the Israel-Gaza border, and the zone immediately beyond it on the Palestinian side has been restricted to cropland.

A crippling blockade since Hamas took power in 2007 was followed shortly after the October 7 attack with an Israeli siege of Gaza.

Egypt operates a buffer zone on its side of the border with the narrow Palestinian territory.

Although Israel decided against installing a buffer zone in the early 2000s, the idea has been revived two decades later, said Hellestveit.

“With the war and the reoccupation of Gaza, this plan from when Israel last had control over Gaza militarily has come back on the table,” she said.