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People look over a destroyed home; a mattress is visible amid the rubble.
Palestinians inspect the damage to a house after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah in southern Gaza Strip on March 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Does the destruction of homes in Gaza constitute genocide?

The intentional destruction of homes — by a government or private entity, during war or peacetime, on an individual or communal basis — is referred to as “domicideby scholars and by Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.

Domicide can constitute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It has been used in armed conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Myanmar and now in Gaza, where Israel has destroyed more than 60 per cent of homes. The bombings of Gazan homes have also killed tens of thousands of Palestinians.

In the wake of Russia’s demolition of homes in Ukraine in 2022, Rajagopal argued that domicide goes beyond collateral damage and deserves stand-alone prohibition and punishment in international law.

Cutting homeland ties

Homes are more than physical dwellings or property. Widespread domicide extinguishes individual and collective identity, memory and ties to homeland.

The deep connection of homes in Gaza to Palestinian land, territory and nationhood renders Israel’s destruction of them a genocidal tactic. Israel’s long history of intentional and arbitrary destruction of Palestinian homes, and the subsequent displacement of Palestinians, have been accompanied by the legalized annexation of Palestinian land.

This history reveals a strategy of deliberately targeting homes to harm Palestinians as a national, racial and ethnic group.

The home is a crucial site of Palestinian group identity and national belonging.

In the words of social work scholar Nuha Dwaikat-Shaer: “Palestinians see the home as a symbol of existence and as a means that connects them to the land.” The UN Commission on Human Rights further makes note of the deep attachment of Palestinians to their homes and agricultural land, including olive and citrus trees.

A man on crutches looks over a large hole and destroyed olive trees.
A man inspects a hole and destroyed olive trees near the rubble of a Hamas military camp which was hit by Israeli airstrikes in the Maghazi refugee camp, in central Gaza, in November 2022. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Home is critical to Palestinians as a group

While the home is central to many communities, it holds a particular significance to the continued existence of Palestinians as a national group. The home is where identities, localities, social relations, cultures and nationhood are produced, as feminist historian Rosemary Sayigh has argued.

In a volume of studies into the 1948 Nakba — the mass dispossession and displacement of more than 750,000 Palestinians during the creation of Israel — by political scientist Ahmad Sa’di and anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, ethnographic accounts document how the Palestinian home is a site of individual and collective memory passed on generationally. In the face of the ongoing erasure of Palestinian experiences, culture and places, that memory is also political.

Memories of the Nakba continue to infuse present-day Palestinian life. Subsequent displacements are being collectively experienced as a continuation of Nakba.

Under constant threat and attack by Israel, the security and meaning of the home have become central to Palestinian national existence and identity. As Palestinian legal scholar Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian explains, the Palestinian home is “responsible for the preservation of psychological and social life and the prevention of social death.”

As a site of collective memory-making, the home is also essential to the preservation of Palestine as a national homeland with territorial sovereignty and the continuation of Palestinians as a distinct national group protected by the United Nations Genocide Convention.

A woman sits outside a destroyed home.
A Palestinian woman displaced by the Israeli bombardment sits outside a destroyed home in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, in December 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Domicide as genocide

Under the 1948 Genocide Convention, when “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” acts causing serious bodily or mental harm or deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about a protected group’s physical destruction constitute genocide.

Both of these prohibited acts are implicated by the destruction of Palestinian homes in Gaza. As South Africa argued at the International Court of Justice in November 2023 — in reference to crimes committed by Hamas and militants from other armed groups on Oct. 7, 2023 and the continued holding of Israeli hostages — “no matter how outrageous or appalling an attack or provocation, genocide is never a permissible response.”

Domicide inflicts deep emotional trauma that is passed on to future generations. In Gaza, the tragic last public words of journalists, poets, academics, doctors and medical personnel, residents and international aid workers bear witness to Israel’s widespread destruction of homes, forcible displacement and the mental and physical suffering in the ensuing long journeys to the southern Gaza Strip.

Israel has displaced 75 per cent of Gaza’s 2.3 million people at a staggering pace. Approximately 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza are concentrated under abominable conditions in Rafah, forced to sleep in the street and burn garbage to cook while being subjected to frequent bombings.

Domicide and mass displacement have also created conditions for greater suffering and loss of life due to inadequate shelter, disease, starvation and lack of medical care.

It has exacerbated the vulnerability of children, disabled people, the elderly, LGBTQ2A+ people and women, exposing them to severe physical and mental harm.

Doctors have described the horrors of Gazan children losing limbs and being operated on without supplies or anesthesia and losing their entire families — now referred to by the acronym WCNSF (wounded child, no surviving family).

The dehumanizing statements by senior Israeli officials about Palestinians along with the staggering violence in Gaza — sometimes graphically celebrated by Israeli soldiers — suggests an intention to bring about the total or partial destruction of Palestinian life.

A boy looking despondent sits near a car in front of rubble where his home used to be.
A Palestinian boy sits outside his home destroyed in an Israeli strike in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, in January 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Recognizing domicide in Gaza

The illegality of disproportionate destruction of civilian property and dwellings is currently recognized under international law. However, the significance of the destruction of the home warrants further attention. Whether through its existing role in international crimes or additionally as a separate crime, the atrocities in Gaza highlight the need to recognize domicide as deliberately furthering the destruction of a group.

When Israel attacks Palestinian homes in Gaza, it is doing more than destroying property — it is demonstrating a genocidal intention to destroy Palestinians as a group.

Given the widespread current destruction, the indications of an intent to destroy Palestinians as a group and the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the plausibility of genocide in Gaza, there are compelling reasons to assess Israel’s destruction of Palestinian homes as genocide.

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