Israeli soldiers have begun in recent weeks to set fire to homes in the Gaza Strip, following direct orders from their commanders, without the necessary legal permission to do so, according to information obtained by Haaretz.
Soldiers have destroyed several hundred buildings using this method over the past month. After the structure is set on fire along with everything inside it, it is allowed to burn out until it is rendered useless.
The IDF said in response to the report that the destruction of buildings is done only with approved means, and that any action carried out in different ways will be looked into.
When asked about the new practice, an Israeli army commander told Haaretz that structures are selected for burning based on intel. When asked about a building that was set ablaze not far from where the interview took place, the commander said: “There must have been information about the landlord, or maybe something was found there. I don’t know exactly why that house was set on fire.”
Three officers spearheading Gaza fighting confirmed to Haaretz that setting homes on fire has become common practice. A commander of one battalion told his troops last week, as they were wrapping up operations in a specific Gaza area: “Clear your things from the house, and prep it for incineration.”
Originally reserved only for specific cases, the practice has become more and more commonplace as the war waged on, Haaretz’s investigation revealed.
Recently, Israeli soldiers deployed in Gaza have taken to social media to show themselves taking part in the burning of homes in Gaza – in some cases as revenge for fellow soldiers’ deaths, or even for the October 7 attack itself.
“Every day, a different platoon goes out to raid homes in the area,” wrote one soldier. “The houses are destroyed, occupied. Now what is left is to thoroughly search them. Inside the couches. Behind the closets. Weapons, intel, [tunnel] shafts and rocket launchers. We found all of these. In the end, the house is burned, with everything in it.”
In another incident, soldiers who were about to leave a building left a note to troops who were coming to replace them. “We are not burning the house so you can enjoy it, and when you leave – you’ll know what to do,” read the note, which appeared in a photograph one of the soldiers posted online.
The burning of a building means that its former tenants will not be able to return to live in it. Since the beginning of the war in Gaza, the IDF has destroyed homes belonging to Hamas members or Gaza residents who took part in the October 7 attack. This approach has also led to the destruction of residential buildings that were used as Hamas infrastructure, and of homes located near tunnel shafts.
Until last month, the army’s combat engineering corps mostly used mines and explosives, and in some cases heavy machinery such as D9 bulldozers, to demolish structures. Setting fire to homes belonging to non-combatant civilians, for the mere purpose of punishment, is forbidden under international law.
The U.S. has recently appealed to Israel, demanding that its forces stop destroying public buildings such as schools and clinics in Gaza, claiming that continuing to do so would harm the everyday life of Gazans who seek to return to their homes after the war.
The Israeli army and its political eschelon has accepted Washington’s demand, and – barring cases in which troops faced danger from within the structure – significantly reduced the use of the practice. Moreover, IDF forces operating in the Gaza Strip realized that destroying houses with explosives or heavy machinery is a time and resource consuming operation which could put soldiers in danger.
The Gaza war has already caused immense destruction to civilian buildings – even compared to other recent bloody conflicts around the globe.
According to an analysis of satellite images published by the BBC, between 144,000 and 170,000 buildings have been damaged in the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the war. A Washington Post investigation published last month and quoted in Haaretz found that entire swaths of the Strip have been obliterated – in Beit Hanoun, in Jabalya and in Gaza City’s Al-Karama neighborhood.
The report also noted that as of late December, 350 schools and some 170 mosques and churches have been damaged or destroyed.
The wide-scale destruction has prompted discussions in academic circles on whether Israel can be charged with “Domicide” – the deliberate and systematic destruction of Gaza’s homes and basic infrastructure in a manner that renders the environment uninhabitable.
There is a fear in Israel that this discourse could galvanize the international community to take punitive action against it. The army understands that the new practice may pose a challenge to the Israeli legal system with regard to U.S. demands and possible proceedings at the International Court of Justice – which has already handed down an interim ruling on Israel’s conduct.
Just like the genocide charge brought against Israel at the ICJ, burning houses can, too, be linked to Israeli politicians’ statements. Ahead of the ICJ proceeding earlier this month, Likud MK Nissim Vaturi repeated his call to “burn Gaza.” Vaturi, one of the deputy Knesset speakers, said in a radio interview that “it’s better to burn, to topple buildings, than soldiers getting hurt.” He added that he “does not think there are innocent people there right now.”
In response to the report, the Israeli Army spokesperson said: “Detonating and destroying buildings is done with approved, appropriate means. Actions that were carried out in different ways during the war will be looked into.”