JERUSALEM -- Israel has violated international law by systematically destroying Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah in a bid to create a buffer zone along the border with Egypt, according to a human rights report released yesterday.
The Human Rights Watch report also accused the Israeli military of exaggerating the threat posed by weapons-smuggling tunnels running from Rafah to Egypt -- the main justification for the home demolitions.
''We've seen the piece by piece destruction of up to 10 percent of Rafah," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based group.
Since fighting began four years ago, some 16,000 people have been made homeless in Rafah, many of them during an army incursion in May, the report said. Roth called the destruction gratuitous and said the army was retaliating for the killings of five soldiers on the road along the border.
The army, which declined to comment on the report, says the demolitions were needed to prevent Palestinian militants from smuggling arms through tunnels. Also, the houses provide gunmen with cover to attack troops.
''Neither excuse could justify the wholesale destruction in Rafah," Roth said.
The 135-page report says security considerations are secondary to Israel's desire for a large clear border area to ''facilitate long-term control over the Gaza Strip."
''The pattern of destruction strongly suggests that Israeli forces demolished homes wholesale, regardless of whether they posed a specific threat," the report said.
The military mind-set ''is based on the assumption that every Palestinian is a potential suicide bomber and every home a potential base for attack," the report said.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman David Saranga said the army makes every effort to limit harm to the Palestinians and accused the militants of using civilians as a cover to launch attacks. He refused to address specific charges in the report but said Israel would study it.
The report said Israel has violated international law by failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants and has not lived up to its responsibilities as an occupying power to protect civilians.