North Africa, West Asia

Reflections on the collective punishment of Gaza

The likelihood that 7000 homes in the Gaza Strip have been used as storage facilitates or military outposts is very slim. When you see the numbers out of Gaza, consider your own context. Look around at the houses in your neighbourhood and imagine the scale of destruction.

Quinn Coffey
4 August 2014

At the time of writing, some sources estimate that more than 7000 Palestinian homes will have been destroyed in the Gaza Strip.  I read that this morning and had a difficult time making sense of the number 7000. What does that actually mean? How can I possibly translate that into a figure that makes sense to me?  

I grew up in a medium sized town (2.52 square miles, or 6.53 square kilometres) in the suburbs of Chicago. Our town has approximately 5,944 homes with a population density of 6,170 per square mile (2.6 square kilometres). That means that in the past three weeks of Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip, my entire town would have been wiped off the map (plus an additional 1000 homes). 

OK it’s not an incredibly large town, so I scaled up a bit. New York City – Manhattan in particular – has approximately 16,550 households per square mile, but it is also one of the most densely populated cities in the world with a population density of 34,756 per square mile. I broke it down even further. One square mile is about 400 square city blocks. In Manhattan that averages out to about 827 homes per block. If the IDF destroyed 7000 homes in Manhattan, that would mean about eight levelled city blocks on average.

Of course in our case, the F.E.M.A (Federal Emergency Management Agency) would step in and help with the rebuild. Our government would provide disaster relief funds, celebrities would hold benefit concerts, our military and law enforcement would come and lend a hand. In Gaza, not only will none of these things happen, but the ongoing blockade will make the building supplies required to fix such large-scale destruction next to impossible. 

Gaza City is seventeen square miles with a population estimated at 515,556. It has a population density of 26,424 per square mile. The average size of a Gaza Strip household is 6.4 persons (although it may be even higher in Gaza City). This translates to about 4,128 homes per square mile. To make an approximation, that means that 7000 destroyed homes across Gaza is an area of total destruction greater than one square mile – and this is only taking into account homes, not infrastructure, schools, industry, etc. 

Based on the average household size of 6.4, this is at least 44,800 people now without homes. And this is a conservative estimate.  According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 93.6% of families in the Gaza Strip own their own homes. As such they bear the full financial and emotional burden of a lost home.  

But what these statistics really reveal is the level of wholesale destruction and devastation that has been imposed on the people of Gaza. Statistics are a funny thing. They can often be misleading and they can also be used for a number of purposes (both diabolical and peaceful). For example, 1,600 Palestinians have now been killed in this ongoing Israeli operation. The Israelis claim that a high number are Hamas combatants, the Palestinians (and much of the international community) claim that a majority were civilians including hundreds of children. It is easy to believe, and even realistic to assume that at least some of these 1,600 were combatants.  Not excusing the hundreds upon hundreds of innocents killed alongside them. But of the 44,800 Palestinians that are now homeless and the other thousands displaced, how many were combatants? And how has this been proven? And has this proof been in any way challenged by the courts? Have the 44,800 been given a chance to defend themselves? Were they considered innocent until proven guilty? Were the homes of those accused of kidnapping the three Israeli settlers demolished before or after a trial? 

The simple answer is no, absolutely not. There has not and likely will not be any form of justice involved in this process. The Palestinians are treated as one unit – they are the faceless other. If one shoots a rocket the rest will suffer. It is a deterrent – if they know their houses will be destroyed they will stop right? No. What form of backward justice is this? When someone is accused of a crime do we punish him or her before the evidence is given? And further, what do you think this does to the mentality of those who could be partners for peace? The millions who are tired of conflict and dream of a peaceful solution? To have your home destroyed – your children or parents killed and buried under the rubble.

This is the very definition of collective punishment. When I look at a map of my hometown, I thank God that the police or military don’t burn the entire place down when someone is found guilty of a crime. It would be absurd to assume that they would. In the legal context the burden of proof is on the accuser. According to Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention

“No persons may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed.

Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited. 

Pillage is prohibited.

Reprisals against persons and their property are prohibited.”

I have yet to hear of any incidence of pillage by the IDF, but three of the four of the above have most certainly been violations of international law. I don’t want to discredit the level of sophistication that Hamas is capable of – indeed it has surprised even the Israelis, but the likelihood that 7000 homes have been used as storage facilitates or military outposts is very slim. And indeed prior to punishment in any form some sort of proof would need to be given. When you see the numbers out of Gaza, which sadly are likely to grow to even more absurd levels, consider your own context. Look around at the houses in your neighbourhood and imagine the scale of destruction. It is difficult and painful to stare into that darkness, but if we all look away I’m afraid it will never stop.  

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