Gaza: Destroying civilian housing and infrastructure is an international crime, warns UN expert

GENEVA—The world must act now to end the horrifying and massive attacks against civilian housing and infrastructure in Gaza, which comes at a tremendous cost to human life, a UN expert said today.

“Carrying out hostilities with the knowledge that they will systematically destroy and damage civilian housing and infrastructure, rendering an entire city – such as Gaza city - uninhabitable for civilians is a war crime,” said Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.

The expert said systematic or widespread bombardment of housing, civilian objects and infrastructure are strictly prohibited by international humanitarian law, criminal law and human rights law.

“Such acts amount to war crimes and when directed against a civilian population, they also amount to crimes against humanity,” Rajagopal said.

In a recent report to the UN General Assembly, Rajagopal used the term “domicide” to refer to such systematic or widespread attacks on housing and civilian infrastructure that causes death and suffering.

In that report, the expert pointed out that domicide had been committed in a number of conflict-affected countries in various regions of the world. “It is now being committed in Gaza, and the world continues to watch helplessly while core international human and humanitarian law norms are brazenly breached,” he said.

Attacks by Israel on targets within Gaza have destroyed or damaged 45 percent of all housing units in the Gaza strip, internally displaced about 1.5 million people and killed over 10,000 people, including over 80 UN staff. Over 25,000 people have been wounded in the airstrikes. Sixty-seven percent of all fatalities are reportedly children or women. More than 2,300 people – among them 1300 children are reported missing, most of them likely trapped under the rubble.

International humanitarian law is based on the distinction between civilian and military objects, the expert said.

“Apartment buildings are not military objects. Hospitals and ambulances are not military objects. Refugee camps are not military objects. Schools are not military objects. Churches or mosques are not military objects. Water and electricity infrastructure for civilians are not military objects,” Rajagopal said.

“Civilian housing in Israel is also not a military object - launching indiscriminate rocket attacks on them from Gaza or elsewhere is a war crime,” he warned.

Even when civilian housing may be used by combatants to take shelter, as alleged in the attacks on the Jabalia refugee camp, launching attacks on entire apartment blocks is prohibited if they will lead to disproportionate damage, death and displacement of a large number of civilians, the UN expert warned.

“No asserted right of self-defence under international law can cover such attacks,” he said. “This is particularly the case when the right of self-defence is asserted in the context of an occupation.”

Ordering the evacuation of more than 1 million people from northern Gaza into southern Gaza, knowing that it will be impossible to provide adequate housing and humanitarian aid, while maintaining a blockade, cutting off water, food, fuel and medicine and repeatedly attacking evacuation routes and “safe zones” were a cruel and blatant violation of international humanitarian law, Rajagopal said. “These actions by Israel constitute international crimes.”

The call for a ceasefire in the recent UN General Assembly resolution must be followed by concrete measures to leverage parties to the conflict to abide by it, the Special Rapporteur said.

“The international community must consider the precedent set in the 1970s when measures to end apartheid in South Africa were taken by the General Assembly by unseating the South African delegation owing to widespread and systematic violations of human rights, which are inconsistent with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter,” he said.

“There can be no peace without justice,” Rajagopal said, urging the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged international crimes in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territory without delay or bias, and hold those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and apartheid, accountable. “All State parties to the Rome Statute must support efforts by the Court,” he said.


Mr. Balakrishnan Rajagopal assumed his function as Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing on 1 May 2020. He is Professor of Law and Development at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A lawyer by training, he is an expert on many areas of human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, the UN system, and the human rights challenges posed by development activities.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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Photo: A man sits on the rubble as others wander among debris of buildings targeted by Israeli airstrikes in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on 1 November 2023. Source: Abed Khaled / Associated Press.

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