An Israeli tank and a Palestinian demonstrator near the Israel-Gaza border in Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip, 2018.
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On February 2nd, the Associated Press analyzed satellite imagery which showed “new demolition along a 1-kilometer-wide path on the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel.” The images, which revealed the recent destruction of Palestinian farmland, warehouses and other buildings, suggested that Israel had started creating what it has called a “buffer zone” in areas of Gaza adjoining the Israeli border, a project that Israeli leaders have been trying to pursue as part of their invasion of Gaza following Hamas’s October 7th attack. Israeli officials claim that such a step is necessary to allow residents of communities in the south of Israel to return to their homes without fear of another attack. “[All along] the Gaza Strip . . . we will have a margin. And they will not be able to get in,” Avi Dichter, Israel’s agriculture minister, told reporters on October 19th. “It will be a fire zone. And no matter who you are, you will never be able to come close to the Israeli border.”
For months, United States and European officials have repeatedly voiced opposition to the idea of Israel’s permanent militarized border zone within Gaza, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying in November that there should be “no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza” and “no reduction in the territory of Gaza”—both outcomes that would likely result from such a zone. But the AP’s analysis, coupled with other recent events, indicate that Israel is forging ahead with creating its “fire zone” despite such objections. Indeed, on January 23rd, Israeli soldiers in Gaza were actively laying mines in and around two buildings in central Gaza close to the border with Israel, intending to destroy them, when a grenade fired by a Palestinian militant caused the explosives to go off, killing 21 soldiers. In the aftermath of the attack, three Israeli officials anonymously told the New York Times Israel was demolishing the buildings to create a “security zone,” while an Israeli military spokesperson said the soldiers who had died were operating to “create the security conditions for the return of the residents of the south to their homes.”
Israel’s work on the zone comes amid widespread speculation about the future of Gaza after the eventual end of Israel’s ongoing genocidal assault, which has already killed at least 27,000 people. American, Arab, and Israeli officials have debated what comes next for the coastal enclave, with Western governments pushing for a revitalized Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza—which Israel opposes—and far-right Israeli ministers advocating to expel Palestinians from Gaza and build renewed Israeli settlements. Yet even as these policy discussions remain unresolved, Israel is unilaterally exerting control over Gaza’s post-war reality by constructing a militarized zone inside the enclave that materially shrinks the amount of Palestinian land while leaving open room for Israeli Jewish resettlement of the Strip. The strategy recalls Israel’s modus operandi in the West Bank, where Israel has built hundreds of settlements in order to create “facts on the ground” to entrench its control before the international community can do anything about it.
Current and former military officials portray the creation of a militarized Israeli zone inside Gaza as necessary to prevent another attack on southern Israeli communities near the border. “People coming back to their homes [in Israel] don’t want to see someone [in Gaza] take out a rifle or an anti-tank missile or come to the fence, cross it, and kill them,” said Jacob Nagel, a former national security advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative think tank that advocates for US intervention in the Middle East. “We have to show them that the area there is empty. Otherwise, it would be very tough for them to come back.” But Muhammad Shehada, a Palestinian writer and analyst from Gaza, said creating a so-called buffer zone through the demolition of Palestinian homes and neighborhoods will only fuel more violence. “In the areas that were systematically razed and wiped out, you’re giving people a very strong revenge incentive,” he said. “Israel is basically creating a recruitment poster [for Palestinian militant groups].”
Indeed, the creation of the zone is likely to add to the list of Israeli war crimes committed in Gaza since October 7th. According to research by Corey Scher, a PhD student at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, and Jamon Van Den Hoek, an associate professor of geography at Oregon State University, Israel has destroyed or damaged 143,900 structures throughout Gaza since October 7th, around 1,329 of which were in the proposed zone. Human rights experts have said that the destruction of civilian buildings and infrastructure may constitute war crimes. And if the Israeli zone continues to be created, more such homes will likely be demolished. “If there are no concrete, direct security grounds for why these houses have to be torn down, the destruction of civilian homes is completely illegal,” said Miriam Marmur, public advocacy director at Gisha, an Israeli human rights group focusing on Gaza. Nagel, however, is not concerned with such complaints: “There are no civilian buildings in Gaza,” he said, claiming that most buildings in the Strip are filled with weapons or contain tunnel entrances.
Keeping Palestinians out of the zone is also likely to involve further violations of international law. Some former Israeli officials have suggested laying mines in the border area, though the Israeli army has not publicly committed to this idea. Nagel predicted that the zone would be enforced by live fire. “I like to call it a ‘killing zone,’ but since ‘killing zone’ is not a nice term, we use the words ‘buffer zone,’” Nagel told Jewish Currents, clarifying that regardless of what the area is called, he thinks that “someone [who] is moving there without permission is going to be dead.” Such a policy would be illegal under international law, said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch. “No territory can ever be a free-fire zone,” he said. Shakir added that, under international law, live fire force can only be deployed during war if it is proportionate—meaning that attacks on a military site must not include harm to civilians that is excessive in comparison to the expected military advantage of an operation—and if it discriminates between civilians and combatants.
There is precedent for Israel using lethal force to limit Palestinians’ access to land near the Israeli border. Since Israel pulled soldiers and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, the army has violently barred most Gazans from coming within 300 meters of the Israeli barrier—a policy that has led to indiscriminate attacks against Palestinian civilians in that zone, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. From 2010 to 2017, Israeli soldiers opened fire 1,300 times in the 300 meter area, killing 161 Gazans there, according to Gisha. In 2018, when Palestinian protestors started the Great March of Return, congregating near the border to call for the end of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the right of return to lands they were expelled from in 1948, Israeli snipers responded by shooting and killing 223 Palestinians. Over the years, Israeli soldiers have also cracked down on Palestinian farmers and herders working in the zone, sometimes spraying herbicide or razing farmland in order to enforce the prohibition on Palestinians coming near the Israeli barrier. Marmur said that many of these enforcement measures violated international law. “There is little reason to believe that the new buffer zone would be enforced differently, raising concern over an expansion of Israel’s illegal practices,” she said.
The militarized zone Israel is now planning to impose within Gaza would triple the size of the pre-October 7th iteration, severely impacting Palestinians in the Strip. The demolitions would worsen the housing crisis in the enclave, where nearly 70% of homes in Gaza have now been damaged or destroyed by Israeli bombs. In addition to leaving potentially thousands with no home to return to, the zone would deepen food insecurity in the Strip, since a third of Gaza’s agricultural land lies in the proposed zone. Due to Israel’s restrictions on humanitarian aid entering the Strip, Palestinians in Gaza already face a hunger crisis and virtually every family skips a meal every day, with 400,000 people at risk of starvation. The loss of further farmland will only compound this situation. In addition to these dire short term effects, the new Israeli zone may permanently “eat away Palestinian lands, adding to years of systemic dispossession of Palestinians,” Marmur said. Israeli officials claim that their control of this land will be “temporary,” but Nadia Hardman, a researcher in the Refugee and Migrants Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, told Jewish Currents that the scale of the destruction in the region indicates that Palestinians won’t be able to return their homes there “at any point in the foreseeable future.”
A permanent Israeli zone inside Gaza stands to significantly reshape the balance of power in any post-war scenario. In addition to allowing Israel to take over parts of Gaza’s territory—in the process creating, as per Shehada, “conditions that would push people to leave the territory”—such a zone could also pave the way for the building of new Israeli settlements. Resettling Gaza has been a long-standing demand of the Israeli right, one that has gained new momentum since October 7th. Indeed, on January 28th, a thousand Israeli settlers and their supporters—including 12 ministers from the ruling Likud party, along with national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir and finance minister Bezalel Smotrich—joined a Jerusalem conference to promote the resettlement of Gaza. Members of Likud have also proposed legislation to repeal the ban on Israeli civilians entering Gaza, which would allow settlers a foothold in the territory. Observers say a permanent Israeli zone in Gaza is likely to accelerate this process. “We have watched this play out again and again in the West Bank and also in Gaza before 2005: Israeli settlements always start off with a security justification,” said Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It starts with a military base going up somewhere and then the area being declared a no go zone. And then slowly that security justification becomes muted—and then we start seeing settlements.”
Yet even as human rights advocates raise such alarms about the consequences of the zone, the US may be softening its opposition to the project. That opposition was never particularly forceful: “There’s been very little outrage from the US administration about the creation of the buffer zone as it’s been happening in real time,” Hassan said. As a result, Israel has proceeded by simply disregarding the US’s reservations, an approach that seems to have paid off. Last month, Blinken hinted the US may accept a temporary Israeli buffer zone inside the Gaza border, saying there may need to be “transitional arrangements” to ensure Israel’s security and “make sure that October 7th can never happen again.” But according to Hassan, “there’s not a lot of credibility regarding Israeli assertions that these things are going to be temporary.” She pointed to how Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank was originally portrayed by Israeli officials as a temporary security measure, only for it to remain standing 20 years later—with Israeli officials coming to openly describe it as a permanent border between Israel and the occupied West Bank. Israel’s temporary measures, Hassan concluded, “have a way of sticking around for a long time.”