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Israel Warned That Deporting Families is a War Crime: human rights groups monitor army after homes belonging to the relatives of alleged Palestinian attackers are destroyed

20 July 2002

Human rights groups warned yesterday that plans by the Israeli army to deport the relatives of two Palestinian men accused of being behind this week's militant attacks could be a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

Israeli soldiers demolished the homes of two suspected Palestinian militants overnight, and took at least 16 of the two men's male relatives into custody.

Officials said the army was considering deporting some or all of those detained from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, as a deterrent to other militants - a plan that came in for rare criticism from the US government yesterday.

Israeli troops raided Askar refugee camp near Nablus, according to witnesses. They said soldiers blew up the home of Ali Ajouri, a commander in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Israeli officials accused Mr Ajouri of being behind Wednesday's double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv in which three people died, as well as the bombers.

The soldiers detained several of Mr Ajouri's male relatives. Among them, according to witnesses, was 72-year-old Mohammad Ajouri. The Israeli army closed the area to reporters yesterday.

The army also destroyed the home of Nasser abu Asida, an alleged Hamas militant, and arrested several of his male relatives. Israeli officials accused Mr abu Asida of planning Tuesday's bus ambush in which nine people died.

The two attacks came as a blow to Israelis after more than three weeks of calm. The Israeli army has reoccupied all but one large West Bank town and placed them under almost constant curfew, but the militants still slipped through, and the Israeli authorities have been desperately searching for a new response.

Demolishing militants' houses - also a breach of the Geneva Conventions, according to human rights organizations ( but not a war crime) - has been going on for some time, but this would be the first time relatives of suspected militants have been deported in the current intifada. Officials said deportations would not go ahead until the attorney-general, Elyakim Rubenstein, approved them as legal.

"Family members will be interrogated and whoever was connected to the attack, for example knew about it beforehand, would be considered an accomplice," an Israeli security source said. "Anyone who was directly involved in planning an attack would be put in jail, but anyone with only a linkage could be punished and deported."

Both international and Israeli human rights organizations said deporting relatives of militants would be a breach of international law. Neil Durkin, a spokesman for Amnesty International, said: This is a form of collective punishment. If these people have committed no crime then deporting them would be a breach of the Geneva Conventions.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's spokesman said Mr Annan was "disturbed" by reports of the deportation plan and of the house demolitions.

"While (Annan) has repeatedly condemned suicide bombings and upheld Israel's right to defend itself, the secretary-general wishes to make clear that self-defense cannot justify measures that amount to collective punishments," his office said.

Miranda Sissons, of Human Rights Watch, said: "Collective punishment is outlawed under the fourth Geneva convention. It is a fundamental principle of all legal systems that someone who committed a crime is individually responsible for it. People who weren't responsible for a crime can't be punished. Secondly, there is a question whether deporting people to Gaza counts as forced transfer of people against their will. If it does, that is a war crime."

B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization said: "A state engaging in such collective punishment, even in response to murderous attacks against its own innocent civilians, loses moral justification for its action. The punishment of innocent persons will constitute an unerasable moral blight on the State of Israel."

A US State Department spokesman said: "We expect that Israel's actions in its campaign against terror will be based on information related to an individual's culpability and not on personal or family relationships. We think that taking punitive actions against innocent people will not solve Israel's security problems and we will be raising that issue with the Israelis."

Shimon Peres, a leading moderate in Israel, said he would support deportations if they were declared legal.

The militant group Hamas threatened more suicide bombings if the army went ahead with deportations.

Justin Huggler, Jerusalem
Published the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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