Doron Almog

[UPDATE: According to a recently released military police report, Almog attempted to block an Israeli military investigation into the killing of American Rachel Corrie by an Israeli military bulldozer in Gaza as it attempted to raze a Palestinian home]

Senior Fellow
, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, 2004

Warrant issued for his arrest on suspicion of war crimes by the Chief London Magistrate, September 2005 (evaded arrest)

Mass House Demolitions

Maj. Gen. (res.) Doron Almog was head of the Israeli military's Southern Command from late 2000 to mid-2003, with overall responsibility for Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip.

Almog's forces committed widespread and systematic violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes. Most notable was the systematic demolition of over 1,100 Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip and the widespread razing of agricultural land, turning neighborhoods and fields into desolate moonscapes. Over ten thousand people lost their homes, many of them refugees displaced for a second or third time in their lives.

Half of the destroyed homes were in Rafah (above and below), a town and refugee camp on the Egyptian border home to 140,000 people.

In the interests of creating a depopulated "buffer zone" on the border to tighten Israel's control over the Gaza Strip, Almog's forces incrementally bulldozed swathes of Palestinian homes and shot at anyone seeking to return. Demolitions took place at night without any significant possibility for appeal or compensation. Homes were demolished in the dozens, destroyed first and foremost because of where they were, and not for who owned them or what they were actually used for.

Gaza's Bloody Frontiers

During the Oslo process (1993-2000), Israel reconfigured its occupation of the Gaza Strip from direct military rule and porous borders to facilitate exploitation of cheap Palestinian labor to instead emphasize hermetic sealing of the territory's land and sea borders (including with Egypt) indirect governance through the Palestinian National Authority, and gradual elimination of the use of Palestinian workers.

After the Palestinian uprising (Intifada) in late 2000, Almog decided to turn the borders of the Gaza Strip -- as well as any areas near Israeli settlements, military bases, and access roads -- into "buffer zones" cleansed of Palestinians and their homes and crops. According to The Forward, Almog described his actions to an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (for which he later wrote a paper summarizing the same ideas), a Zionist think tank:
"Almog, who is regarded as a leading candidate for the army’s deputy chief of staff post, emphasized the importance of creating a buffer zone on the Palestinian side of the fence. On the Palestinian side of the Gaza fence, Israel created a strip three-fifths of a mile wide, which was bulldozed and declared a no-go area for Palestinians. Those who enter have been arrested or shot, often fatally." [emphasis added]
The majority of the demolitions took place on Gaza's border with Egypt, in Rafah. Almog insisted on the need to retain longterm Israeli control over the Gaza/Egypt border: "there is no alternative to a border regime that rests on forceful deterrence, active interdiction, and swift reprisal. And that means that there is no alternative to Israel's continuing presence at this crucial point on the regional map."

The early days of the Rafah buffer zone; note edge of border zone at top (2002)
Rafah two years later: Satellite map of destruction (light gray) and proposed additional demolition (dark gray)

The "buffer zone" concept, however, had one major problem: hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lived in the border areas of the Gaza Strip, simply because there was nowhere else to put them. The
Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated places on earth, crammed with over 1.4 million people, most of them refugees whose families were expelled from what is now Israel during the 1948 war. As the Israeli human rights group B'tselem pointed out in a February 2002 report on the impact of the demolitions:
"Israel calls this policy 'clearing,' a name that conceals the destructive and long-term consequences for the Palestinian residents in the Gaza Strip. Thousands of people have been made homeless and thousands have lost their sole source of income for many years to come. Israel caused this damage to people although it did not contend that they themselves were involved in attacks, or attempted attacks, against Israeli civilians or security forces."
Hasty implementation of the buffer zone policy would result in massive displacements, provoking international outrage; thus, it was necessary to carry out demolitions incrementally and to justify them as specific security- or combat-related measures rather than as parts of a larger policy.

The Test Case: Rafah, January 2002

The first major demolition operation in Rafah took place on the night of 10-11 January 2002, when armored Israeli bulldozers swept into the "Block O" neighborhood of the refugee camp, giving residents mere minutes to flee before destroying their homes. Amnesty International condemned the action as a war crime ("grave breach of international humanitarian law").

After an international and domestic outcry,
Almog held a press conference to defend the demolitions, claiming that "only" 21 houses were destroyed and that the area had been empty of people for months. According to field reports from the UN, the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, the number of demolished homes was closer to 60 and were inhabited at the time. This was also apparent to journalists who witnessed civilians returning the next day to salvage their belongings, despite being in range of Israeli snipers patrolling the Gaza/Egypt border:

Block O, before and after the January 2002 demolitions [the yellow and red parallel lines indicate the Israeli patrol corridor on the border; below is Rafah, above is Egypt]

In addition to minimizing the impact of the demolitions, Almog
offered two justifications: the search for alleged smuggling tunnels that ran from Egypt to Rafah underneath the border, and the desire to give Israeli forces patrolling the border wider berth:
"The direct intentions of this operation were to weaken the fear of the existence of tunnels underneath the Termit [out]post [on the border], to create better observation territories for the forces and to limit the mobility of the terrorists who are trying to approach the road and injure IDF soldiers. The need to expose and to enlarge the IDF's area of activity of operations on the [border] became gr[e]ater since the beginning of the current events, there is no doubt about that, the question is concerning the timing. On the same Saturday [two days after the demolitions] a tunnel was found which proves operational necessity that exists there all the time...The main conclusion: operationally, the activity was carried out well" [emphasis added].
The real strategic logic at work, however, was better expressed by Almog's direct predecessor as head of Southern Command, recently retired Maj. Gen. Yom-Tov Samiya, who after the operation called for hundreds of additional demolitions:
The IDF has to pull down all the houses along a 300-400 meter strip. No matter what the final settlement will be in the future, that will be the border with Egypt. … Arafat should be punished and after every attack, two to three rows of houses should be demolished [emphasis added].
Samiya's statement aptly summarizes the 2002-2004 pattern of Rafah demolitions: a master vision, implemented incrementally so as to appear as a set of reactions to disparate events.

Collapsing the "Tunnel" Myth

For the next three years, Israeli forces would routinely raze blocks of houses ever deeper in Rafah and claim that these were the result of search-and-destroy missions aimed at tunnel exits. These claims were widely circulated in the international media with little question.

Interestingly, Almog's forces rarely if ever collapsed the tunnels themselves, instead simply demolishing the homes that allegedly covered tunnel entrances; this meant that anyone in a house nearby could connect to and reopen the tunnels with little difficulty, thus providing a justification for the next incursion. Block O was especially hard hit, with a new row of homes being demolished almost every month:
An Israeli outpost on the Gaza/Egypt border at Rafah; in the foreground is the rubble of demolished Block O homes. This picture was taken in 2002 from a home that was later destroyed in the expansion of the buffer zone.

In 2004, Human Rights Watch published an extensive study on the pattern and practice of mass home demolitions in Rafah and effectively discredited the tunnel excuse.

HRW demonstrated the implausibility of the tunnel excuse: The alleged smuggling tunnels had to run under the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, which remained under direct and exclusive Israeli military control (see graphic below for the Israeli government's depiction of the situation).

Yet according to leading U.S. military tunnel detection experts interviewed by HRW, given the soil conditions in Rafah, Israeli forces could use a variety of existing sensor technologies to detect and neutralize tunnels at the point where they cross the border, without the need to invade the camp and demolish homes, which would at most simply increase the length of the tunnels:
"There are no simple and comprehensively effective methods for detecting tunnels, but experts stressed that a combination of different techniques, many of which can compensate for each other’s shortcomings, should be effective, especially in a relatively small area where forces control and are familiar with the terrain. … Use of these geophysical techniques on the border could obviate the perceived need for incursions and the systematic destruction of civilian homes. …

Techniques have also been developed to neutralize tunnels once detected. Special mixes of cement injected at high pressure and controlled use of explosives can be used to neutralize tunnels while minimizing harm to structures on the surface. Generally speaking, smaller tunnels can be closed with less difficulty. No demolitions of structures were employed to close tunnels on the U.S.-Mexico border, even though some of the houses used were also densely clustered within meters of the border."
[emphasis added]
The Israeli military did not substantively comment on HRW's claims. Its refusal to use existing technology to detect tunnels underneath the border was later corroborated by a report in Ha'aretz:
"Six and a half years ago, three outstanding scientists from Ben-Gurion University, headed by Dr. Vladimir Fried, developed a system ("V-3") for detection of underground spaces - in other words, tunnels. In November 1998, an outside expert, a Technion scholar, carried out a test of the system on behalf of [Weapons Systems and Infrastructure Development Authority, WSIDA]. Despite the success of the test, the contacts with the authority broke off. A year later, the scientists reapproached, but the authority still wasn't answering the phone. ...

Fried and his colleagues, backed by geology professor Dov Bahat, did not give up. In late 2004, their proposal was submitted to WSIDA via [former general] Amiram Levin, who also happens to represent commercial interests. He spoke to Keren, who sent it to the limited conflict and war on terror branch. Nothing happened."
[emphasis added]
In light of these three elements -- 1. the non-relation between dealing with tunnels below the border and destroying houses across from it; 2. Israel's apparent refusal to use readily available tunnel detection technology; and 3. the expressed desire of numerous Israeli commanders working in Gaza (Almog, Ariel Sharon, Yom Tov Samiya, and Pinky Zuaretz) for an expanded buffer zone along the border -- the Israeli justifications for the Rafah demolitions crumble.

"There is no dispute that Palestinian armed groups use tunnels to smuggle arms for use in attacks against the Israeli military and civilians," HRW concluded. "But evidence strongly suggests the IDF is using their existence as a pretext to justify home demolitions and illegally expand the 'buffer zone.'"

From Fellow to Fugitive

Almog retired from the Israeli military in the summer of 2003, hoping to eventually seek promotion to become deputy chief of staff. Almog held visiting fellowships at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy while his successor as head of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, accelerated buffer zone demolitions. By the time the policy was suspended in late 2004, Israeli forces had destroyed 2,500 homes in the Gaza Strip since 2000. Nearly two-thirds of these homes were in Rafah, which lost fifteen percent of its built-up area; sixteen thousand of its residents were displaced.

On 11 September 2005, Almog landed at Heathrow airport and learned from Israeli diplomats that the Chief London Magistrate had on the previous day issued a warrant for his arrest on suspicion of war crimes in relation to the January 2002 demolitions in Rafah (see interview with Almog and the lawyer who filed the case). The Anti-Terrorist and War Crimes Unit of the Metropolian Police was waiting at the airport to execute the warrant, but did not enter Almog's airplane. On the advice of the diplomats, Almog remained on board as the jet refueled and returned to Israel.

Two members of Parliament condemned Almog's escape. Amnesty International also deplored the incident and echoed calls for an investigation:
"It is difficult to believe that the police would have refused to arrest a person who had arrived in the UK on board an airliner if that person was wanted for drug-trafficking or security offences, simply because they had not passed through UK border controls, if that meant they would otherwise evade arrest."
Although Almog escaped justice, his near-arrest raised fears amongst Israeli officers of similar prosecutions. On the advice of Israeli military lawyers, Gaza Division commander Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi (also a Harvard alumnus -- Kennedy School, MPA 1997), canceled his summer plans to study at the Royal College of Defence Studies in the UK. Until Israeli officers change their policies rather than their travel plans, however, they will continue to face efforts to bring them to account for their crimes.