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Israel’s ongoing destruction of buildings in Gaza with the aim of creating a buffer zone along the border is unjustified and a war crime, the UN's human rights chief said on Thursday.
The “extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, amounts to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention and a war crime”, Volker Turk said in a statement.
Israeli leaders have said the buffer zone is aimed at preventing a repeat of the October 7 attack by Hamas.
The UN human rights office reported that demolitions have occurred in recent weeks in Beit Hanoun in north Gaza, As Shujaiyeh in Gaza city, An Nuseirat Camp in middle Gaza, and Khan Younis.
He warned that the objective of creating a buffer zone for general security purposes did “not appear consistent with the narrow 'military operations' exception set out in international humanitarian law”.
“Israel has not provided cogent reasons for such extensive destruction of civilian infrastructure,” Mr Turk said.
He pointed out to the Israeli authorities that Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention “prohibits destruction by the occupying power of property belonging to private persons”.
The US, Israel's top ally and provider of military aid, has repeatedly said Gaza's territory should not change and that a buffer zone would be a breach of that principle.
“When it comes to the permanent status of Gaza … we remain clear about not encroaching on its territory,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the destruction of homes and crucial civilian infrastructure “appears to be aimed at or has the effect of rendering the return of civilians to these areas impossible”.
He added that the “forcible transfer of civilians” may also constitute a war crime.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered troops to prepare to enter Gaza's crowded southern city of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians are sheltering, even as new talks aimed at securing a truce with Hamas were set to open on Thursday in Cairo.
The Israeli leader announced the order after rejecting Hamas's response to a ceasefire proposal at the centre of recent intensive diplomatic efforts.
Heavy fighting has raged on in the enclave despite international efforts towards a ceasefire in the bloodiest ever Gaza war, sparked by Hamas's October attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of almost 1,200 people.
Israel vowed to eliminate the Palestinian militant group and launched air strikes and a ground offensive that have killed tens of thousands.
During a press conference in New York, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told journalists that Israeli leaders have repeatedly said that they are not fighting the Palestinian people, they are fighting Hamas.
Mr Guterres stated if that was the case, he could not understand how the war is being conducted in such a way that has led to the deaths of 27,800 people, the displacement of 75 per cent of the population and the destruction of entire neighbourhoods.
“I think that there is something wrong in the way the military operations have been conducted,” said the UN chief.
He also expressed full support for the decisions of the International Court of Justice, which is currently hearing a case brought by South Africa in which Israel is accused of committing genocide in Gaza, and stressed that all their “decisions must be implemented”.