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What is 'domicide,' and why has war in Gaza brought new attention to the term?

As Israeli troops withdrew from parts of Gaza City in recent weeks, residents ventured outside to survey the shattered landscapes.
Omar El Qattaa for NPR
As Israeli troops withdrew from parts of Gaza City in recent weeks, residents ventured outside to survey the shattered landscapes.

One of the most staggering statistics to emerge from the war between Israel and the militant group Hamas is this: More than 650,000 residents of Gaza will have no home to return to once Israel completes its military campaign, the United Nations estimates.

That total amounts to nearly 30% of the territory's population. And "many more" will be unable to return home immediately due to damage to infrastructure and the danger of unexploded ordnance, the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says.

As of early February, more than 70,000 housing units in Gaza have been destroyed and nearly 300,000 have been damaged, OCHA reports. Taken together, it represents 60% of all housing units in the Gaza Strip.

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Some researchers and human rights advocates say the destruction amounts to "domicide," or the widespread or systematic destruction of homes, often during conflict.

To a reader in a faraway place with no connection to the conflict, the numbers may feel abstract. But behind each of those numbers are families now experiencing the loss of their homes, said Ammar Azzouz, a research fellow at the University of Oxford and author of the book Domicide: Architecture, War and the Destruction of Home in Syria.

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"This is the house of a family, of the saving, the livelihood, the dreams and the future of people," Azzouz said. "And when the world's gaze moves on and forgets about what's happened, this pain and suffering and rupture remains with people for decades, because this was their lost life, their lost time, and they grieve for it."

Men check a home destroyed by Israeli bombardment in a Rafah refugee camp in the south Gaza Strip, on Jan. 1, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.
/ AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Men check a home destroyed by Israeli bombardment in a Rafah refugee camp in the south Gaza Strip, on Jan. 1, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.

What is domicide?

The word "domicide" is starting to be used more often, most frequently in the context of major conflict. It has also been used in non-violent contexts, such as when homes were destroyed in Canada in order to make way for the construction of hydroelectric dams.

Its meaning can be both literal and symbolic, Azzouz said. "We don't only refer to the tangible, which means people's homes and flats and properties, but also to the symbolic destruction that we witness, which could be about their sense of identity and belonging and security and safety," he said.

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Domicide has come to be a feature of conflict in the Middle East, he said — from Mosul in Iraq to Aleppo and Homs in his native Syria.

Azzouz and others argue that this kind of destruction wreaks deep psychological damage on people, for whom the loss of their home means a deeply felt loss of security, comfort and memories.

What the numbers show in Gaza

More than half of all buildings in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed as of Feb. 2, according to analysis of satellite imagery by a team of researchers at Oregon State University and the City University of New York. In northern Gaza, the most populous area of the territory before the war, as much as 82.9% of all buildings were damaged or destroyed.

People hang their laundry on makeshift shelters at a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah on the southern Gaza strip on Dec. 28, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas.
Mahmud Hamsm / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
People hang their laundry on makeshift shelters at a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah on the southern Gaza strip on Dec. 28, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas.

Israel's military says its strikes in response to Oct. 7 — when Hamas militants attacked Israel and killed 1,200 people — are targeted at military infrastructure and combatants. Israeli officials have previously accused Hamas of deliberately embedding militants among civilian buildings and in densely populated areas. The military declined NPR's request for comment on this story.

As fighting has advanced south, more than half of Gaza's population has been forced into Rafah, the territory's southernmost major city, U.N. officials say. Apartments and houses that once held a single family now sleep more than 100 people, families in Gaza tell NPR. U.N.-operated shelters are at four or more times their capacity, its agency in Gaza says. Those with nowhere else to turn now live in tents.

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What does international law say about domicide?

The word "domicide" doesn't appear in the Geneva Conventions, which govern international law about the treatment of civilians during conflict. The Geneva treaties prohibit reprisals against civilians and their property, and they demand that any destruction of property must be "rendered absolutely necessary by military operations."

One U.N. official has called for that to change. In an opinion piece published late last month in the New York Times, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, called for domicide to be explicitly codified into international humanitarian law.

"The systematic and indiscriminate leveling of entire neighborhoods through explosive weapons — as happened in Aleppo, and Mariupol, and Grozny, and towns in Myanmar, or most acutely these days, in Gaza — should be considered a crime against humanity," wrote Rajagopal.

"We all understand that killing can be a murder, a war crime, a crime against humanity or an act of genocide, depending on the gravity and intention of the act. The same should apply for the destruction of homes," he continued.

The destruction of homes was a key part of South Africa's argument before the International Court of Justice at the Hague last month, when it formally accused Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians. Israel, a nation founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust, has strenuously denied South Africa's allegations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the charge of genocide "outrageous" and a "vile attempt to deny Israel [the] fundamental right" to defend itself.

Israel's military campaign in Gaza has killed nearly 28,000 Palestinians, the Ministry of Health in Gaza says.

But South Africa argues that Israel's actions go beyond that figure. Israel, the case says, "is inflicting on [Palestinians] conditions of life intended to bring about their destruction as a group," including mass displacement and "the large-scale destruction of homes and residential areas."

Late last month, the court found it "plausible" that Israel has committed acts that violated the Geneva agreements, and it directed Israel to ensure its forces do not commit any such acts.

But even if the war were to end today, the severe shortage of housing in Gaza will persist for years.

The reconstruction of Gaza will be a herculean and expensive task. The amount of rubble and debris generated by airstrikes and demolitions is alone so staggering that it could take more than four years just to clear it, OCHA says.

Additional reporting by NPR's Daniel Wood. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.