Israel was trying to demolish part of a Palestinian neighborhood as it pursued a plan to create a buffer zone between Gaza and Israel when around 20 Israeli soldiers were killed Monday in an explosion, according to three Israeli officials and an Israeli officer involved in the demolitions.
The explosion on Monday occurred after Gazan militants fired toward a tank guarding an Israeli unit that had been setting explosives inside Palestinian buildings on the border in central Gaza with the intention of demolishing them, according to a news briefing given by the Israeli military on Tuesday. In the firefight, the explosives went off, killing many of the soldiers inside, the military said.
Israel wants to demolish many of the Palestinian buildings close to the border in order to create what they describe as a “security zone,” according to the three officials, who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
Two of the officials said that Israel’s goal was to create a buffer of up to roughly six-tenths of a mile along the entire length of Israel’s roughly 36-mile border with Gaza. At its narrowest point, the territory is less than four miles wide.
Their intention is to make it harder for militants to repeat a raid like that of Oct. 7, in which roughly 1,400 people were killed and abducted, according to Israeli estimates, and which prompted the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents of southern Israel. One of Israel’s war goals is to create conditions that will persuade Israeli evacuees that it is safe to return home. Some of the demolished areas are a few hundred yards from Israeli neighborhoods that were attacked.
Asked about the creation of a buffer zone, the military said its forces were “locating and destroying terror infrastructures embedded, among other things, inside buildings,” which it said was necessary to implement a defense plan for southern Israel.
The military’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said in a news briefing on Tuesday that the soldiers who were killed had been involved in an operation to “create the security conditions for the return of the residents of the south to their homes.’’
The idea of a buffer zone gained such momentum in Israeli discourse that the State Department spoke out against it in December, because it would effectively reduce the size of Gaza, a process opposed by the U.S. administration.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, repeated that objection on Tuesday, when asked at a White House news briefing about Israel’s moves to create a buffer zone. “We do not want to see the territory of Gaza reduced in any way,” Mr. Kirby said. “We won’t support that.”
However, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, speaking during a visit to Nigeria, said that the United States was open to a temporary buffer zone, though solely to enable Israelis who had fled homes along the Gaza border after Oct. 7 to return.
“If there need to be transitional arrangements to enable that to happen, that’s one thing to happen,” Mr. Blinken said. “But when it comes to the permanent status of Gaza going forward, we’ve been clear, we remain clear about not encroaching on its territory.”
To Palestinians, the practice is cruel and would keep Gazans in an already crowded enclave from being able to return to their homes. Critics of Israeli policy say the practice is part of a wider disregard for civilian housing and property. The majority of Gaza’s buildings have been damaged during the war, according to United Nations estimates, and more than 25,000 Gazans have been killed, according to Gazan officials.
Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, said a systematic demolition of Palestinian border homes could constitute a war crime because they pose no immediate threat to Israel.
“There is simply no provision in the Geneva Conventions for what Israel is doing along the border, which is kind of a pre-emptive clearing of property,” Mr. Rajagopal said in a phone interview.
“On a particular property by property basis, Israel can take action — but not on a widespread basis across the entire border,” Mr. Rajagopal said. “Israel, as the occupying power, has an obligation not to engage in what’s called wanton destruction of property.” The military did not respond to a request for comment on the claims.
While Israel has never formally announced the demolition of Palestinian border homes, the concept of a buffer zone lining the length of the Gazan border has been widely discussed by the Israeli news media since early December, when the idea was reported by Reuters.
Israeli ministers have also hinted of plans to create such a buffer zone since the first weeks of the war. Eli Cohen, the foreign minister at the time, said that after the war, “the territory of Gaza will also decrease.”
Days later, Avi Dichter, the agriculture minister, spoke of creating “a margin” along the Gaza border. “No matter who you are, you will never be able to come close to the Israeli border,” Mr. Dichter said.
Gabby Sobelman, Rawan Sheikh Ahmad, Erica L. Green and Michael Crowley contributed reporting.