Tel Aviv — In a nationwide wave of anger over this month’s so-called bulldozer attack, Israel is resounding with calls to revive the discontinued practice of demolishing the homes of terrorists’ families, beginning with that of the perpetrator of the bulldozer attack.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself was the first to raise the demand during a Cabinet meeting that took place hours after the July 2 attack that killed three people and wounded dozens. The perpetrator, Hossam Dwayyat, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, went on a deadly rampage in downtown Jerusalem, using a construction vehicle to ram a bus, cars and pedestrians. Police shot Dwayyat dead on the spot.
Olmert was pre-empting public pressure, which in the hours and days that followed became overwhelming.
Many Israelis view the demolition of terrorists’ homes — condemned by much of the international community as vindictive and a violation of human rights — as the only way around an otherwise intractable problem. Herein lies the problem of how to punish the dead or, more precisely, how to punish and deter people who fear no personal retribution, since they plan to be killed in the course of their crime.
Making families pay a price after the fact for a terrorist’s deed is widely seen by Israelis as the only available deterrent. “For my research I have interviewed many suicide bombers who did not go through with their attacks, and many said that they thought about their family losing its home at the last moment,” said Anat Berko, a research fellow at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, which is part of Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center.
The measure, introduced by the British during the mandate period and continued by Israel, was standard practice until three-and-a-half years ago. Some 270 homes were destroyed during the second intifada alone. Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz discontinued the policy in 2005, while he served as defense minister. Mofaz was following the still-secret recommendations of the so-called Shani Committee. The military committee, which is headed by Udi Shani, a major general, is widely believed to have questioned the deterrent effect of home demolition.
The day after the latest attack, the second in Jerusalem in five months, Olmert asked Attorney General Menachem Mazuz to review the legality of the practice. Mazuz concluded that it is legal, reaffirming the long-standing position of the government, which dropped the practice for tactical and not legal reasons. Mazuz added, however, that it would likely provoke legal challenges, which he did not detail. The day after that, July 4, Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed the army to issue an order for the demolition of Dwayyat’s home.
It has since emerged that another family lives there, not Dwayyat’s, raising the likelihood that the house will be sealed with concrete rather than razed. The decision to target the attacker’s family appears unaffected by media reports suggesting that Dwayyat was not driven by hatred of Israel, but rather by drugs or personal instability. The government maintains the position that he was a terrorist.
Another demolition order was issued for the home of Ala Abu Dhaim of Jabel Mukaber, who gunned down eight students in the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva on March 6. Like Dwayyat, he was shot dead by security forces in the process.
The plan drew broad-based support in a Knesset debate July 7, with lawmakers from right to left — Israel Beiteinu, Shas, Kadima and Labor — giving it their backing. Even Yossi Beilin of Meretz, a party usually firmly against such practices, said that if it reduces attacks, he will not stand in the way.
Ministers have stated confidently since the bulldozer attack that demolitions do curb terror, despite the apparently contradictory findings of the Shani Committee. This committee mulled the matter for weeks, but a few hours after the attack, Barak fired off a letter to the Defense Ministry lawyer, stating that in light of an apparent renewal of terror in Jerusalem, “demolishing houses has a deterring effect that conveys an unequivocal message about Israel’s determination to fight this.”
Olmert spoke with a similar sense of authority, saying that a harsh response has the power to break “this pattern.” He told a July 3 conference of the Israel Democracy Institute that “if we need to demolish houses, we’ll demolish houses, and if we need to revoke benefits, we’ll do that.” He was referring to his additional request that the Cabinet consider revoking National Insurance stipends from the families of terrorists.
But despite the broad support among politicians and the general public, there has been a critical response from several top security experts and former army officials. Amnon Straschnov, the general who was the army’s chief judge advocate during the first intifada, has expressed alarm that the policy is being revived so soon after being shelved. Writing in Haaretz, he described the move as “bellicose” and “misguided.”
Yehuda Ben-Meir, senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and former deputy foreign minister, told the Forward that there are many cases — especially when the attacker acts independently, as in the last attack — where demolitions “will not have any deterrent effect,” and could serve to intensify hatred against Israel. He added: “In fact, if something is presented as being unjust, it has a negative effect. It is in Israel’s interest to show the country’s Arabs that the way we act is just and right.”
Straschnov suggested that the move has more to do with the government’s eagerness to please the public than with discouraging terrorism. “Could they have something to do with the fact that this is an election year?” he wrote in Haaretz.
Still, numerous people with similar credentials insist that there is a sound security rationale to the practice. “If terrorists know this happens, it deters them,” said Berko, who is a retired lieutenant colonel. “To put something in the village that shows this is what happens to terrorists works.” Efraim Inbar, director of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said, “While people are normally punished only for their own deeds, in circumstances like these, societies have to deviate from this principle.”
Terrorism, Inbar said, has come to rely on operatives who expect to die, and with personal punishment impossible, unconventional practices become the only option.
“The challenge here is so great: Terrorists kill a lot of people and expect to be killed, making threats to punish them ineffective. In the light of this challenge, the measures being discussed offer a solution to this problem, and are acceptable,” he added.
Counter-terrorism expert Yoram Schweitzer agreed with Inbar that desperate times justify, in principle, desperate measures. But he argued that both sides of the debate are over-simplifying the issues.
Schweitzer, director of the Terrorism and Low-Intensity Conflict Research Project at the Institute for National Security Studies has, like Berko, interviewed dozens of suicide bombers who failed or backed out and those who dispatched them.
But in contrast to Berko, Schweitzer has had firsthand encounters leading him to conclude that during the second intifada, the policy “lost its deterring force, as there were so many incidences, such an availability of compensation [from terrorist groups], and because it became a semi-culture to perform attacks and put this concern aside.” This meant that the decision to halt the practice was correct.
Yet now, when there is no major wave of attacks, the impact of demolishing homes increases, Schweitzer said. “This kind of measure, like terrorism itself, is not intended for people themselves, but for the audience,” he told the Forward. “It is there to deter other people who would consider this kind of action, and see their family losing its home as a discouragement. As such, it depends on the atmosphere in which it’s carried out.”
Schweitzer concluded that Israel was correct to move away from house demolition as a matter of routine, and should not backtrack on this decision. But he said that government anti-terror advisers should consider particular cases one by one, using intelligence reports to judge the effect of a demolition. “If effective in a particular case, then a demolition should take place, but a blanket rule does not work.”