Jerusalem — It’s a controversial tactic that Israel once disavowed. But punitive home demolitions against Palestinians are back now, resurrected by the government in response to the apparent terrorist murders of three teenage yeshiva students in June in the occupied West Bank.
As its war in Gaza against Hamas died down in August, the Israeli army destroyed two homes and sealed a third with cement in the West Bank in retaliation against the three Palestinians it suspected were involved in the youths’ kidnapping and murder. (One of the three, Hussam Qawasmeh, has now been charged.) Several weeks earlier it demolished the West Bank home of a Palestinian indicted in the killing of a Jewish police officer in Hebron.
The army’s actions renew one of Israel’s most controversial practices in the human rights arena. Punitive home demolitions were used extensively during the second intifada, between 2000 and 2005, as a form of deterrence against suicide bombing. But in 2005 the Defense Ministry halted the practice on the grounds that it was both ineffective at stopping potential bombers and possibly contravened international law.
Reached by phone, Gen. Ehud Shani, who conducted the IDF policy review that led to the halt, said that a key finding of his report then was that Palestinian resolve was actually strengthened by the demolitions and that the motivation of individual Palestinians to fight against Israel was likely heightened by them.
“When we destroy the houses, we build the [metaphorical] house of the Palestinians,” he said.
Shani would not comment on whether he agreed or disagreed with the IDF’s renewal of the practice. “The bottom line is that we said government should check or recheck from time to time on the conclusion of that work,” he said. “And times change. Ten years later, it’s like a generation later on both sides.”
A senior government official cited a “resurge in violence” in the West Bank, culminating in the murder of the three teens, as justification for renewing the home demolitions. Israel, he said, wants to provide a counterincentive to the symbolic and financial rewards it says the Palestinian Authority government gives to the families of those who attack Israel.
“The idea of this policy is to even out the playing field,” said the government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the remarks were based on sensitive national security assessment. “If I am involved in terrorism, in the ledger there should not only be a plus side but a minus side as well.”
Tahseen Elayyan, a researcher with the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq, said that the families of the three terrorist suspects in the yeshiva students’ case had not received any compensation from the P.A. And the Israeli government official acknowledged that he did not yet know if, in these cases, the suspects’ families had received such payments. But he said, “The government wouldn’t be doing this unless it believed that this was a deterrent.”
A P.A. official did not return a phone call asking about this issue by deadline.
The tactic’s renewal has provoked objections not just from Palestinians and from human rights groups, which decry it as a form of collective punishment, illegal under international law, but also from IDF military consultant Asa Kasher.