Muawiyah Abu Jamal, a slight 42-year-old construction worker, recalls vividly the night that Israeli security forces came to his East Jerusalem neighborhood to demolish the nearby home of his younger brother, Ghassan Abu Jamal.
The October 6 demolition came, he recalled, almost one year after his brother and his cousin, Odai Abu Jamal, attacked a synagogue in Har Nof, using axes, knives and a pistol to murder four worshippers and a Druze policeman.
As the soldiers evacuated the family from their apartment, they evicted others living elsewhere in the same building. According to Muawiyah Abu Jamal, they cursed the mothers and grandmothers, and beat another cousin, Alaa Abu Jamal, on his arms, shoulders and chest, though he wouldn’t allow the soldiers to leave marks on his face.
Israel’s declared intention in implementing the demolition was to deter future potential terrorists. From the government’s perspective, anyone contemplating violence against Israelis should know that his or her own family members would suffer, too. But if that was the purpose, it seems to have backfired in this case.
A week later, Alaa Abu Jamal drove his company car into a crowded bus station in Jerusalem and used a meat cleaver to hack to death an Israeli man and leave another man seriously injured. He was shot dead at the scene, though Israel is still holding his body, despite the fact that the defense minister said such a move would not deter further terror.
“Alaa knew what the consequences for the family were for an operation,” Muawiyah Abu Jamal said. “But when he was humiliated in front of his three sons, it obviously hurt his sense of pride.”
Israel has used home demolitions in response to terrorist attacks in on-again-off-again spurts, and to widespread international condemnation, ever since it gained control of East Jerusalem and the adjacent West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War. Between 2000 and 2005, the last period during which Israel relied heavily on this tactic, the government carried out 628 punitive demolitions, according to a 2014 study co-authored by academics from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. B’tselem, the Israeli human rights group, reports that more than 4,200 Palestinians have been left homeless by these actions since 2000. In many instances the demolitions also left adjacent living units destroyed.
The use of home demolition in the case of Ghassan Abu Jamal is part of a recent resumption of the tactic. In 2005, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz froze the policy based on a military commission recommendation that found the demolitions were more likely to promote hatred of Israel than to achieve deterrence. According to an investigation published by Haaretz that same year, out of the thousands of demolitions over the entire length of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there was a maximum of 20 instances in which a fear of demolitions led Palestinians to hand over relatives to Israeli authorities who they believed were planning attacks.
Israel’s current struggle to stem a spate of brutal Palestinian stabbings and shootings has led the government to accelerate the controversial practice in a bid to “deter terrorists and send a clear message” that involvement in terror has a price, a government official said.
But for Muawiyah Abu Jamal, that message is anything but clear. “Why did they demolish Ghassan’s home now, only a year later?” he said. “It is obviously only to show us who has the power here, to humiliate.”
The government has demolished twelve homes for punitive purposes this year. On Monday, two Palestinians were reportedly killed during the course of a home demolition that sparked a violent response in the Qalandiya refugee camp, near Ramallah. The home belonged to a Palestinian man accused of carrying out a drive-by murder of an Israeli hiker in the West Bank in June. The demolition followed a days long debate in the Supreme Court, which approved demolitions of the home in Qalandiya and four others on November 12. The army implemented the other demolitions on Saturday.
Jabel Mukabber, the East Jerusalem neighborhood in which the Abu Jamal family lives, is home to some 14,000 residents. A bleak and densely populated area, the neighborhood’s lack of sanitation facilities and services results in frequent overflows of garbage onto the streets — a stark contrast with the well-kept streets of Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods. Many of the extended families inhabiting Jabel Mukabber’s multistory concrete buildings say they are unable to obtain building permits from Israel.
The neighborhood shares a border with the Jewish areas of East Talpiot and Armon HaNatziv, and many of its residents work as teachers and bus drivers in the city. But Jabel Mukabber welcomes few Israeli visitors, who, when they do come, are commonly advised against speaking Hebrew in public. Israel’s erection of security roadblocks encircling the neighborhood has made morning traffic severe and the distance between Jabel Mukabber and its Jewish counterparts in West Jerusalem all the more formidable.
Muawiyah Abu Jamal’s apartment, which was adjacent to his brother’s home, was also flattened the night the soldiers came, despite explicit court orders that directed security forces to leave it intact. He is currently living with his family in a done-bedroom apartment and waiting for a court decision on reimbursements for the damage. It’s a decision that could come in weeks or in years.
Other family members left homeless by the demolition have rented out another apartment in the West Bank. Meanwhile, unofficially blacklisted because of his familial connection to the terror attacks, Muawiyah Abu Jamal has been unable to find a job in construction, and lives on family handouts.
Still, Muawiyah worries about the destructive influences another family home demolition will have on his 5-year-old son, “who should be thinking about studies and toys, not exposed to this destruction and blood,” he said.
Israel says that punitive demolitions are one of the few tools at its disposal in the current wave of terror, in which dozens of politically unaffiliated Palestinians have attacked Israeli civilians and soldiers, using easily accessible items like kitchen knives, meat cleavers and vegetable peelers as lethal weapons. Palestinians have killed 11 Israelis, and more than 74 Palestinians have died from Israeli fire, including 47 whom Israel identified as assailants.
Like Alaa Abu Jamal, a father of three with a good salary from his job as a technician at the Israeli telecommunications company Bezeq, many of the attackers come from East Jerusalem neighborhoods that Israel annexed after the 1967 Six Day War and declared part of Israel proper, though this annexation has not been recognized by other countries. Palestinians living in these neighborhoods hold residency rights and interact on a daily basis with Jewish Israelis in the city’s schools and workplaces.
In East Jerusalem, the new security measures, including punitive demolitions, roadblocks, increased military presence and threats of residency revocation, have added to an already combustible atmosphere. Many of the city’s 300,000 Palestinian residents have long complained about not receiving basic city services. Chronic poverty, high dropout rates from schools, and inferior access to health care and education are some of their other grievances. At the same time, most of the city’s Palestinian residents do not vote in municipal elections out of concern that doing so would legitimate Israel’s annexation of their sector of the city.
At the mourning tent overlooking the sloping hills of Jabel Mukabber, Muawiyah Abu Jamal’s relatives and neighbors resoundingly agree that the “provocations of the Jews” are responsible for the untimely death of Alaa Abu Jamal, the community’s latest “martyr,” said Rami Umbara, his brother-in-law.
Unlike other younger assailants, Alaa Abu Jamal didn’t leave behind a Facebook account or any other clues as to why he might have gone out that morning to kill Israelis. But family members said that, as a religious man, he was disturbed that for weeks he had been barred from praying at the al-Aqsa mosque. The mosque rests on the compound known as the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims and as the Temple Mount to Jews, and has been the flash point for the spiraling tensions.
“I’m telling my children that Daddy killed Jews and is now in heaven,” said Amal Abu Jamal, his widow.
Punitive home demolitions — a remnant of the British Mandate emergency measure — were last used widely during the second intifada, the rebellion that broke out in 2000 in which suicide bombings and other Palestinian attacks claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis. But in June 2014, when Hamas operatives kidnapped and brutally murdered three Jewish yeshiva students in the West Bank, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revived the policy, citing the need for tougher counterterrorism measures.
Estaban Klor, an associate professor of economics at The Hebrew University, was co-author of a 2014 study showing that punitive demolitions are effective to a certain extent — albeit heavily localized and lasting in impact for only around one month. In an interview with the Forward, he said that the action should not be misinterpreted as a real solution to the conflict.
“Terrorism is a consequence of political factors, so only political factors affect the long-term level of terrorism,” he said.
According to the Peace Index poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, 80% of Jewish Israelis support punitive home demolitions and 70% believe punishments against Palestinians who have committed terror attacks are too light.
Amnesty International and other human rights groups condemn the practice as collective punishment, which is prohibited under international law. The U.S. State Department also regularly cites the demolitions as a human rights concern in its annual country-by-country report on human rights around the world. Even Theodor Meron, who was then legal counsel to Israel’s own foreign ministry, advised the ministry in 1968 that the practice contravened international law, in particular the Geneva Conventions.
Nevertheless, Israeli courts have repeatedly approved demolitions as a measure that is legal when taken for deterrent purposes.
“I spoke with many Israeli Supreme Court judges and legal advisers of the highest authority, all of whom said, in closed doors, that the policy doesn’t work,” said Guy Harpaz, a professor with The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s law faculty and international relations department. He says that demolitions only work to further terror, rather than stifle it.
“Instead of protecting my security, the prime minister, for the purpose of appeasing public opinion, takes steps that would sacrifice my security, and that of my family, and the Israeli population.”
For Palestinians the resumption of the demolitions marks a dangerous new phase. Many from the older generation understand its connection to the so-called “knife intifada,” which they criticize as misguided and ultimately self-destructive.
“The young people today are starting an intifada that no one is interested in,” said Shafiq Rabaya, local council leader of Jabel Mukabber. But while he condemned the killings, Rabaya said he nonetheless identifies with the sense of disillusionment among many of his younger neighbors.
In the midst of an “Islamic revival” taking place among Palestinians, he said, Netanyahu has increasingly worked to “give the settlers a green light” for occupying al-Aqsa mosque, and therefore making this into “a religious war.”
While some government ministers have voiced their desire to assert Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount area, Netanyahu has repeatedly denied that his government has any intention of taking control of the site, which is administered by an Islamic trust under Jordanian auspicies.
“Abbas, Netanyahu, they’re the ones who are responsible for what’s happening, and now we are paying the price for their inaction; we’re made to be prisoners here,” Rabaya said.
Meanwhile, Alaa Abu Jamal’s home, a flight down from his cousin Ghassan Abu Jamal’s, is slated for a punitive demolition along with two other apartments belonging to his relatives, because of his attack that took place October 13.
Contact Shira Rubin at firstname.lastname@example.org