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.
Known as “the IDF’s philosopher” for his help in crafting the army’s moral code, Kasher, an Israel Prize winner, was a consultant for Shani’s 2005 policy review. In a September 2 interview with the Forward, he denounced the return of the demolitions.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “Our arguments remain intact. I mean, deterrence is no good reason for causing such damage. And it is the family [that is affected], not the person [who committed the crime].”
Israeli policy regarding punitive home demolitions dates back to a 1945 British Mandate emergency regulation in pre-state Palestine that allowed the British military to confiscate and destroy any home used to discharge a weapon, or any home used by a person who violated military law. According to Guy Harpaz, a professor of international law at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the British enacted the policy solely against Arabs.
According to the Israeli human rights group HaMoked , in the first 20 years after Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War, it destroyed and sealed some 1,300 structures in punitive response to terrorist acts that it alleged had been committed by individuals living in these homes. (Home demolitions often go forward before the Israeli courts convict an offender.) It was a tactic sanctioned by the High Court of Justice in 1979 and again in 1982, when the court ruled that the policy did not constitute collective punishment. (Israel has also destroyed thousands of other homes in the course of military operations and for “administrative” reasons, such as the lack of building permits, over the past several decades.)
Israel continued punitive home demolitions through the first intifada, between 1988 and 1992, during which it destroyed more than 430 structures. But the IDF slowed the policy in the early 1990s because of international criticism and as a goodwill gesture toward the Palestinian government during the Oslo era, according to a study by Efrat Silber, a professor at Hadassah College in Jerusalem.
During the second intifada, from 2001 to 2005, Israel accelerated punitive demolitions once again, destroying more than 660 structures, many of them belonging to the families of suicide bombers. According to a high court ruling, Palestinians must receive notifications of the demolition and have the opportunity to appeal the decision, first with the military and then with the court itself.
HaMoked asserts that appeals were almost always unsuccessful. (HaMoked noted just one or two exceptions, a notable one in 1993 when the high court reversed an order against a home belonging to a man convicted of murder because it would disproportionately harm his family of 10.)
In 2005 the IDF commissioned Shani to chair a committee to explore the efficacy of punitive home demolitions. At that time, Shani told the Forward, the government was demolishing homes every week or two. In pursuing his study, Shani spoke with philosophers, scientists, authors and even actors in order to “bring new ideas to the table.”
When consulted at the time, Kasher said he argued strongly against the use of home demolitions as a deterrent for two reasons. One: “You cannot cause harm just in order to exert some influence on the activities of your enemy in the future.” The other reason is the effect on the family of the bomber: “He has already been exploded. It is his family that is going to suffer from the demolition.”
Between 2005 and today, the IDF has used demolition a handful of times in East Jerusalem. This summer marks the return of the policy in the West Bank.
In the recent cases of the suspected killers of the three teens, HaMoked appealed unsuccessfully to the IDF, and later to the high court to prevent their family homes from being demolished.
In its decision, the court upheld the IDF’s claim that the home demolitions would deter others from kidnapping Israelis. The court rejected HaMoked’s argument that it was discriminating against Palestinians by not demolishing the homes of three Israeli Jews allegedly involved in the kidnapping and murder of East Jerusalem teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir in July. The government charges that the three Israelis murdered Abu Khdeir as revenge for the murder of the Israeli teens Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah.
“There is no room for artificial symmetry,” the court said. “Since the purpose of Rule 119 is to deter, not to punish, the fact that despicable acts of terror, such as the kidnapping and murder of the teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir [have occurred] is not sufficient to justify alone the use of this rule against Jews.”
According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, the demolitions left 23 innocent people, including 13 minors, homeless. Since the destruction of their homes, the families of the three Palestinian suspects have found shelter with their extended families. According to Elayyan, the Al-Haq researcher, two families have moved in with their in-laws in Hebron, and the wife of the third has moved back in with her parents.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.