Demolished east Jerusalem home of terrorist Abdel Rahman al-Shalodi.
(photo credit: PALESTINIAN MEDIA)
Almost 10 years ago, the Israeli government effectively abandoned its practice of demolishing the family homes of Palestinians who had committed terrorist acts. Following the destruction of more than 650 homes between October 2001 and the end of 2004, in 2005 then-IDF chief of staff (and now defense minister) Moshe Ya’alon convened a military panel to review the practice. The committee found not only little evidence that the demolitions effectively deter future terrorist actions, but also that whatever disincentive they provide is significantly outweighed by the rage they engender. Hence, in February 2005, then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz ordered the policy discontinued.
Now, in the wake of the recent spate of terror attacks – presumably attributable, at least in part, to the collapse of the Kerry-led peace talks, this summer’s Gaza conflict, and, most recently, the escalating tensions around access to and control over the Temple Mount – the demolition policy has been reinstated.
Defense officials have issued demolition orders for the homes of four Palestinians who committed terrorist attacks in the past month – including two whose attack left five dead in a Jerusalem synagogue last week, one whose killed two when he rammed his car into a crowd at a light-rail system stop, and one who tried to assassinate a Temple Mount activist. These orders follow the destruction this summer of the homes of the men who kidnapped and killed three Israeli boys in June, and the home of a man who shot a police officer to death on Passover Eve.
Needless to say, acts of intentional violence and brutality are reprehensible. Those who commit them deserve to answer for their crimes. But what about their families? Absent evidence of and conviction for a crime that they themselves have committed, is it just to submit family members to punishment for the acts of their relatives? Many in the human rights community think not. On Saturday, Human Rights Watch called on Israel to impose an immediate moratorium on the practice, claiming it amounts to collective punishment, a war crime. Joe Stork, the organization’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, called the demolitions “blatantly unlawful,” asserting that “Israel should prosecute, convict, and punish criminals, not carry out vengeful destruction that harms entire families.” The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem claims the policy “constitutes harming the innocent,” and is “both unlawful and immoral.”
The international community, including Israel’s closest partners, has also expressed serious concern with the policy’s re-emergence. Focusing at least as much on its dubious efficacy as on questions about its moral or legal sufficiency, on November 20 the ambassadors of the European Union’s five largest countries – Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain – met with senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem.
There, they made clear their governments’ concerted view that the demolition of family homes of Palestinian terrorists only exacerbates the situation, echoing the sentiments of US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke a day earlier: “We believe that punitive home demolitions are counterproductive in an already tense situation.
This is a practice I would remind that the Israeli government itself discontinued in the past, recognizing its effects.”
Anecdotal reports on the upshot of two recent demolitions reinforce this view. Earlier this month, Palestinian driver Ibrahim al-Akri rammed his van into a crowd of people standing in a light rail station near east Jerusalem, killing two and wounding several others; he was shot and killed by a police officer. According to a report in Haaretz, when the police visited the Akris’ home to deliver the demolition order on November 19, riots erupted in the Shuafat refugee camp.
On a more personal level, a report on Saturday from NPR discussed the destruction of the east Jerusalem home of Abdel Rahman Shaludi, the Palestinian who slammed his car into and killed a visiting Ecuadoran woman and a three month old baby; police fatally shot him at the scene. Early Wednesday morning his family’s apartment was demolished with explosives. His uncle, Tamir Shaludi, who owns the apartment upstairs, now fears it is unsound. Upset at what happened to his brother’s (the attacker’s father’s) apartment, he said he’s even angrier that he’s punished too: “Because I have never had one thought of even picking up a stone and throwing it at Israelis.”
A government’s urge to exact retribution from those who have committed heinous acts of violence against its citizens may be undeniable. But is it ever right to punish those whose only crime is the familial bond to a perpetrator? In this case, Israel’s government says “yes,” because it believes that punishing families of those who commit acts of terror, by destroying their homes, will deter other acts of terror.
Nine years ago, Defense Minister Ya’alon’s panel of military experts wasn’t so sure. In fact, they thought, as do Israel’s closest allies today, that the practice was likely more harmful than helpful, adding fuel to the fire rather than extinguishing it.
All those who commit acts of terrorism deserve to face justice.
But punishing family members who have committed no crime – based on the unproven assumption that such action will prevent future attacks – is unjust. It’s also ineffective in promoting either Israel’s security or its standing in the world.
The author is an attorney, and was president of Boston Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish educational, cultural and social justice community organization, from 2007-2013. He has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.