(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last month the home of Ghassan Abu Jamal was demolished by the government, nearly a year after he and a cousin, Odai Abu Jamal, massacred four rabbis and a policeman at a Jerusalem synagogue. The operation, a revival of the punitive demolitions abandoned a decade ago, was declared necessary by the government as a deterrent.
However, the demolition did not deter another cousin, Alaa Abu Jamal, from driving his Bezeq company car a week later into a crowded Jerusalem bus stop, then hacking an innocent bystander to death with a meat cleaver before being killed.
This week three Palestinian gunmen were killed by soldiers’ return fire, after the three opened fire seeking to prevent the demolition of a terrorist’s home. Though unintended by the authorities, it was an unusual example of an anticipated house demolition actually inspiring terrorism, or at least three would-be terrorists.
Last week, the Shin Bet announced that they had arrested the chief suspect in the murder of a Rabbi Ya’akov Litman, 40, and his son Netanel, 18, who were shot dead outside of Otniel in the West Bank on November 13, while en route to a pre-wedding celebration for one of the Litman daughters.
In a statement on the arrest, the Shin Bet said that the alleged trigger man, Shadi Ahmed Matawa, a 28-year-old father of two from Hebron, was turned in by his father and brother. The Shin Bet said that the two men decided to turn him in because they feared that their house would be demolished and thought that cooperating with authorities could prevent the possible demolition.
But that possible future home demolition did not deter Matawa from murdering two Jews.
In February 2005, the Defense Ministry – on the findings of a committee led by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Udi Shani – said house demolitions were not having an effective deterrent effect and were instead stirring up more hatred. The commission also said the demolitions were borderline legal from an international law perspective. Not unexpectedly, Israel was routinely slammed by the international community for the practice.
A statement by the ministry at the time said, however, that the policy would be reinstated if “there were an extreme change in circumstances.” There have been extreme changes in abundant circumstances since the practice of punitive house demolitions was introduced by the British Mandatory government. British military commanders had the authority to confiscate and raze “any house, structure or land... the inhabitants of which he is satisfied have committed… any offence against these Regulations involving violence.”
During the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, the British Army frequently demolished homes in Arab villages implicated in rebel activity, entire villages sometimes destroyed.
Some 2,000 Arab homes were demolished during the revolt.
In 1945 the authorities passed the Defense (Emergency) Regulations and Regulation 119 made this practice available to local military commanders without limit or appeal.
The questionable legality of the revised practice is based on the continuation of the draconian mandatory law. This was called into question as long ago as 1968 by then Foreign Ministry legal adviser Theodor Meron, who advised the Prime Minister’s Office that house demolitions, even of suspected terrorists’ residences, violated the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in war.
Meron said further that undertaking such measures, as though they were in continuity with British mandatory emergency regulations, might be useful as public diplomacy, but were “legally unconvincing.” As it might have been expected, the advice was ignored.
That was until February 2005, when then defense minister Shaul Mofaz ordered an end to the demolition of houses for the purpose of punishing the families of suicide bombers – unless there is “an extreme change in circumstances.” An IDF commission to study house demolitions found no proof of effective deterrence and concluded that the damage caused by the demolitions overrides its effectiveness.
Thus the IDF ended the punitive demolitions of Palestinian houses. The decision was welcomed by the United Nations and human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which oppose house demolitions and had accused the government of imposing the collective punishment of innocent Palestinian families for the actions of a member.
The government must explain why, a decade later, it has reversed such an enlightened policy and reinstated punitive home demolitions. Since they have proven to be ineffective as a deterrent, it could be that their true purpose is to deter the public from thinking that the government is not doing enough to fight terrorism.