An effective deterrent? A closer look at West Bank home demolitions

“Why does my whole family have to pay the price for Osama’s actions? Would it not have been enough for the army to seal off his room?”

THE ATTA FAMILY home in Deir Abu Meshaal, post-demolition. (photo credit: ADAM RASGON)
THE ATTA FAMILY home in Deir Abu Meshaal, post-demolition.
(photo credit: ADAM RASGON)
On a hot summer day in August, the Atta family received a phone call from its lawyer. “Evacuate everything from your home,” Labib Habib said.
The High Court had largely rejected an appeal the family submitted days earlier to prevent the IDF from demolishing its home in the middle of Deir Abu Meshaal, a working-class Palestinian village about 20 minutes driving from Ramallah. The court had ruled that the IDF could demolish the top level of the home, but had to leave the bottom level intact. Two weeks later, IDF vehicles arrived at the Atta household and blew up the top floor.
According to Muhammad Atta, the demolition not only took out the top floor of his family’s home, where he lived until two years ago when he married his wife, but it rendered the bottom floor uninhabitable. He said a local engineer told him that the explosion damaged the structure of the bottom floor to the point that “it would not be safe to live” there.
Standing next to the remains of his family’s home, Atta asked why his family had to pay the price of his brother Osama’s actions, who, along with two of his neighbors, Adel Ankoush and Bara Salah, carried out a coordinated attack in two locations near Jerusalem’s Old City in mid-June, killing St.-Sgt. Hadas Malka and wounding others. Osama, Ankoush and Salah all were shot dead while carrying out the attack.
“We had no idea that Osama was going to carry out an attack. And if we had known, we would have stopped him. We are absolutely against violence.... She [Malka] had a mother just as Osama had a mother. She did not deserve to die and had a life to live,” Muhammad said last week with a look of exhaustion on his face.
“Why does my whole family have to pay the price for Osama’s actions? Would it not have been enough for the army to seal off his room?” he continued.
Muhammad, who was dressed in casual clothing and was sipping a cup of Arabic coffee, explained that his parents put their life’s fortune into their home – some NIS 400,000 – which disappeared in a matter of moments.
Since his family’s home was demolished two weeks ago, his parents, brother, sister and her husband and son have moved into his small two-bedroom apartment nearby. A total of nine people now live in Muhammad’s small apartment, which has become a crowded maze of mats and pillows.
“There’s barely enough space, but we have no choice,” he said, talking about his apartment. “I can’t let them become homeless.”
Muhammad said his parents hope to build a home near the location of their old home, but first need to save money for at least a couple of years. In addition, he said no government authority, organization or local group has offered to donate funds to build a new home, as has been donated in the past to other families whose homes the IDF demolished.
In Israel, demolishing homes of attackers’ families is not straightforward. While the government and security services officially support the policy and hold that it establishes a deterrent against would-be attackers, a number of former IDF generals argue otherwise.
Lior Akerman, a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet, said that even though “there is no magic counterterrorism solution,” demolishing assailants’ families’ homes “absolutely deters” potential attackers and is “highly effective.”
“In the past, people, who have been interrogated admitted that they decided not to carry out attacks only because they feared their families would be harmed,” Akerman said in a text message.
The former Shin Bet official also noted that when a potential attacker’s parents know that their home could be demolished, they take action to prevent their children from carrying out attacks through “education and informing security powers.”
A recent study conducted by Hebrew University professors and another Northwestern University professor complements Akerman’s conclusions. The study contends that “punitive house demolitions lead to fewer suicide attacks in the month following demolitions,” stating that “a one standard deviation increase in punitive house demolitions leads to a decrease of 11.7% in the number of suicide terrorists originating from an average district.”
Nonetheless, a number of other voices in Israel’s security establishment question Akerman’s and the recent study’s conclusions.
A former senior IDF officer, who served in a prominent role in the West Bank, said that “the conclusion is that home demolitions do not deter terrorists.”
“The problem is that there is a lack of available counterterrorism alternatives,” the former officer said. “That being said, home demolitions are not effective in establishing a deterrent, because the terrorists usually carry out attacks without thinking about the consequences their families will face.”
The former officer added that he thinks most of the security establishment agrees with his perspective, but politics have allowed for home demolitions to continue.
“Frankly, I think politicians use home demolitions as a way to placate the public,” he said.
The IDF, the Defense Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office all declined to comment for this report, but have defended demolitions of attackers’ families’ homes in the past, stating that the demolitions serve as a deterrent.
While Israel today sides more with Akerman than with the former senior officer, this has not always been the case. In fact, after the IDF reportedly carried out some 664 demolitions of assailants’ families’ homes during the Second Intifada, an IDF committee in 2005 recommended the army stop home demolitions.
“We found that it really was not an effective way of establishing deterrence,” a member of the IDF committee, who agreed to speak anonymously, stated. “[Home demolitions] actually created a great amount of fury among the Palestinians, and we even thought at times the policy had the opposite effect of deterrence.”
He added: “We also thought that it was not worth the price the army paid in its image.”
After receiving the committee’s recommendations, the Defense Ministry adopted them, and the IDF stopped carrying out home demolitions, with the exception of a few cases. But in 2014 when a group of Palestinians kidnapped and subsequently killed three Israeli teenagers, the government renewed the policy and has since carried out 43 home demolitions, according to B’Tselem, a human rights organization.
Back in Deir Abu Meshaal, Muhammad said that while he does not know if demolishing homes prevents would-be attackers, he still thinks that families should not have to pay the price for a single family member’s actions.
“It’s not fair or just,” he said. “There’s no other way to describe it other than collective punishment.”