The Israeli military on Thursday demolished the home of a Palestinian terrorist who carried out two bombing attacks against Israelis in Jerusalem last year. The assailant, Eslam Froukh, claims allegiance to the Islamic State group and has confessed to committing the attacks, which killed two.
Israel’s policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinian assailants has been ongoing for decades. Israel claims that the policy deters future attacks, a claim which is difficult to prove.
According to data from the left-wing Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, the number of punitive home demolitions has fluctuated greatly in recent decades. During 2022, the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank in over a decade, the Israeli military destroyed 17 homes for punitive reasons, displacing 63 people.
In previous years, when violence between Israelis and Palestinians was at a relative lull, significantly fewer homes were demolished.
So far in 2023, a year that began with another outbreak of violence, six punitive home demolitions have been carried out.
The debate around punitive home demolition
The policy of punitive home demolition is a controversial one, with proponents and opponents debating not only the policy’s efficacy but also its legality and morality. Those hurt by the policy are not the perpetrators of any given attack, who are usually either incarcerated or killed in the aftermath, but their families.
“If it was not deemed effective by the courts, it would most certainly be illegal,” Amichai Cohen, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and law professor at Ono Academic College, told The Media Line. “Limited research shows very local and temporary effectiveness of the measure.”
“If it was not deemed effective by the courts, it would most certainly be illegal.”Amichai Cohen
Cohen, who is an expert on international law and armed conflict, said that Israeli courts have been presented with confidential military reports on the efficacy of demolitions, but that he doubts the strength of those findings.
“I find it hard to believe that there is unequivocal or dramatic, empirical evidence that would prove its deterrence,” Cohen said of the home demolition policy.
Judges seem to have been convinced of the measure’s effectiveness and use that assumption as justification for the policy’s legitimacy.
Israel’s Supreme Court generally defers to national authorities on matters of security.
“The Supreme Court appears exhausted when it comes to the rights of Palestinians living under Israeli control,” Roy Yellin, director of public outreach at B’Tselem, told The Media Line.
The Supreme Court “acts as the long arm of the government,” he said, noting that security considerations seem to trump “any other considerations or rights.”
Critics of the home demolition policy say it constitutes collective punishment, which is illegal according to international law. Some believe the policy paradoxically creates motivation for other Palestinians contemplating terror.
Cohen and other experts cite the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits punishing a person “for an offense he or she has not personally committed.” The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that home demolition is not punishment, but rather a means of deterrence. The claim is difficult to prove, and the use of punitive home demolitions only against Palestinians, and never against Jews, makes the policy more difficult to defend under international law.
Supporters of punitive demolitions believe they do serve as a deterrent for future attacks.
Shai Glick heads Btsalmo, a right-wing Israeli NGO that, according to its website, works to “stop injustices that are committed against people in general and Jews in particular.” He told The Media Line that in many cases, families of would-be assailants warned the authorities about the pending attacks in order to prevent their homes from being demolished.
“Losing a home is a big deal. That’s why this is a very helpful measure,” Glick said.
“Losing a home is a big deal. That’s why this is a very helpful measure.”Shai Glick
The cycle of terrorist attacks and home demolitions has continued for decades now, as has the debate about the policy’s effectiveness and legality. The Israeli public and the defense establishment are divided on the question.
For Palestinians, there is no debate.
“This is a war crime that does not need any debate,” Tahseen Elayyan, a legal researcher at the Ramallah-based Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq, told The Media Line. “This is destruction of property that is not justified by military necessity.”
Elayyan said that the use of demolitions, along with other punitive measures used by Israelis against Palestinians, promotes more violence.
“In order for Palestinians to stop their attacks, Israel needs to deal with the root cause, which is the prolonged military occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.”Tahseen Elayyan
“Although Israelis use deterrence as an argument, this will not happen,” he said. “In order for Palestinians to stop their attacks, Israel needs to deal with the root cause, which is the prolonged military occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.”
Israel captured those territories during the 1967 Six-Day War. While it has disengaged from Gaza and has relinquished some of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel still controls the majority of that territory. Hundreds of thousands of Jews have settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the territories were captured.
High tensions between Palestinians and Israelis in 2023
Tensions between Palestinians and Israelis have been running high for months, with 20 Israelis killed by Palestinians since the beginning of the year. Around 120 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been killed by Israelis in that period, many of them in clashes with Israeli forces, which are conducting almost nightly raids into the West Bank in an attempt to thwart attacks.
The power of the PA, which has partial civil control over Palestinian areas in the West Bank, has declined significantly for a variety of reasons. Increasing Israeli military incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas have further weakened the PA, positioning it as powerless in the face of Israeli military might.
“The PA is helpless,” Elayyan said. “But the continued house demolitions have also weakened the faith of the Palestinian people in the international law and justice system.”
The PA’s decreasing power makes Palestinian terrorism more likely. Security cooperation between Israel and the PA has decreased dramatically, resulting in lawlessness in certain areas of the West Bank and a rise in attacks against Israelis.
Thursday’s demolition was carried out by Israeli military forces after the Supreme Court denied an appeal on the matter.
When discussing similar petitions earlier this year, Supreme Court judges affirmed the claim that housing demolitions have a deterrent effect. An Israeli regulation allows military commanders to use the measure at their discretion under certain circumstances.
Petitions against home demolitions are almost always brought to the Supreme Court, which for many years ruled with the state and opted not to intervene in military decisions. In recent years, the court has increasingly restricted the military’s toolkit, sometimes insisting that only the attacker’s room be destroyed rather than the entire family home.
“There have been more cases in which judges have placed limitations on the use of the measure,” Cohen said. “This reflects the dilemma in which the judges are. In limiting the practice, they are not forbidding it but they are showing they are not very happy with it.”
Those in favor of the punitive measure have become increasingly critical of the Supreme Court, which they have accused of delaying the process and therefore damaging its effectiveness. The sealing of houses, a preliminary step prior to destruction, is also sometimes delayed due to judicial constraints.
“If the house is not demolished as soon as possible, it becomes meaningless in deterring any future attacks,” Glick said. “We need to give the families the chance to petition to the court, so the demolition should not be immediate, but after two months and due process, the demolition should be carried out.”
Right-wing criticism of Israel's judiciary
Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has frequently criticized the country’s judiciary for standing in the way of implementing government policy. In response to a shooting attack in East Jerusalem in January that killed seven Israelis, Ben-Gvir demanded the immediate sealing of the assailant’s home hours after the attack.
Ben-Gvir claimed that Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara prevented that from happening. Baharav-Miara said the military had not demonstrated that sealing the house was operationally necessary.
“What hangs in the balance are people’s rights,” Glick said. “If demolitions save lives, they are a moral action that leads to less loss of life.”
For Yellin and other critics of the policy, the relevant rights are those of Palestinian families whose homes are being destroyed.
“There is no justification to commit this crime or punish innocent people,” Yellin said. He characterized the demolitions as a war crime and a “flagrant violation of justice.”
For now, the debate on the home demolitions policy, much like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, shows no signs of letting up.