Less than a hour after a terror attack in eastern Jerusalem on Friday killed three people, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a succinct message: Destroy the Palestinian attacker’s home.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has decided to take immediate action to seal and demolish the home of the terrorist,” said the statement from Netanyahu’s office.
Home demolition orders have almost become a matter of course following Palestinian attacks. They don’t usually make headlines, nor do they tend to spark public outcry. For decades, Israel has used the tactic as a routine instrument of punishment, claiming that the effect of tearing down the homes of terrorists deters future attacks.
But critics question that claim, and say that home demolitions constitute collective punishment that violates international law. Yet at a moment of deep political strife in Israel, the home demolition practice, like many others related to security, generates little political opposition. And while the Israeli Supreme Court, whose power Israel’s right-wing government hopes to limit, can delay home demolitions, it almost always ultimately permits them to go forward.
Here’s how the practice of Israeli home demolition began, how it’s viewed in Israel and abroad, and how it may be changing under Israel’s new government.
Why does Israel destroy the homes of terrorists?
Israel began demolishing homes of Palestinian attackers after it captured the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, along with other territories, in the 1967 Six Day War. Since then, according to a 2019 assessment by the Israel Democracy Institute, Israel has demolished some 2,000 homes due to terrorism. The demolitions have taken place in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, not within Israel’s internationally recognized borders.
Israel claims that demolishing the homes of terrorists acts as a deterrent, a rationale cited last month in a bill introduced by lawmaker Eliahu Revivo, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party who also wants to deter attacks by deporting the families of terrorists.
“The national security establishment and the Israeli army have conducted research over the years into dozens of suicide attackers, and it emerged that the one deterrent for suicide attackers is what the consequences for their families will be after the attack,” the text of the bill said.
Home demolitions were largely suspended in 2005 after the Israel Defense Forces found that the practice had no discernible deterrent effect. The demolitions were sporadically reinstated a few years later and fully brought back by Netanyahu in November 2014 during a wave of Palestinian attacks.
A 2010 research paper by political scientists at Northwestern University and Hebrew University suggested that home demolition works as a deterrent. The authors of the study based their findings on an examination of home demolitions in the five years prior to the army’s 2005 suspension, a period that coincided with the second intifada.
“We show that punitive house demolitions (those targeting Palestinian suicide terrorists and terror operatives) cause an immediate, significant decrease in the number of suicide attacks,” the paper said. “The effect dissipates over time and by geographic distance.”
This year, Netanyahu’s new government, the most right-wing in Israeli history, has indicated it will accelerate and expand the demolition of the homes of terrorists. It recently ordered the closing-off of an apartment belonging to the family of a 13-year-old who shot and wounded two Israelis near Jerusalem’s Old City. The move was unusual because Israel had previously reserved home demolition for attackers who killed people.
Does Israel demolish the homes of Jewish terrorists?
No. The Palestinian family of a boy murdered by a Jewish terrorist sued to have his killer’s home destroyed. The Supreme Court in 2017 rejected the lawsuit, saying too much time had passed since the 2014 murder. The government argued that deterrence was not necessary in the case of Jewish terrorism, because, in the words of Judge Neal Hendel, Jewish terrorists are “a minority of a minority of a minority.” The Israeli government counted a total of 16 Jewish attacks of terrorism in 2015, according to the Jerusalem Post. Israeli Arab politicians, including Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, had called on the government to demolish the Jewish terrorist’s house as a matter of fair treatment.
Is demolishing terrorists’ homes legal?
Yes, according to Israel. No, according to experts in international law.
Israel bases its argument on a regulation from 1945, when Britain controlled what is now Israel, that was carried over into Israeli law when the state was established in 1948. It is known as “Defense regulation (emergency) 1945, regulation 119.”
The regulation is broadly written, allowing a “A Military Commander” to destroy the home of “anyone who offended, or attempted an offense, or assisted offenders or abetted offenders after the fact,” as determined by a military court.
Multiple international law experts say that home demolition is illegal under international law because it is a form of collective punishment, which is banned by the Geneva Conventions. Israel has long argued that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to its presence in territories it has captured because the land in question was not the internationally recognized territory of any state prior to 1967.
The Biden administration also considers home demolitions to be collective punishment. “We attach a good deal of priority to this, knowing that the home of an entire family shouldn’t be demolished for the action of one individual,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in 2021.
Israeli human rights groups, including B’tselem and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, agree with international scholars that the practice violates international law. B’tselem cites both the Fourth Geneva Convention and a verse in Deuteronomy that reads, “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: they shall each be put to death only for their own crime.”
Who owns the land once a home is demolished?
Under the 1945 regulation, military authorities maintain control of the land, and it reverts to the original owners — if they are present — once military authorities leave.
How long does it take for a home demolition to take place? What happens to the family?
Generally, the military consults with Israel’s intelligence services before ordering a home demolition. In the case of high-profile attacks, however, the order may come down immediately, as it did on Friday. Families have 48 hours to appeal a demolition to the military commander or another relevant authority.
However, Israel’s Supreme Court has reserved the right to review demolition orders. This may delay demolition for months or years, but B’Tselem reports that in the majority of cases, the court ultimately upholds the demolition. In one notable case in 2018, the court stopped the demolition after the family presented evidence showing that the assailant suffered from a mental illness.
Homes may be demolished by bulldozers. Apartments or rooms are generally filled with cement, rendering them unlivable. Families sometimes split up among relatives, at least in the near term, according to a United Nations report.
According to the Jerusalem Post, the army commission that recommended ending the practice in 2005 reported that families of the terrorists often rebuild their homes with compensation funds from the Palestinian Authority and other sources. The Palestinian Authority pays monthly stipends to the families of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel or killed while committing violent attacks. Israel and its advocates decry the payments as an incentive for terrorism.
How many home demolitions have taken place? Are homes demolished for reasons other than deterrence?
According to the Israel Democracy Institute, more than 50 homes “have been either fully or partially demolished” between 2014 and 2019 as a deterrent to terrorism. Hamoked, an Israeli human rights group, placed the total since 2014 at 75, according to Haaretz.
Israel has demolished a far greater number of Palestinian buildings due to lack of a building permit. Palestinian groups and Israeli human rights organizations argue that Palestinians face discrimination in obtaining such permits. Israel also has a policy of demolishing Palestinian dwellings for being built in a closed military zone.
The same academic paper that concluded demolishing the homes of suicide attackers was an effective deterrent also found that home demolitions for other reasons — including as a preventive measure — spurred an increase in terror attacks.