Counterpoint: An exercise in practical stupidity and moral idiocy

Sealing or destroying a Palestinian home is neither a lawful punishment nor a proven deterrence.

david forman 88 (photo credit: )
david forman 88
(photo credit: )
Since the beginning of the first intifada, thousands of Palestinian houses have been either demolished or sealed for reasons that allegedly relate to Israel's security. Home demolitions would seem to be the more severe of the two punishments because of its irreversibility. However, the sealing of a home essentially means that one's residence is no longer inhabitable. In fact, it is a particularly drastic measure because, unlike the case with home demolitions, it is an administrative decree that can be executed without recourse to a legal process - a practice adopted from the much hated British Mandate Emergency Regulations over Palestine of 1945, which was relentlessly employed against the Jews during those pre-state years. It is both paradoxical and incongruous that this leftover edict from the British reign over Palestine should now serve as the official basis for the military government in the territories to justify punishment for acts of terror, or to serve as a preventive measure for possible future acts of terror. AT THE outset of the first intifada, when home demolitions and house sealings were commonplace, Rabbis for Human Rights would visit Palestinians who were subjected to this severe form of retribution for merely writing hostile graffiti on a wall in their own village. Since house sealings are presently in the news, I decided to revisit some of the homes that were sealed 20 years ago. I found that the Oxford Annotated Dictionary's definition of the word "seal" was disturbingly apt: "Seal, a verb - affix: 1) to close securely, set apart; 2) decide irrevocably, confine firmly." As I went from house to house, windows and doors were still sealed tight - by brick, poured cement, barbed wire and corrugated tin. The families were long gone; some having moved to other parts of the West Bank, others to Jordan. As a response to the tractor terrorist, who killed three Israelis and wounded more than 50, the prime minister and defense minister decided to seal the home of the terrorist's family, as well as the home of the terrorist who went on a shooting spree in the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva some months ago, even though both men acted alone and neither one of their families condoned the acts. THERE IS no evidence that destroying or sealing a Palestinian home impedes terrorists - quite the opposite. A little more than two years ago, a committee was established by the Defense Ministry in coordination with the army and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to evaluate the effectiveness of razing terrorist homes. It concluded that such an act fails to avert terrorism, actually encourages terrorism and constitutes a clear form of collective punishment. Upon receiving the findings of the committee, the army ceased destroying and sealing Palestinian homes. And yet, in response to the public outrage at the terrorist acts in Jerusalem, our two leaders, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak (excuse me, followers), chose to enforce the rule of the street - that is, emotion over the rule of law. This same illogic applies to the Jerusalem Municipality in its continued administrative demolitions of Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem. And then, there is the matter of the equal application of punitive acts. When has Israel destroyed or sealed the home of a Jewish terrorist? After Baruch Goldstein went on his rampage of murder on Purim 1994, gunning down 29 Palestinians in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, not only was his home not sealed, but the Palestinian population was placed under a 24-hour curfew for more than two weeks - all the while having to watch from their windows the fanatic group of settlers in Hebron dancing freely in the streets in joyous celebration of Goldstein's heinous crime. While Israel understandably forbids a condolence tent being set up by the family of a terrorist killed in his perverted line of duty, to this day hundreds of Jews still gather undisturbed at the memorial site for Goldstein on the anniversary of his massacre of innocent Palestinians. OF THE five homes I saw, one family member had already served time in jail under the administrative detention code (also a leftover practice from the mandatory period) and one family had already left the country - both prior to the sealing of the house. In another home, the room that was sealed was not only the room of the Palestinian who was purported to have thrown rocks at an IDF patrol, but also the room of his siblings. Another sealed room was a rented one. And, in the final house I visited, the kitchen, shower and bathroom were cemented up. In all cases, any attempt by the family, after the army finished its work, to break through the sealed room would result in arrest or destruction of the entire house. It was as obvious then as it is now: Sealing a Palestinian house goes far beyond the assumed direct need to punish the perpetrator of a hostile act. Walking from one house to the next, I surprisingly had what I thought was a rather poignant association. I reflected back on the Gulf War when we Israelis sat in a sealed room. Admittedly, comparisons between seemingly disparate situations can be extremely hazardous. But, sometimes the juxtaposition of two events can, from a sociological perspective, be so glaring that one cannot avoid drawing analogies between them. On a linguistic level, the two notions of "sealing" hold a great deal of irony. Our sealed room suggested security and safety, a sense of family unity, in the midst of the fear of the unknown. For Palestinians, their sealed house connotes disruption and uncertainty in the midst of the fear of the known. Not only is the house divided, but also the family. While our sealed rooms were temporary, theirs were (and are) permanent. Sealing or destroying a Palestinian home is neither a lawful punishment nor a proven deterrence. Sealing the homes of the two Palestinians from Sur Bahir, who carried out their lone recent acts of terror, will only radicalize a relatively passive east Jerusalem community and, at the same time, undermine Jewish ethical standards. And so, once again, practical stupidity and moral idiocy serve as the guidelines for government policy.