Demolition Derby

Israel has revived its policy of demolishing the family homes of Palestinians accused of terrorist attacks, even though there’s no evidence it deters future attacks.


JERUSALEM — Only a few items survived the explosion in the Shalloudi family’s apartment: an empty tub of hummus, a single slipper, a few decorative tiles in the kitchen.

The building sits at the base of a steep hill south of Jerusalem’s Old City, in the Silwan district. The living room, now a rubble-strewn floor with no walls, has a commanding view of the Dome of the Rock. In happier times, a family of eight lived here, including six children; the youngest of them is 8 years old.

But on Oct. 22, one of the sons, Abdel Rahman al-Shalloudi, rammed his car into a crowd of pedestrians in Jerusalem, killing an infant and a woman from Ecuador. The Israeli police shot him dead as he fled the scene. The attack was part of a series of “lone wolf” attacks by Palestinians, mostly occurring around Jerusalem, which have killed 11 Israelis in the past month.

Nearly a month later, dozens of paramilitary Israeli border policemen arrived at the Shalloudis’ home in the dead of night, to carry out a demolition order that soldiers delivered to the family several days earlier. They emptied the five-story apartment block of its residents, set charges, and blew up the apartment. The whole affair was over in a matter of hours: The Shalloudi apartment was completely destroyed, and the blast caused minor damage to other apartments. A slab of concrete crushed a car parked on the street below (though no one was injured).

“The explosion was loud enough to wake all of Silwan,” said Abdel Rahman’s uncle, Talaat, the next morning. “They didn’t even let the children take their belongings.”

Punitive home demolitions were largely suspended in 2005 on the army’s recommendation, but the practice was recently revived as part of Israel’s crackdown on the recent spate of violence. The policy was reinstated this summer, when, with little public debate, Israeli troops demolished the homes of the alleged murderers of three Jewish teenagers in the occupied West Bank. Three more homes are scheduled for razing in the coming days, including the houses of the men who killed five people in a gruesome attack at a Jerusalem synagogue last week.

The demolitions have prompted widespread criticism from rights groups, and Israel’s closest allies. “We believe that punitive home demolitions are counterproductive in an already tense situation,” said Jeff Rathke, a State Department spokesman, at a briefing last week. Human Rights Watch called the practice “collective punishment” — a war crime. Ambassadors from five European countries complained about the demolitions last week during a meeting at the Israeli foreign ministry.

The Israeli government argues that the demolitions are a necessary deterrent after a month of deadly attacks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to take a range of other measures against the perpetrators, like revoking their residency and social benefits, and those of their families. Most of East Jerusalem’s Palestinians chose not to become Israeli citizens, and instead are treated as permanent residents, a status that can be cancelled for a variety of reasons, like moving outside the city.

“When you’re dealing with people who have no qualms whatsoever about killing themselves in order to kill others, deterrence is a problem,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, told Foreign Policy on Nov. 24. “How do you deter someone who’s willing to kill themselves in order to get others?”

It’s a question the Israeli army established a commission to study over a decade ago, though, the group ultimately concluded that home demolitions were not the answer. The panel, headed by Gen. Udi Shani and convened as the Second Intifada died down in late 2004, was the first serious study on the subject, and its findings were stark: “There is no proof of the deterrent effect of house demolitions,” it reported, after speaking with everyone from military officers to philosophers. As a result, the policy was largely suspended.

“If anything, the study found that the demolitions inflame the public and probably generate more attacks,” said Jeff Halper, the founder of the International Committee Against Home Demolitions, a local activist group. “And there hasn’t been another committee convened that said conditions have changed.”

The practice dates back to 1945, before the state of Israel was founded. The British Mandate passed an emergency resolution granting military commanders wide latitude to destroy any house from which they suspected a weapon was fired, or whose inhabitants attempted to violate military law.

When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, it applied a bewildering mix of Jordanian, Ottoman, British and Israeli law, including the 1945 regulation. Over the next 20 years, it demolished or sealed some 1,300 homes; in more than half of those cases, the inhabitants did not commit “actions that involve injury or loss of life,” according to HaMoked, an Israeli rights group. Hundreds of additional homes were destroyed during both the First and Second Intifadas, or Palestinian uprisings. (The same regulation is used to justify demolitions in East Jerusalem, even though it has been formally annexed to Israel.)

The policy has regularly been condemned by human rights organizations and placed Israel on the wrong side of international law. Human Rights Watch recently referred to it as “blatantly unlawful.” The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits home demolitions except where “rendered absolutely necessary by military operations,” but the Israeli High Court ruled in both 1979 and 1982 that they were an acceptable punishment.

Home demolitions are actually a weekly occurrence, but most are carried out for procedural reasons rather than punitive ones. The Israeli government controls planning and zoning in East Jerusalem and in “Area C,” a designation created by the Oslo Accords that covers the nearly two-thirds of the West Bank under full Israeli administration.

Construction permits are expensive, up to $5,000 for the application alone, and the approval rate in some places is as low as 5 percent. Many Palestinians thus elect to build illegally, and their houses are routinely demolished — nearly 3,000 of them since 2000, according to the Civil Administration, the military authority in the West Bank.

“When [the planning committee] is only composed of Israelis, and they refuse any application, people see no use to go and apply for permits,” said Shlomo Khayyat, a former head of the military planning committee in the West Bank.

A key justification for the punitive home demolitions is that families, knowing their homes will be destroyed, will opt to turn in their relatives willingly before the family member can carry out an attack. However, the Shani commission found only about 20 cases where that actually happened, out of more than 660 demolitions. And that modest benefit was outweighed, it concluded, by the anger created amongst Palestinians, and the damage to Israel’s diplomatic reputation.

Ironically, it was none other than current Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who appointed the commission in 2004 during his stint as army chief, who, on a visit to the West Bank earlier this week, seemed to discard the study’s findings, telling reporters the policy had proven itself “effective.”

But Halper chalks Ya’alon’s endorsement up to politics. “It’s a political assertion,” Halper said. “If it doesn’t deter, if in fact it is a provocation, then it all boils down to revenge, with no policy implications. It’s just a penalty imposed on the entire community.”

The Israeli government maintains that home demolitions are a particularly effective response to the seemingly uncoordinated attacks that have recently seized the country. A range of Palestinian factions, from Islamic Jihad to the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, have praised the past month’s attacks. But none have actually claimed responsibility; Israeli security officials believe the perpetrators acted independently.

“This is a deterrent, especially in the case of a so-called ‘lone wolf’ terrorist,” Regev said. “With an [organized] cell you can intercept intelligence. A lone wolf presents many challenges.”

Interviews with the families, though, suggest otherwise. All of them insist that they had no prior knowledge of the attack, and the home demolitions only heightened their anger at what they view as a vindictive action by unaccountable Israeli authorities.

Mutaz Hijazi was accused last month of shooting Yehuda Glick, a right-wing U.S.-born activist who lobbies for greater Jewish access to the Temple Mount, a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Police killed Hijazi the next morning during a raid on his home in East Jerusalem’s neighborhood of Abu Tor.

His father, Ibrahim, maintains that his son was innocent. “I asked the officers for evidence” when they came to present a demolition order for his house, Hijazi said. “They wouldn’t give me any, and they still haven’t.”

Shalloudi’s family, meanwhile, said that he had mental problems; his mother Inas even said she made him an appointment with a psychologist, scheduled for two weeks after the attack.

“Only God knows what was in my son’s head,” said his uncle. “We had no idea what would happen when he left the house.”

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