Tearing down terrorists’ homes is a controversial deterrence tactic with a long history.
by Daniel Gordis
On April 6, Israeli army Sargent Elchai Taharlev, 20, was standing by a bus stop in the West Bank, when a car driven by a Palestinian purposely veered off the road and killed him. Two months later, Hadas Malka, 23, was standing guard with the border police outside the Old City of Jerusalem when she was killed by three Palestinian terrorists in a combination shooting-stabbing attack. Last week, the Israel Defense Forces destroyed the homes of the terrorists involved.
Although Israel’s practice of home demolition is controversial, and thus much-discussed, its origins aren’t as well-known. It was first employed by the British in the Second Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902). As Boer commandos waged a guerrilla war against the British, seeking to destroy infrastructure, the British authorized the army to destroy homes in the vicinity of the attacks, as a disincentive to further raids.
The British then imported the tactic into Palestine. In 1945, in response to guerrilla attacks by both the Arab and Jewish undergrounds, the British instituted a policy that would allow the destruction of the homes of underground militants, whether Jewish or Arab. Interestingly, the British military never destroyed any Jewish homes, even after devastating attacks such as the July 1946 bombing of their headquarters at the King David Hotel.
Israel’s version of the demolition law started off somewhat different from the British policy. Israel permitted home destruction only when it was clear that the structure itself had been used in planning or executing the terrorist attack. Israel implemented the policy in 1967, but began using it more extensively with the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987. The IDF found itself facing a force unlike anything it had previously encountered. No longer was Israel’s army arrayed against the formal armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria; now, Israel was combating a lightly armed civilian insurgency. Public buses and cafes were being bombed; Israelis were petrified; there was enormous political pressure on the army to solve the problem. But the IDF, long accustomed to the traditional battlefield, struggled to find an effective response.
It was then that Israel emulated British precedent, and allowed the destruction of terrorists’ homes even if the structure itself had not been part of the attack. The idea was that the demolitions would deter Palestinians from committing attacks: Even if they did not care about their own lives, the suicide bombers presumably would be concerned for their families. (The new Israeli policy was similar to British Mandate policy in yet another way — just as the British never destroyed the home of a Jewish terrorist, neither has Israel.) Palestinians whose homes were slated for destruction originally had no avenue of appeal; in 1989, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that barring a military emergency, occupants of the houses had to be given a chance to overturn the order. In practice, the Supreme Court rarely intervenes in military matters.
Use of the home-demolition practice was hardly rare. During the First Intifada, between 1987 and 1991, Israel destroyed 433 homes and sealed off 277 more. Once the Intifada was put down, use of the practice ceased. Between 1998 and 2001, no houses were destroyed. With the outbreak of the Second Intifada, its use was renewed.
In 2005, then IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, who had commanded the army during the Second Intifada, appointed a commission to examine both the legal dimensions and effectiveness of the home-destruction policy. Although the commission’s report was never made public, Israeli news media did reveal that the commission argued for the abolition of the practice. There was no evidence that the policy served as an effective deterrent, the commission said, and given the feelings it aroused among Palestinians, it might well be inciting terrorism and increasing violence, thereby defeating its purpose. (Many officers disagreed with the commission’s conclusions.)
The practice was then suspended, but the army reserved the right to reinstate it if it deemed that the circumstances warranted it.
Once again, however, violence flared and a seeming lack of good alternatives changed Israel’s policy. In 2008, a wave of terrorist bombings by residents of East Jerusalem (who have “permanent resident” status in Israel) led to a resumption of the practice. The homes being destroyed are generally where the terrorists lived, though homes of those who incited violence have on rare occasions also been destroyed. The families who owned the homes are not permitted to rebuild in the same area, though the compensation they receive from terrorist organizations often permits them to build a substantially nicer home, albeit somewhere else. Typically, families are viewed as victims of a hostile Israeli regime, which elevates their social standing.
The practice of home destruction remains controversial among Israelis, in military ranks, the population at large and even inside the judiciary. Israel’s Supreme Court has long been seen as, and remains, a relatively activist and left-leaning body. Nonetheless, on this issue, the court has largely supported the army’s position. It has upheld the army’s contention that home demolition does not constitute collective punishment (which would make it illegal) and does serve as an effective deterrent. Several justices have begun to voice objections to the practice, but as of now, the court permits it.
For decades, then, Israel’s policy on home demolition has shifted with military circumstances; the measure has been used more when Israel has felt itself bereft of other options. Terrorism has always been a part of Israelis’ lives, but that doesn’t mean they have grown complacent. In unusually violent periods, demands that the government bring the attacks to an end have been the most potent of political forces. Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak were just two of Israel’s prime ministers whose careers were ended largely because Israelis felt the government could not keep them safe.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is keenly aware of that political minefield, and is thus unlikely to abandon a practice that may serve as a deterrent, even if the evidence isn’t clear.
In 2015, a new wave of car-ramming and stabbing attacks by Palestinians began, and Israeli casualties have been much higher than they had been for quite some time. No less ominously, another red line has been crossed: Israel’s Arab citizens have begun to carry out attacks. Perhaps because the security services are worried about the response from destroying a citizen’s home, an Israeli lower court has for the first time revoked the citizenship of an Israeli Arab terrorist convicted of four October 2015 stabbings; the court argued that in carrying out the attack, he lost his right to be part of Israeli society. It remains to be seen whether this ruling will stand in the face of appeals.
As for home demolitions, the complex questions about their effectiveness and the many moral and legal pitfalls suggest that Israel would do well to re-evaluate its policy. That said, however, it will be interesting to see how Europe, facing its own wave of homegrown terrorism, will respond. It is quite possible that Israel will soon not be the only country to adopt a policy that the British initiated more than a century ago.
This column was co-written by Daniel Gordis and Aviel Gordis.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.