Rights Groups Go to High Court to End Demolitions of Terrorists’ Homes

Petition and attached legal opinion say collective punishment violates international law and could be considered a war crime.

Emil Salman

Eight Israeli human rights organizations on Thursday petitioned the High Court of Justice against the state’s policy of demolishing the homes of terrorists, which they say constitutes a form of collective punishment that violates international law and could in some cases be a war crime. 

“The consensus that the policy of home demolitions is illegal is so comprehensive that, to a rare degree, all the most important Israeli legal experts in the relevant areas we know about are in agreement,” the petition says, in part.

The petition was submitted by attorney Michael Sfard on behalf of HaMoked Center for the Defense of the Individual, Bimkom — Planners for Planning Rights, B’Tselem, Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Yesh Din — Volunteers for Human Rights, Adalah the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and Rabbis for Human Rights.

According to a legal opinion submitted with the petition and signed by academics, under certain circumstances the practice could constitute a war crime which the International Criminal Court could adjudicate. Professors Yuval Shany and Guy Harpaz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Orna Ben-Naftali of the College of Management Academic Studies and Mordechai Kremnitzer of the Israel Democracy Institute, were among the signatories.

In contrast to previous petitions that the High Court has heard recently, the latest filing does not seek to stop a particular demolition. Rather, it calls for a deliberation on the principle underlying the policy of destroying the homes of perpetrators of terror acts and on the authority of the Israeli military to demolish the homes of terror suspects.

The petitioners claim no such judicial review has been carried out since the 1980s, that subsequent rulings all rely on a single precedent case and that despite hundreds of rulings in only two cases has the court examined the claims of collective punishment and prohibited damage to property.

According to the petition, changes in international law since the 1980s strengthen claims against the legality of the policy, particularly in regard to the collective punishment aspect, and justify its reexamination.

The petitioners argue against the state’s claim that such home demolitions are meant to have a deterrent rather than a punitive effect. They say this argument mistakenly assumes that it is the intention of the party carrying out the action, in this case the state, that creates this distinction, rather than the result.

“Collective punishment is prohibited not in order to prevent bad intentions, but to prevent bad results. The idea is to avoid harming people because of the acts of others,” the petitioners wrote.

The petition also raises the issue of discrimination, since home demolition is not practiced against Jews. “We aren’t asking that the practice be expanded to include Jews, but we believe that the systematic discrimination in applying this policy also creates an illegal situation that requires that it be abolished.”