Immoral, Ineffective: Destroying Terrorists' Homes Is Nothing but Empty Revenge

The IDF has largely accepted the view that such collective punishment is inefficient - so why is Israel re-instituting house demolitions? Well, for one: nothing else seems to work.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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A relative of Abdelrahman Shaludi, a Palestinian who killed two Israelis last month, displays his portrait inside his family home after it was raised by Israel in E. Jerusalem. Nov. 19, 2014.
A relative of Abdelrahman Shaludi, a Palestinian who killed two Israelis last month, displays his portrait inside his family home after it was raised by Israel in E. Jerusalem. Nov. 19, 2014.Credit: AFP
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

House demolitions. Are they actually deterring future terrorists? And, if not, what need do they serve?

On Wednesday night, Israel’s security forces demolished the East Jerusalem home of Abdel Rahman al-Shaludi, the Palestinian who committed last month’s car attack in Jerusalem that claimed the lives of an Israeli woman and a three-month old baby (and ended his own).

As reported in Haaretz, al-Shaludi’s family members received a notice last week informing them of the IDF’s intention to destroy the house. Last night, security forces cleared the entire building before gutting the fourth floor with explosives. Pictures that were taken afterwards show family members wandering around the ruins of their former home.

The demolition of al-Shaludi’s home followed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's promises of harsh retaliation against terrorist attacks. It was the first house demolition since the beginning of the current wave of violence in Jerusalem, but not its last: following Tuesday’s massacre of five people in a Jerusalem synagogue, Netanyahu instructed the military to destroy the homes of the two assailants who committed the attack, along with the homes of others who have committed recent attacks against Israelis in recent weeks.

The reinstitution of house demolitions, a punitive policy that is meant to deter suicide terrorists by punishing those they leave behind, began this summer with the destruction of the homes of the terrorists who kidnapped and killed the three Israeli boys Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah in June, and the home of the killer of police officer Baruch Mizrahi, who was shot to death on Passover Eve.

With that, Israel brought back the policy of house demolitions, largely-suspended due to doubts over its efficacy. Controversial, morally-questionable and doubtfully-helpful, house demolitions are nonetheless a staple in Israel of violent conflicts with the Palestinians. Is it legal? Can it be morally justified? And, perhaps most importantly, does it work?

British legacy

Punitive house demolitions are, in effect, a legacy of the British occupation of Palestine, a byproduct of British emergency procedures enacted in 1945 that allow, among other things, for military commanders to order the destruction of homes in areas where violence has taken place. Since 1967, and especially since 2002, it has been used by Israel as a deterrent mechanism, meant to show that committing terrorist acts against Israel carry a significant price - if not for the person committing the acts, then for his or her family.

What happens, usually, is this. The Shin-Bet passes intelligence reports to the IDF and the government that establish the connection of a specific assailant to an attack that led to the death of Israeli citizens. Once a decision, usually by the government, has been made, Israel’s attorney general has to approve. If a green light is given, the family will be given notice. The owners will have 48 hours to appeal the decision to the regional command of the IDF. If and when their appeal is denied, they have 48 more hours to take their appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, usually, stays out of the way.

This procedure, it should be noted, can go much faster than that.

While all this is happening, military engineers arrive at the family’s home and make a detailed plan of action for the destruction of the house, using either heavy machinery or explosives. In some cases, if the house is in a crowded area or if its an apartment, a precise destruction is needed. If engineers rule the house cannot be destroyed, it is sealed shut. The point is to make the house uninhabitable in every way.

The assailant himself, usually, is either dead by this point or facing a lifetime in prison. The punishment is taken against the people they leave behind: their parents, their siblings, their spouses.

Is it moral to destroy the homes of people who have committed no crime, simply because a person related to them had? Is it moral to treat people who have not been charged, including children, as accomplices, and can it be described as anything other than a form of collective punishment?

And what about the fact that house demolitions, much like many others punitive measures, are reserved solely for the families of Palestinian terrorists? The homes of the Israeli terrorists who burned the Palestinian boy Mohammed Abu Khdeir remain intact. The houses of the Palestinian terrorists who killed the three Jewish boys in West Bank a month earlier, however, do not. The houses of Jewish terrorists, from the Jewish Underground onwards, were not touched either. In those cases, it was deemed cruel to punish innocent family members for a crime they didn’t commit. The thing is, selective justice is not justice - it’s vengeance.

The official justification of house demolitions - emotional and political needs for retaliation aside - is the deterrent factor. Even suicide bombers who have no qualms about taking their own lives, according to the policy’s advocates, will think twice before allowing their families to become homeless and ruin the lives of everyone they love.

Is that, actually, the way it works? Hear what the IDF has to say.

Not working

After a lull of several years, Israel reinstated punitive house demolitions in 2002, the height of the Second Intifada. Between the summer of 2002 and 2005, it destroyed the homes of roughly 270 families of terrorists responsible for the deaths of Israelis.

Then, in 2005, a committee appointed by then-IDF chief (and current Defense Minister) Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon recommended a moratorium on house demolitions. The committee, asked to look into the efficacy of house demolitions, found very little proof that house demolitions serve as an effective deterrent to future terrorists.

Mostly, it said, the damage caused by demolitions outweighs their benefits, since whatever discouragement they cause is significantly eclipsed by the level of hate and fury they create.

The committee’s conclusion were accepted by the IDF, to a large degree. Ever since 2005, Israel has largely avoided house demolitions, doing so only in rare cases where it was deemed fit. In 2009, for instance, Israel demolished the home of Hussam Taysir Duwait, who killed three people and injured dozens with a bulldozer in 2008 before being shot to death. Lately, it seems opinions regarding the effectiveness of home demolitions among some of Israel’s defense officials have started to change.

Given that Israel largely avoided house demolitions for nearly a decade and that terrorist acts are still committed, it seems they do not truly deter future assailants from committing terrorist acts. One can claim, of course, that by demolishing homes Israel is in fact preventing many more terrorist attacks that would have taken place if it weren’t for this deterrent. It’s a legitimate claim. But by the same token, one also has to accept that it might have also provoked a few.

Political and emotional needs

So if they’ve not been shown to be efficient, why is Israel re-instituting house demolitions? Well, for one: nothing else seems to work.

Also: the policy, while admittedly flawed, serves immediate political and emotional needs. It helps the government look busy, fulfilling an easy promise for swift and tough action against terror.

But truly eradicating terror demands actions far more complicated and far less photogenic than destroying a house.

The demolition procedure also satisfies emotional needs - not least those of the families of terror victims. It is human, after all, when faced with tremendous loss following something malicious as a terrorist attack, to seek retaliation. But “eye for an eye” does not a smart policy make.

Over and over again, Netanyahu, Ya’alon and other Israeli officials have been saying that terror cannot be reasoned with. That it cannot be talked to. That it can’t be mitigated by negotiation. This, after all, is the prime justification for the death of the peace process.

But if terror can’t be reasoned with, why should it care about real estate?

Mostly, the current revival of house demolitions can be seen as a prime example of Israel’s current lack of foresight, described by former Shin-Bet director Abraham Shalom in the documentary “The Gatekeepers”: “no strategy, only tactics”.

Israel has been demolishing homes for a long time now. So far, it has not stopped terror in its tracks. While the purpose of house demolitions is preventive, their immediacy and their lack of actual results reveal them to be little more than a gut reaction.

In that, they serve as little more than empty revenge. Empty revenge, both because it achieves little and because the loss of one house can never truly make up for the loss of human lives.

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