Opinion |

I Survived a Palestinian Terror Attack. For Me, Demolishing Terrorists' Homes Is No Comfort

Two months after the attack, I got a message: 'The IDF is destroying the terrorists' houses.' I felt nothing

Linda Dayan
Linda Dayan
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A woman checks the family house of Palestinian assailant Islam Abu Humaid after it was demolished by Israeli forces, in El Amari refugee camp in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, October 24, 2019
A woman checks the family house of Palestinian terrorist Islam Abu Humaid after it was demolished by Israeli forces. El Amari refugee camp in Ramallah, West Bank, October 24, 2019Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS
Linda Dayan
Linda Dayan

In the waiting area of the Tel Hashomer Hospital, a police officer asked me a barrage of questions.

Did you notice what they were wearing? No, I was more focused on the gun. Did you hear them shout anything? No, I didn’t. I don’t think they did. It was so loud. What did you see? Just one of the men, standing there and shooting, and then nothing - I laid down under a table. But when I got up, I saw that there were people on the ground outside. I’m not sure if they were alive.

Behind her, the waiting room’s television sets were showing, almost on loop, what I was describing. Hours earlier, two Palestinian gunmen had opened fire in Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market complex. I had just gotten stitches in my chin, which I busted open when the shooting started and I dove to the ground, and was waiting to be treated for what they were describing as "shock."

Two months later, on August 4, 2016, my friend and fellow soldier in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit sent me a text message. "They’re destroying the houses of the terrorists from your attack," it said. "I thought you’d want to know before you get the [formal] announcement."

Hours later, it arrived, via the unit’s Whatsapp group for operational updates. "Overnight, in accordance with the government’s directives, security forces demolished the residences of the two terrorists who carried out the terror attack at Sarona Market on June 8th, killing four civilians and wounding several more. Forces demolished the residence of Muhammad Ahmad Moussa Ed Mahmara in Khirbat Raqqa (south of Hebron) and the residence of Khaled Mahmara in Yatta." There were pictures, and a video, attached.

In the video, soldiers taped yard after yard of wires and explosives to the walls. Diggers and bulldozers grabbed at chunks of wall and roof, scraping them down into rubble. And then a greyscale aerial view: With crosshairs fixed on the structure, a steady voice counted down from three, and a silent explosion illuminated the scene, quickly replaced by dark smoke clouds. And once more, in color: complete blackness, and then a booming red fireball.

I remember watching it, and being overcome with an intense, overwhelming feeling of nothing. It was a detachment on a level that had little to do with trauma. This dust and rock felt so unrelated, so completely disconnected from the horror, the screaming, the blood on that Tel Aviv cafe floor.

Before the attack, I had never agreed with the policy of housing demolitions. While their official purpose is deterrence, I believed they stirred resentment amongst families more than they discouraged lone wolves seeking martyrdom.

When I was caught in the Sarona attack, it was at the height of the so-called "stabbing intifada," where a number of unaffiliated Palestinians, stirred by factors ranging from the call to "defend Al-Aqsa" to an end to their hopelessness, took to the streets to stab, shoot, and run over both civilians and security forces. Attacks almost always ended with the assailant shot.

The scene of the Sarona terror attack that left four people dead, Tel Aviv, Israel. June 8, 2016 Credit: Sebastian Scheiner, AP

Can you rationally dissuade someone on a crash course to murder-suicide? Is there any real deterrence in making an entire family, who already lost a loved one to radicalization, suffer more?

No, this was not prevention. This felt more like a team of doctors amputating the wrong limb. Four people are dead, and we’re tearing down the two family homes that the perpetrators no longer live in. After months of nightmares, flinching at loud noises, unrelenting survivor’s guilt and checking for exits in every public space, this was no relief. The underlying, and rapidly metastasizing, issue remained.

While Mahmoud Abbas condemned targeting civilians in a lukewarm statement, his Fatah party called shooting indiscriminately at Tel Aviv diners a "natural response" to Israeli aggression. Hamas eagerly took credit for the "Ramadan operation," even though a Shin Bet investigation would later uncover that the attackers were inspired by the Islamic State.

One of the terrorists was shot at the scene; he would succumb to his wounds at Ichilov Hospital, where he was treated alongside his victims. The other remains in an Israeli prison. There is always a chance that he may serve as a bargaining chip in a future prisoner exchange, and as a security prisoner, the Palestinian Authority pays him a handsome monthly salary.

While the Israeli government uses the stick, the PA supplies the carrot - in the complete opposite direction. Housing demolitions will not fully deter potential terrorists until the Palestinian leadership stops promising their families a lifetime of financial support.

Both the United States - through the Taylor Force Act - and the Israeli government - through withholding tax revenues - attempted to target this policy. The PA has shown in turn that it is willing to torpedo its own economy rather than scale back a program that rewards the murderers of innocents alongside political prisoners.

Relatives of Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails hold banners and posters during a demonstration demanding the release of Israeli-held Palestinian prisoners. Gaza City, June 28, 2015Credit: Getty Images

There is a kaleidoscope of factors that lead to radicalization. Before I was drafted, I worked in a Middle East research institute where I studied Islamic State propaganda aimed at westerners. Some of that propaganda, in its original Arabic, likely had a hand in the carnage I experienced.

A terrorist isn’t born; they’re crafted through a combination of education, circumstances, experiences, faith and opportunity. Victimhood, outrage, and a burning desire to regain lost authority, real or perceived, can be weaponized. How much more so when there’s something to gain, be it the promise of paradise, an escape from a cruel reality, political glory, or the knowledge that it will give your family the means to continue without you for years to come.

I am sure there are many victims of terror and their loved ones who are comforted by the policy of housing demolitions. It serves as a visible manifestation of justice in the face of irreparable loss - an eye for an eye.

But the same display of diggers and dynamite that provides them comfort also provides sustenance to those who profit off of Palestinian rage, the ones who would harness it towards more violence. Just as the Islamic State grew its support base from images of Iraqi and Syrian apartments downed by American coalition strikes, so can groups that seek to put knives in the hands of Palestinian teenagers benefit from images of demolitions in Hebron and Yatta.

It may be impossible to stymie terrorism within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict completely. It predates the occupation and it predates Israeli statehood. But there’s no reason to stoke it - and that includes Israel ending the home demolition policy that perpetuates the cycle of trauma, and the Palestinian Authority ending their policy of flushing cash through that same cycle.

Linda Dayan is a Tel Aviv-based news editor at Haaretz

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