No One's House Should Be Demolished. But if That's the Law, It Must Hold for Jews as Well

In considering the petition of the Abu Khdeir family to demolish the homes of their son's murderers, the court must recognize the ineffectiveness of the policy as a whole and the racist reality of demolitions only for Palestinians.

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Palestinians looking at a house that was demolished by the Israeli army, in the Qalandia refugee camp on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah, November 16, 2015.
Palestinians look at a house that was demolished by the Israeli army, in the Qalandia refugee camp on the outskirts of Ramallah on Nov. 16, 2015.Credit: AP
Ami Ayalon
Idit Shafran Gittleman

Last week Israel razed the family homes of the perpetrators of the June terror attack in Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market, after the High Court of Justice rejected the families’ appeals. “There’s no doubt that, as part of the war on terror, exceptional measures are needed to create the required deterrence, in order to try, insofar as possible, to limit this criminal activity that doesn’t balk at the indiscriminate murder of Jews just because they are Jews,” wrote Justice Uri Shoham.

The last time the issue of razing terrorists’ homes drew public attention was about a month ago, and it didn’t relate to Palestinian terrorists: The Abu Khdeir family, whose son Mohammed was burned to death by Jews in the summer of 2014, went to the High Court to demand the demolition of the family homes of their son’s murderers. Last year, responding to claims of discrimination between Jews and Arabs in the policy of home demolitions, Justice Noam Sohlberg said, “the Jewish public, as a rule, is deterred ... and is not incited.”

We must start by stating clearly that demolishing the homes of families who weren’t themselves involved in terror activity, as an act of collective punishment, is patently immoral. It punishes one person for another’s crime. This is true when it’s done in response to both Palestinian and Jewish terror activity.

And in fact, in 2005, after the issue arose, inter alia, at an Israel Democracy Institute forum on the army and society that was attended by senior officers, a committee headed by the Defense Ministry’s director general recommended that home demolitions be halted, while questioning their efficacy. And this was at the height of the second intifada.

Legal research published recently by Prof. Amichai Cohen and attorney Tal Mimran also underscored the problematic nature of employing this measure without empirical evidence of its effectiveness. The study also pointed out possible flaws in the decision-making process.

Many experts have already argued that given the reality of terror these days, in which attacks are committed by individuals who are often motivated by personal distress, the likelihood that a policy of demolishing their families’ homes actually serves as a deterrent is quite low.

Even if we assume that in the short term, it is likely to be effective in a few isolated cases, over the long run, which today is measured in mere months, the anger, hatred and humiliation, which are refueled by ideologies even more radical than that of Hamas, will actually lead to an increase in terror.

It’s important to note that deterrence can be measured within the context of the range of options a person has, and in most cases, humiliation ensures a desire for vengeance more than it deters. It has been reported that the leader in the Sarona attack was influenced by the Islamic State as a student in Jordan, and that he was the one who pulled in the others. Yet one of the members of the cell had, as a child, experienced the destruction of his family’s home, and nevertheless, he wasn’t deterred.

If that’s the case, then demolishing the homes of terrorists’ families is closer to an act of retaliation than a preventive measure. And when directed at people who aren’t terrorists themselves, it’s illegitimate, as long as it hasn’t been proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt.

Moreover, the house demolition policy, which is viewed as a deterrent that could prevent the next attack but is implemented only against Palestinians, is outrageously racist. Even if Jewish terror is much less common that Palestinian terror, no one questions that such terror exists. Therefore, this policy not only discriminates between Jews and Arabs, but also sends the message that it’s less important to deter terrorism against Arabs.

Anyone who thinks demolishing the homes of murderers’ families is an effective and justified deterrent ought to think so with regard to the homes of Jews and Arabs alike. Therefore, a single Jewish terror attack is enough to justify razing the houses of the Jewish terrorists.

We’ll repeat: Our intention is not that the justices should order the homes of Abu Khdeir’s murderers demolished. We believe there are weighty doubts about the effectiveness, and certainly about the legal justification, for demolishing the family homes of lone-wolf terrorists during the current terror wave.

Yet given a reality in which Israel does order the demolition of Palestinian terrorists’ homes, but rejects out of hand a request by the relatives of someone burned alive by Jews to do the same to his murderers’ families, is intolerable. And this is what the justices who hear the petition must keep in mind.

As an aside, we’ll add this: The policy of demolishing the homes of terrorists’ families also causes the state great damage on the international front. This obviously isn’t the main reason to refrain from such immoral acts, but those who worry that Israel is being tarnished by human rights organizations ought to be aware that it is also being tarnished by this policy.

Ayalon, a former director of the Shin Bet security service and commander of the Israel Navy, heads the Israel Democracy Institute’s Program on National Security and Democracy. Idit Shafran Gittleman is a researcher for the program.

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