Israel forced to reassess demolition policy

With Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promising to rebuild every home demolished by the IDF, Israel’s defense establishment will have to reassess the demolition of terrorists’ homes as a deterrent.

al-monitor A woman inspects the family home of Palestinian assailant Islam Abu Humaid after it was demolished by Israeli forces in El Amari refugee camp, Ramallah, Israeli-occupied West Bank, Oct. 24, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar


Topics covered

palestinian authority, mahmoud abbas, terrorist attacks, west bank, palestinian-israeli conflict, demolition order, demolition orders, idf

Oct 25, 2019

Early in the morning of Oct. 24, the IDF demolished the home of Islam Abu Hamid’s family for a second time. Abu Hamid killed Sergeant First Class Ronen Lubarsky in May 2018, during an operation to capture terrorist suspects in the al-Amari refugee camp in the Ramallah district. A slab of marble that Abu Hamid threw at the IDF’s Duvdevan force operating in the camp hit Lubarksy on the head, critically wounding him. He died of his injuries two days later. The IDF reported that the Duvdevan unit that located and captured Abu Hamid in June 2018 also participated in the demolition operation. As for Abu Hamid, he was sentenced by a military court to life in prison plus another eight months for obstruction of justice, as well as a fine of 258,000 shekels ($73,000) — the maximum allowed in criminal cases.

Three months after he was captured, the IDF informed Abu Hamid’s family that it planned to demolish part of their home and gave them 10 days to prepare. Then the IDF reassessed and decided to demolish the entire home, apparently because of the Abu Hamid family’s history. Four of its members are in prison in Israel and Islam’s brother Nasser was a senior member of Fatah’s military wing, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

In response to the decision to demolish the home, the family filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, but it was rejected by Justices Dafna Barak-Erez and Yael Vilner. Justice George Kara wrote a minority opinion arguing that only part of the house should be demolished so as to leave a roof over the family.

The house was finally demolished in December 2018, after which the Palestinian Authority expressed its gratitude to the family and made them into heroes. In response to the demolition, Abu Hami's mother Um Nasser announced that the “house of sacrifice on behalf of the Palestinian people” would be rebuilt. At the same time, Palestinian minister Walid Assaf, who heads the National Committee to Resist the Wall and Settlements, announced that the PA would provide the family with housing and that under orders from President Mahmoud Abbas, a new home would be built to replace the one that was destroyed.

Construction of the new house began several months ago, drawing attention in the Palestinian media. Students from Bir Zeit University showed up at the site to help as a gesture of gratitude to the family for going above and beyond on behalf of the Palestinian struggle. Rather than achieving deterrence and intimidation, the IDF had turned the family of terrorists into victims who received respect and admiration from the Palestinian public.

The IDF’s bulldozers returned this week with members of the Civil Administration and a force from the Duvdevan unit to tear down whatever had already been rebuilt. Inevitably, the Palestinian media showed great interest in the demolition. All Abbas and his government could do was reiterate that anything that was destroyed by force would be rebuilt anew. “The bulldozers of the occupation will not break us. We will not go down on our knees before them. Our willpower is stronger than Israel’s tanks and victory is ours,” read a statement by Palestinian Minister of Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh.

The result is obvious. From now on, the demolition of any terrorist’s home will be turned into a political event among the Palestinian public, and everything that is demolished will be rebuilt by the PA.

In other words, Abbas instructed that people and families punished by Israel would be embraced by the PA. His reaction was similar to the one he had during the crisis over the PA's payments to Palestinian assailants' families. Then, Israel decided to deduct the salaries from the tax revenues it collected on behalf of the PA, but Abbas refused to give in and rejected the deducted money. When Israel applies pressure by implementing sanctions or other forms of punishment, Abbas has no choice but to stand up as straight as he can and fight. It was not by chance that the statement read, “We will not go down on our knees.”

With the issue of deducted taxes behind us, a new fight has broken out between Israel and the PA over the demolition of assailants’ homes. The difference is that when it comes to money for the families of assailants, the argument could be made that Abbas was sending desperate Palestinian youths the message that engaging in terror pays off, and that every martyr ensures that their family receives an income for life. In contrast, the demolition of homes really isn’t much of a deterrent.

Back in 2005, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz put an end to the demolition of terrorists’ homes, basing his decision on the findings of an IDF committee appointed by then-Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon. It determined that there is no evidence that the demolition of homes is effective in the long run and that while the demolitions have an initial dampening effect, it does not last

Opinions are divided on this topic. The Shin Bet believes that the demolitions do have an impact, and that families worried that their children were about to commit a terror attack are quick to report it to the IDF for fear that their homes will be destroyed.

The policy was renewed after Operation Protective Edge. In December 2014, the Supreme Court rejected a petition brought by eight human rights organizations against the practice. Justice Eliakim Rubinstein added a warning that Regulation 119 of the Defense Regulations in Times of Emergency (which serves as the basis of the IDF’s power to demolish houses in the first place) should be used sparingly.

Back in 2001, when Rubinstein was attorney general, he ruled that it is permissible to assassinate a terrorist planning an attack only when it is proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the assailant is a “ticking time bomb” and that the only way to stop the attack and save the lives of innocent victims is by the targeted killing of the assailant on his way to commit the attack. Rubinstein ruled that Israel must not use targeted killing in retaliation for terrorist attacks that were already committed.

Over the coming days, Israel’s defense establishment will be forced to reassess whether the demolition of terrorists’ homes is an effective deterrent or just punishment. It will also have to decide whether turning every home that is destroyed into a “house of sacrifice” doesn’t just intensify and glorify terrorist activities against Israeli targets. Now more than ever, with Abbas promising to build a new home for every family whose own is demolished, it looks like the policy isn’t working anymore. Not only will new houses be built, but the families of the terrorists will be treated like heroes, just like Abu Hamid's mother, who Abbas recently awarded a medal.

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