Israel’s Government Pushes Home Demolitions as Violence Surges
On Saturday night, Israel’s new, far-right minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, called for the immediate sealing of the family home of a Palestinian gunman who, a day earlier, had killed seven people in East Jerusalem before being shot dead by the police.
Within hours of Mr. Ben-Gvir’s comments, security forces arrived early Sunday morning at the family home of the gunman, according to Daniel Shenhar, a human rights lawyer. They woke up the residents, gave them an hour to gather some possessions before evicting them, then blocked the doors and windows — usually a prelude to demolishing a Palestinian home.
The Israeli military said it had issued a required warrant before the sealing, as is customary in such cases. But Mr. Shenhar said none of the inhabitants had seen it before the security forces moved in: The gunman’s parents were in Israeli detention at the time and were only released, without charges, after the house had been sealed.
Israel defends such home demolitions as a deterrent meant to prevent future attacks, and the new government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, is pursuing the policy more aggressively after a surge of violence in recent days. Mr. Shenhar said that 75 houses have been completely or partly demolished since 2014.
The government said it would also seal the home of a 13-year-old Palestinian accused of injuring two people in another shooting in East Jerusalem — though in the past, that measure has been typically reserved for the perpetrators of fatal attacks.
Israel’s decades-old practice of sealing and demolishing the family homes of assailants accused of carrying out deadly attacks on its citizens has long drawn criticism from human rights groups that call it collective punishment, prohibited by international law, leaving innocent parents, siblings, spouses and even children homeless. Critics also question its effectiveness, after hundreds of demolitions have failed to halt the attacks.
But the new government announced that it was accelerating the policy, a change reflected in its recent actions.
At least 35 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire so far this year, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health — 10 of them, including a 61-year-old woman, in a gunfight last Thursday during an army raid in Jenin in the occupied West Bank.
A day after that raid, Khairy al-Qam, 21, killed seven people, including a 14-year-old boy, outside a synagogue in Neve Yaakov, a mostly Jewish area. It was his family’s home that was sealed with unusual haste.
“It was clear it was done under pressure from the politicians,” said Mr. Shenhar, the head of the legal department of HaMoked, an Israeli human rights organization that has represented dozens of Palestinian families of assailants in mostly unsuccessful appeals against home demolitions in Israel’s Supreme Court.
A New Surge of Israeli-Palestinian Violence
“They didn’t give the family any chance to appeal” by acting before they had seen a warrant, he added, though they might still appeal after the fact.
Moussa al-Qam, 48, the father of the Neve Yaakov gunman, said he was proud of his son and shrugged off the sealing of the house that was home to at least 10 family members.
“Even if I have to sleep outside, I don’t care,” he said. “As long as my son fulfilled his duty, I don’t care.”
The police declined to answer questions about the case, citing a gag order on all details of the investigation.
The hard-line government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, sworn in a month ago, and its supporters had accused the previous government of impotence in the face of a deadly wave of attacks by Arab assailants in the spring, raising questions about how the new government would act toward the Palestinians at a fraught time of spiraling tensions.
Mr. Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in the past for incitement to racism and support for a terrorist group, has also ordered the authorities to demolish 14 more Palestinian structures in East Jerusalem slated for removal because they were built without municipal permits.
Palestinians have a hard time obtaining such permits because of a lack of zoning for construction in East Jerusalem and because of other Israeli land policies. Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 and later annexed it in a move not recognized by most of the world.
The new government, which aims to curb the powers of the judiciary, is also talking of taking additional measures that could be viewed as collective punishment. Mr. Netanyahu has proposed the revocation of national insurance rights from “families that support terrorism.”
In a sign that the government may be trying to tamp down tensions with the Palestinians and avoid international censure, on Wednesday it asked Israel’s Supreme Court, for the ninth time, to delay the eviction of Palestinians from a high-profile Bedouin village, Khan al-Ahmar, by four months. The hamlet’s structures had been erected without permits.
But given the new focus on demolitions, and given that the International Court of Justice has recently been tasked with rendering an opinion on the Israeli occupation and the state of the conflict, Mr. Shenhar of HaMoked said that Israel was “playing with fire.”
Israel has practiced its policy of demolishing assailants’ homes on and off since 1967, based on an ordinance of the emergency defense regulations introduced by the British authorities in 1945. But the Fourth Geneva Convention states unequivocally that no protected person — in this case meaning residents of an occupied territory — may be punished for offenses they have not personally committed and that collective penalties are prohibited, as are reprisals against their property.
“There is no debate about this internationally,” said William Schabas, a former chairman of a U.N. commission of inquiry for Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip in 2014 who is a professor of international law at Middlesex University London. Such collective punishment has also been defined as a war crime in international tribunals, he added.
Rejecting arguments made by some Israeli officials and experts that the damage caused by the policy is proportionate and outweighed by the benefits, Professor Schabas said. “The prohibition is an absolute one, so you are violating international law if you conduct it. It’s not something you would balance against benefits.”
He noted that there was no military necessity involved in such cases, and that the fact that the policy is applied only to Palestinians is also discriminatory.
But even some supporters of the demolition policy acknowledge that there is no way of proving that it works.
“There is no way to measure it,” said Yaakov Amidror, a retired general and former national security adviser to Mr. Netanyahu and now a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, a conservative-leaning research group.
Mr. Amidror said there had been occasional cases in the past of Palestinians who were arrested on suspicion of planning attacks and who said they did not carry them out because they had to think of their family, or cases in which family members tipped off the police to try to save the family home, but it was virtually impossible to say how many attacks never happened.
Nevertheless, he said, in the absence of prior intelligence, “The problem on the table is how to deter terrorists from taking their knife or pistol or whatever and killing Jews. They make the decision in the morning and kill in the afternoon.”
The sooner the sealing or demolition is carried out after the event, the better, he said, “then the connection between the action and the price is very clear.”
The Israeli military, which issues the demolition warrants, has had its own doubts. A military commission examining the practice in 2005 concluded that it bordered on illegality and illegitimacy. The army suspended demolitions for years. The policy was briefly resumed after a deadly attack in Jerusalem in 2008 and picked up again after another assault on a Jerusalem synagogue in 2014.
Many Palestinians say the demolitions not only fail to deter potential attackers but also feed the cycle of hatred and violence.
“These people, who haven’t been accused of any wrongdoing, are losing their homes,” said Dimitri Diliani, a spokesman for the Fatah Democratic Reform bloc, a Palestinian political faction that opposes the current Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.
Citing a definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, he said: “This is 100 percent applicable to the Israeli government, which has been committing this unjust crime against innocent people for years. It never deterred anything,” he said. “If anything, it’s an expression of hatred and racism. It creates more people who want to take revenge against Israel.”
The numbers of those victimized by the policy, he said, is now in the thousands.
Of the 75 houses completely or partly demolished since 2014, 67 of them were in the West Bank and eight in East Jerusalem, and a dozen have been totally or partly sealed, according to data provided by Mr. Shenhar of HaMoked. Only 10 demolition warrants have been canceled in that time, two after appeals to the army and eight by the Supreme Court.
The outcome of the court appeals depends mostly on the makeup of the panel of Supreme Court justices, Mr. Shenhar said, because they are split over the policy.
“You can ask what the motivation is of the families to go to court when the homes mostly get demolished anyway,” he said. “But they want to go, so we continue to petition, and again and again the Supreme Court has to contend with it and deal with the arguments.”
Patrick Kingsley, Hiba Yazbek, and Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.