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Middle East Unrest

Israel Begins Controversial Demolitions of Palestinian Suspects’ Homes

Palestinians stand on the remnants of the house of Hussam Kawasma, one of three Palestinians identified by Israel as suspects in the killing of three Israeli teenagers, after it was demolished by the Israeli army in the West Bank city of Hebron, on Aug. 18. Nasser Shiyoukhi / AP file

JERUSALEM — Rocked by a wave of attacks by Palestinians, Israel has turned to a solution it abandoned a decade ago after it decided it rarely worked as a deterrent and instead inflamed hostilities. It is demolishing the homes of families of men accused of killing and plotting against Israelis.

The effort began this week with a razing of a poor neighborhood near the Old City of Jerusalem. The home belonged to a Palestinian man who rammed his van into a train stop and killed a woman and baby.

The rubble that was the Shaloudy house hasn't been touched since. A crushed car remains outside and resentment festers. "Netanyahu can't stop these operations by demolishing homes," said Talaat, one family member. "He is pouring fuel on the fire."

Nearby, Ibrahim Hijazi takes the last of his possessions from the home where he lived all his life. His son Muataz, a 32-year-old former Palestinian prisoner, was shot dead by Israeli troops on the roof of the house three weeks ago. They suspected him of trying to assassinate the far-right U.S.-born Rabbi Yehuda Glick.

Hijazi lost his son and now he must lose his house. His lawyer calls to tell him his appeal to Israel's High Court to stop the demolition has failed and it will happen in the next few days. Hijazi, along with his remaining two sons and daughter, have almost demolished their house anyway, tearing out precious tiles and usable doors, stripping it of everything valuable.

"This is collective punishment," he said, speaking from a rooftop still pockmarked by the bullets that killed his son. "I lost a valuable son. Do you think I will be sad if they demolish my house? No. But it will achieve nothing. There is no justice for Palestinians in Israel."

The government has ordered the destruction of five more homes connected to recent attacks. It insists that this is a necessary and legal deterrent. The Prime Minister's spokesman Mark Regev said it will deter "a culture of support within Palestinian society" and noted that the practice is carried out through the courts, with families able to object and appeal. But such appeals rarely succeed.

Critics say the practice is not only ineffective, but illegal. Collective punishment is banned by international law, and one Israeli Human Rights organization, B'Tselem, argues it is both illegal and immoral. "It's deliberate and political," said spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli, describing it as "a policy for harming the innocent."

Abir Ziad, a Palestinian human rights activist said house demolitions "won't change people and won't stop the violence. " He added: "When people see homes being demolished and a legal system that allows 20 years in jail for throwing stones, they lose faith in justice and turn to violence because they have nothing to lose."

She points out that the families of Jews who kill Palestinians, like Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Muslims inside a mosque in Hebron in 1994, suffer no consequences, no house demolitions by Israeli authorities. "It's an apartheid system," she said, referring to the South African government's decades-long policy of racial discrimination against blacks.

The homes of the Israeli men who killed and burned a Palestinian teenager earlier this year remain intact.

This week the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz asked: "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?" The newspaper suggested the tactic was "nothing but empty revenge."

House demolition was a tactic last used during the second Palestinian Intifada (or uprising) to deter suicide terrorists by punishing those they left behind. More than 600 homes were bulldozed in the five years up to 2005, according to B'Tselem. But an Israeli army-appointed committee that year decided there was little proof that it deterred terrorism and that whatever discouragement it caused was outweighed by the hate and fury it created.

If the Israeli army has accepted the practice is an ineffective tool, the obvious question is why is it being revived? It could be that the government is struggling to do anything to stop individual, seemingly random attacks against Israelis, so it is reaching, in desperation, for a policy that satisfies political and emotional demands.

Smashing Palestinian homes to pieces looks tough; the government can say it is doing something. Benjamin Netanyahu promised harsh revenge for the killings of Jews and demolishing houses is a start.

But it has merely earned Israel more global condemnation at a time when the world's sympathies might be with a nation whose citizens are hacked to death at prayer and mown down waiting for trains. Five European countries told Israel Thursday that the demolitions are "counterproductive" and liable to inflame tensions. Israel rejected the European appeal to stop the bulldozing. "It is not meant to be punitive, but rather to dissuade others from carrying out terrorist attacks," said its Foreign Ministry Spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.

The proof of the policy's effectiveness will perhaps be measured by the number of attacks in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, Hijazi is on the phone trying to find a place where he can live before the bulldozers and the explosives experts come to raze his house to the ground.