Home demolition as vengeance

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year old Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and shot and killed 26 people, 20 children and 6 adults. Shortly after the massacre, Newtown authorities demolished the home of Peter Lanza, Adam’s father, leaving him and his other son homeless. Police explained the action as ‘a deterrent’ for future school shooters.

Apart from the school shooting by Adam Lanza, the story above is not all true. In the United States, authorities don’t demolish family homes of suspected mass-killers as a deterrent.

The absurdity of the fiction does, however, illustrate the exceptional cruelty of the Israeli policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinians who commit or are suspected of committing acts of violence against Israelis. Most recently, Israel demolished the family homes of the Jerusalem synagogue attackers as well as the home of the Palestinian who ran down two Israelis with his car last month and killed them.

Justice demands appropriate punishment for those who commit acts of violence, but Israel’s collective punishment through home demolitions has proven to be a failure. It fails to deter politically motivated crimes. It is also counterproductive because in its excess and arbitrariness it accelerates the cycle of violence and hatred.

As collective punishment, demolition is also a war crime under international law. Article 33 of The Geneva Convention, relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (the Fourth Geneva Convention), reads: “No persons may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed.”

The most recent demolitions come after an almost decade-long suspension of the practice by Israel due to doubts over its efficacy. Since 1967, and especially since 2002, Israel has justified home demolitions as a deterrent measure, meant to show would-be terrorists that attacks against Israeli targets carry a significant price. The reasoning is that attackers will think twice before committing their acts if they realize that their act will make their families homeless and ruin the lives of their loved ones.

During the second Intifada years of 2002 to 2005, B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, reported that 664 Palestinian homes were demolished in the Occupied Territories as punishment for alleged crimes, displacing some 4,182 innocent people.

Then in 2005, Israeli Army chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon appointed a committee to look into the efficacy of house demolitions. The committee recommended a moratorium on house demolitions, concluding that there was very little proof that house demolitions served as an effective deterrent to future terrorists. On the contrary, it concluded that the damage caused by demolitions outweighed any possible benefits. Whatever deterrent factor demolitions had, the committee reasoned, was significantly eclipsed by the level of hate and fury they created.

Home demolitions, like many others punitive measures, are reserved solely for the families of Palestinian terrorists. Not a single home of an Israeli terrorist has ever been demolished including most recently homes of the three Israeli teenagers who beat and burned to death Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir. The houses of the Palestinian terrorists who killed the three Jewish boys in West Bank a month earlier, however, were demolished.

In the case of Israeli terrorists, as Asher Schechter wrote recently on the Israeli news website Haaretz, “It was deemed cruel to punish innocent family members for a crime they didn’t commit.” He added, “Selective justice is not justice – it’s vengeance.”

Israeli peace activists apply the same argument to treatment of the families of suspected Palestinians. Jeff Halper, the founder of Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, wrote recently on the organization’s website that demolition bears “no relation to public policy intended to end the conflict.” Rather, Halper continues, it is “merely atavistic revenge.”

Why, then, if they have proven to be ineffective as a deterrent, has Israel reinstituted home demolitions as collective punishment? The answer can be found in the Netanyahu government’s need to look tough as it faces the Israeli public in upcoming elections.

In the 2013 Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary “The Gatekeepers,” six former leaders of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, are interviewed. In one scene, former Shin-Bet director Abraham Shalom Bendor describes home demolitions as a case of “no strategy, only tactics.”

Shalom Bendor is on point. Israel has reduced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a fight against terrorism instead of focusing on a political settlement that ends its occupation over the Palestinians. It can only be hoped that Israel’s current and future leaders will comprehend Abraham Shalom Bendor’s advice.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is a professor at Georgetown University. Ra’fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American commentator, writer and businessman.] 

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