Israel’s demolition policy strikes hard

JERUSALEM— On almost any given day, somewhere in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, the ritual begins with Israeli soldiers knocking on the door. A Palestinian family snatches up a few possessions before being herded out into the predawn chill, then sappers painstakingly fit explosives to walls and foundations.

And with a puff of smoke, a groan of twisted metal and the crash of concrete, down comes the house.

Since the early days of Israel’s bitter struggle with the Palestinians, knocking down or blowing up family homes has been a familiar tactic, dating from the days of the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in the late 1980s.

But never before have home demolitions been carried out at such an intense pace, or in a manner that has raised such thorny questions of logic and legality. In the past six months, Israeli troops have methodically destroyed the homes of more than 150 Palestinians accused of having taken part in attacks against Israelis — bombers who board crowded buses and blow themselves and as many passengers as possible to pieces, gunmen who burst into Israeli families’ homes in Jewish settlements or border communities or lie in ambush at lonely roadsides, and the array of planners, paymasters and weapons procurers.

When Israeli troops arrive to blow up a Palestinian house, the perpetrators and their accomplices are no longer the target; they are already dead, or in jail, or on the run. Instead, home demolition is a form of retribution aimed solely at the families, whether or not they knew beforehand of the attack.

“Basically, you are penalizing people who didn’t do anything, and depriving them of even the minimal judicial process that had existed before,” said Yael Stein of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. “It’s so very wrong.”

On a cold, drizzly afternoon in East Jerusalem last month, 75-year-old Moussa Abassi, rheumy-eyed and leaning hard on a wooden cane, looked on as an earthmover knocked big chunks of concrete from a hillside home that had housed three generations of his family.

His grandson, Wissam Abassi, was convicted of helping carry out a string of bombings in Jerusalem, including an attack at Hebrew University that killed seven people, five of whom were U.S. citizens. Weeks after the younger Abassi was sentenced to multiple life terms, Israeli soldiers arrived to destroy the house where he had lived with his wife and 10-month-old daughter.

“I built that house 40 years ago,” said Moussa Abassi, raising a trembling voice over the din of machinery. “My grandson did what he did — why must his wife and child now suffer for it?”

Israeli authorities say the policy is justified if knocking down a house makes even one potential Palestinian suicide bomber think twice about the consequences his or her family will suffer.

“Demolishing terrorists’ houses sends a clear message to the terrorists and their accomplices that they will pay a price for their actions,” says the standard army statement that accompanies near-daily announcements of demolitions.

“We don’t have a lot of means at our disposal for fighting this horrible thing [suicide bombings],” said military spokesman Jacob Dallal. “What would be best is if there were a sentiment that arose from within Palestinian society, saying that suicide bombings are reprehensible, or at least not advisable. But we don’t see that happening. So we have tried to find a deterrent.”

Since the outbreak of the current intifada 29 months ago, Palestinian assailants have staged nearly 90 suicide attacks, killing and maiming hundreds in cafes and shopping malls, in pizzerias and ice cream parlors, on buses and street corners.

Suicide bombings have been the single largest cause of Israeli civilian deaths in the course of the fighting, a terrifying scourge that persists despite an overwhelming Israeli presence in the cities and towns of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials are particularly angered by payments made to the families of suicide bombers by various Palestinian groups and by Iraq, which gives $25,000 to bombers’ families — a fortune in the Palestinian territories. Home demolitions, Israel believes, can serve as a powerful counterweight to such rewards.

Palestinians, however, insist that bombers are driven by a belief in the divine righteousness of their cause, and that neither financial incentives nor the prospect of family hardship are of much importance to those who intend to carry out attacks. Leaders of militant groups scoff at Israeli claims that would-be bombers are changing their minds.

“Families are not asking their young men to refrain from fighting the Israeli occupation because they are afraid for their home — never,” said Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip. “Look around! We have far more volunteers [for suicide missions] than we can ever, ever use. The demolishing of homes cannot prevent that, and the Israelis know this.”

During the first year of the current conflict, home demolitions were a rarity. But as the pace of suicide bombings quickened, Israeli authorities sought and won legal authority to streamline the appeals process available to Palestinian families whose homes were marked for destruction.

In August, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that extraordinary security circumstances supported home demolitions that could be carried out more or less at the army’s discretion. Since then, more than 150 demolitions of militants’ homes have taken place, compared with just 16 in the preceding 12 months.

Separately, Israel routinely destroys structures it believes are being used by gunmen to mount ambushes, or that impede troops’ field of vision in an attack-prone area. In Rafah, at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces have demolished dozens of buildings that they say were used to conceal tunnels that run underneath the border with Egypt and are conduits for smuggled weapons.

Other structures in Palestinian towns — including, last month, the entire old shopping district in the West Bank village of Nazlat Issa consisting of dozens of market stalls — have been knocked down because Israel claims that they were constructed illegally.

Palestinian attackers’ identities are often known very soon after a bombing or shooting — either through swift investigations by Israel’s Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency or because groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad claim responsibility and name the person they consider to be a martyr. It has become commonplace for homes to be summarily destroyed within days or even hours after an attack.

Increasingly common, too, are home demolitions that come in response to an attack that took place up to six or seven years ago. In such cases, the families involved are usually caught by surprise.

By tradition, Palestinians tend to live in compounds or buildings that house an extended family, so a single demolition can result in dozens of people suddenly being homeless.

“I cried and begged them not to do this. I said, ‘See how many of us are here!’ ” said Jamila Moussa, 55, whose fugitive son, Ahlan, is accused of being a member of Hamas’ military wing and helping plan bombings.

In August, the army demolished the four-story family home in the West Bank village of Beit Jala. The family said 32 people lived there, among them 12 children, the youngest of them 8 months old.

Under usual practice, Israeli troops arrive in the middle of the night to tell a family the home is about to be knocked down. Adults then rush frantically to gather valuables and essential documents, trying at the same time to soothe crying children and assist elderly relatives.

There are no military regulations governing the amount of time the families are allowed to salvage their possessions before a house is blown up or bulldozed, so in many cases, furniture and other belongings disappear beneath the rubble. At the scene of almost every demolition, family members, including women, the elderly and small children, can be seen hours later, digging through chunks of concrete and twisted metal by hand.

With a near-constant drumbeat of deaths and injuries on both sides of the conflict, the loss of property seems insignificant compared with the loss of life. But the uprising has left the Palestinian economy a shambles, and in many cases, the destruction of a home sends an already hard-pressed clan spiraling into poverty.

Kinship ties, generally extremely close in Palestinian society, are strained when families are obliged by custom to take in relatives left homeless by a demolition. And the host families often worry that their homes will become a target.

Home demolitions have resulted in injuries to family members and neighbors and at least two deaths. The crushed bodies of a 70-year-old man and a 65-year-old woman were found in the rubble of separate demolitions, the army acknowledges. The army believes that they did not hear or disregarded orders to get out before the demolitions.

In some cases, homes are spared by virtue of the close-packed, ramshackle construction that is typical in Palestinian refugee camps.

Israeli army engineers and explosives experts have several times surveyed the home of Hayat Akhras, an 18-year-old honor student who blew herself up at a suburban Jerusalem supermarket, killing two Israelis, a teenage girl and a security guard. But troops have refrained from destroying the home because others on three sides, sharing common walls, would probably collapse as well.

Like many Palestinian families who believe their homes are under threat, the Akhrases at one point moved all their belongings out of the house and sought shelter with neighbors. For weeks, the men of the family would sit watch at night, drinking endless tiny cups of coffee.

Now, their lawyer having secured a temporary court order protecting their home and those of their neighbors, the family waits. “Eventually, they will come back,” the family patriarch, Mohammed Akhras, said.

In a bizarre twist, some Palestinian houses are being rendered useless by pumping in tons of concrete, sealing up the doors and windows.

Inside Israel, there is virtually no public debate about the demolitions. Most Israelis, traumatized by the suicide attacks, tacitly approve of whatever measures the authorities believe will help stop the bombings.

But some Israeli commentators have warned that demolitions serve to intensify Palestinian fury and despair, giving rise to more attacks. Palestinians say as much themselves.

“He has brothers, and cousins, and friends, and neighbors,” Moussa Abassi said of his jailed grandson, whose house in East Jerusalem was reduced to ruin. “Do you think any one of them will look at what happened here and not want revenge?”