Punitive house demolitions as “deterrence”

Palestinians inspect the house of a Palestinian fighter after it was demolished by Israeli troops during a military operation in the West Bank town of Sedia near Tulkarem, March 2008. (Mouid Ashqar/MaanImages)

By the time we arrived in Sur Bahir, a Palestinian village near Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on the afternoon of 7 April, it was calm. At the entrance to the village, in a small traffic circle where three olive trees were planted, there were rocks all over the road, the only sign of what had happened suddenly earlier that day. Everything was all over, but the grief and the anger.

At 6am, some 2,000 Israeli border police and special forces and other personnel descended on the village to demolish a wing of a house that belonged to the family of a Palestinian construction worker who allegedly went on a rampage while operating a bulldozer last July.

Three Israelis were killed and dozens injured before the bulldozer driver, Husam Taysir Dwayat, was stopped when he was shot by passers-by. He was then finished off by a special elite mobile unit of trained sharp-shooters who ride around Jerusalem on black motorcycles with red military license plates, wearing black helmets and black jackets, and carrying black weapons slung across their chests and shoulders.

There was little hesitation by Israeli officials, journalists and society at large before they asserted that this had been a terror attack. It was not thought for a moment that it might have been an accident, or a mistake gone badly wrong. There was a later suggestion that the driver was drug-dependent and was having sudden withdrawal symptoms, but that was not reported in the mainstream media. According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition, “lawyers for the Dwayat family argued that he was suffering from a mental illness.”

Meanwhile, the family of the driver has maintained that Dwayat was innocent and that he did not intend to attack. Nevertheless, there were immediate calls for the demolition of Dwayat’s family home, which was carried out last week.

Punitive house demolitions

Hundreds of Palestinian homes, many belonging to families of Palestinians accused by Israel of “terrorism,” were demolished in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) during the first and second Palestinian intifadas.

But in 2005, an Israeli army panel headed by Major General Udi Shani reported that punitive demolitions had no deterrent effect that would prevent any future “terror” attacks. The Shani panel “unequivocally recommended putting an end to the demolition of homes in the territories [and] the chief of staff and the defense minister both fully endorsed and adopted the recommendation,” according to an article published in the Israeli daily Haaretz last July.

Then, last year, after a series of what were labeled as attacks perpetrated by Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak both backed the calls for punitive demolition of the homes of the alleged attackers’ family members. Olmert also supported demands by right-wing groups that the surviving family members of the alleged attackers be deprived of all social benefits. There have also been calls for the deportation or exile of alleged attackers’ family members.

Before the first bulldozer incident in July of last year, a Palestinian taxi driver from the Jebal Mukaber neighborhood near Sur Bahir went into a prominent West Jerusalem religious seminary that belonged to the national religious settler movement, the Mercaz Ha Rav, and apparently began shooting at random before being killed by two armed bystanders. The Palestinian gunman and eight students died. The home of the Palestinian gunman’s family was reportedly recently partly sealed, for punitive reasons — but not demolished. It is not clear why the procedure was different, but one media report suggested that one reason was because part of the building was rented out to a “foreigner.”

Immediately after the attack on the seminary, the family house of a fugitive Palestinian fighter was demolished in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. About a week later, an Israeli assassination squad killed the fugitive and three of his friends while they were sitting in a car outside a bakery in Bethlehem.

Orna Kohn, senior attorney at the Haifa-based Adalah organization, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said in an interview last year that house confiscation or demolition “is not supposed to be used as a punishment, but only as a preventive measure,” according to Article 119 of the 1945 British Mandatory regulations that are still being used by Israeli authorities.

Because the Shani committee had reported in 2005 “that house demolition is not effective, because it is not really working as a preventive measure,” Kohn said, “it would be difficult for the military to say now it is destroying a house as a preventive measure after their own experts said it does not prevent anything.”

Purely punitive demolitions, done as retaliation or punishment, are now formally justified by the newly reinstated doctrine of “deterrence.”

Other demolitions

Punitive demolition is very different from house demolition for “administrative” or “judicial” reasons based on bureaucratic irregularities such as lack of a permit, or exceeding the terms and conditions of an issued permit, though the net effect is also punitive. There was, for example, a house demolition in the Burj al-Laqlaq quarter, overlooking the Dome of the Rock, in the Old City of East Jerusalem on 6 April. The Israeli authorities claimed the home was demolished for lack of a building permit — though the family had applied for a permit twice.

In a miserable irony, the Old City demolition was carried out so precipitously that the family did not have time to destroy their building themselves — a contractor had already been hired for this purpose, in order to save money, because it would cost less than the fees that Israeli authorities will bill for their demolitions. Ir Amim, a Jerusalem-based organization that works “for an equitable and stable Jerusalem with an agreed political future,” has written in its “Layman’s Guide to Home Demolitions” that “the authorities approach the violator and say: ‘Demolish your own home or we will do it for you, which will be much more damaging and much more expensive.’ Of the 85 demolitions carried out by the Jerusalem Municipality in 2008, 27 were ‘voluntary.’”

Also on 6 April, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), an Israeli newspaper reported that the Jerusalem municipality has asked the Municipal Tender Committee to approve the hiring of a company specializing in demolishing buildings by means of controlled explosions, where it is difficult to do so by bulldozers, “because of technical limitations or a lack of time.”

According to ICAHD, “house demolitions are clearly a case of collective punishment, which is illegal under international law, in particular Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949).”

In the year 2000, Ir Amim reported, there were only nine house demolitions in East Jerusalem — after “then-Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek announced that he would refrain from most demolitions in East Jerusalem, saying in effect that it was not right to punish people for building illegally when they were not permitted to build legally.” However, Ir Amim says, “there are in excess of 1,500 outstanding judicial demolition orders that have been issued but not yet executed … these orders never expire, and tens of thousands of residents in East Jerusalem live in perpetual fear that they may awake to the sound of bulldozers on any given morning. Consequently … every demolition understandably evokes widespread fear throughout East Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem’s new mayor, Nir Barakat, has vowed to carry out home demolition orders vigorously, under the guise of implementing the “rule of law.”

According to B’Tselem, some 688 Palestinian houses were demolished in East Jerusalem alone between 1999 and 2008, the majority by the Jerusalem municipality, the rest by the Israeli Ministry of Interior. At least another 207 Palestinian homes were destroyed in East Jerusalem between 1988 and 1998 — and three years of data are missing for that decade.

Thousands of Palestinian homes have also been demolished in Gaza, although Israel claims this in most cases this was done for reasons of “military necessity.” In addition, 4,000 buildings were destroyed (and tens of thousands damaged) in various operations before and after Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza, including during the recent invasion.

The Jerusalem Post recently reported that the Israeli army was very pleased with the performance of unmanned D-9 bulldozers that were used in the Gaza Strip during the closing days of the Gaza invasion. D-9s are huge machines built by the Caterpillar Corporation and then armored by Israeli Military Industries. It was reported in 2003 that work was beginning on the development of a version that can be operated unmanned by remote control — but their use has never previously been confirmed and an Israeli army spokesperson stated to this reporter that “its general policy is not to discuss the type of weapons we used.”

During her recent visit to the region, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was widely quoted as saying that demolition and eviction orders were “unhelpful.” But she was speaking about pending demolition and eviction orders issued against hundreds of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem — 88 in the Silwan neighborhood alone, just outside the walls of the Old City in East Jerusalem, to make way for what one Israeli lawyer who defends Palestinian rights called a “Jewish theme park.”

Punitive demolition then killing

The house that was punitively destroyed last week in Sur Bahir is at the end of a road in the village, with a magnificent panoramic view across the hilly countryside covered with greenery and spring flowers, and Palestinian villages and Jewish settlements. By the time we got there on the day of the demolition, boys and young men were standing in a group outside in the sun. Inside a part of the house that was still intact, women were sitting in sympathy with the dead bulldozer driver’s distressed mother, whose face was red and swollen from weeping.

The demolition order was handed down 30 days prior to the demolition, but the family said they had no advance notice that the order would be carried out the day it was enforced. They were in the process of appealing the order in court, on the grounds that it would be collective punishment affecting innocent people. Reportedly, some 14 people live there.

The border police had, that morning, forcibly moved out some family members living in the part of the structure marked for demolition. Dwayat’s mother fainted in the process. His father was handcuffed and restrained. The soldiers and police entered every room in the entire building and overturned chairs and emptied cupboards, cabinets and armoires. The contents were still strewn on the floor, and a child was searching for his shoes.

A birdcage was perched in the spring sunshine, at the very top edge of the demolished part of the structure, overlooking the destroyed building and the panoramic view. A small bird was moving around inside the cage, and singing. Other birds, flying free in the mild spring air, were also singing.

“It is the most precious, wonderful, esteemed bird,” said Dwayat’s father, Taysir, of the bird in the cage. “It is Husam’s bird.” Suddenly, the frozen defiance in his face melted, and his eyes filled with tears. He struggled to regain composure.

The door to the damaged part of the family home is shut with a welded iron bar, and a big sign with words in red letters — printed in Hebrew and hand-written in Arabic — warned against entry because the premises were uninhabitable.

Dwayat’s father said that he was told that he is not allowed to remove the rubble, even though he fears that water will collect amidst the debris, and damage the remaining part of the house. “They told us it is now under the control of the State of Israel,” he said. He also said that he feared he would be billed for the costs of the demolition, which is apparently the current Israeli practice. “We had two lawyers working on our appeal, and neither of them is worth a damn,” he said bitterly.

He vowed that the entire family was prepared to move into a tent, and that they would fight the Israeli occupation.

On our way out of the village, we stopped in the traffic circle where the rocks still dotted the street. One man who had been near the scene that morning showed us the blood of 20-year-old motorist Iyad Azmi Uweisat still visible on the white stone in the center, beneath the olive tree, where he died after being shot around 10am. It was apparently shortly after the house demolition took place a couple hundred meters away.

“There were about 30 soldiers there,” said 46-year-old Mahmoud al-Toon, known as Abu al-Zeddine. The soldiers had apparently set up a checkpoint for “security procedures.” But, the witness said, some of the Israeli soldiers were sitting in the circle, others were sitting on a wall across the street, and they were eating. Suddenly, there was a deafening outburst of Israeli shooting. “They were all shooting at once,” al-Toon said, and the young Palestinian driver was killed. It was the first shooting death, ever, in the village, he said, commenting that it was briefly like a war zone.

Al-Toon also volunteered that the Israeli soldiers picked up all the bullets or bullet casings that were strewn about the roads around the traffic circle — but they did not pick up the garbage from their picnic. The New York Times, quoting the Israeli police, said that only one of the border police officers fired — whereas al-Toon said that many soldiers were firing at once. Haaretz reported that “The driver’s body was laid out on the street under a white plastic sheet. The windshield of his white Seat car was shattered by about 20 bullet holes.” The brother of the driver repeated what al-Toon had also explained earlier — the driver’s body had been stripped of all its clothes, and was left lying on the road for two and a half hours. Al-Toon and the brother of the slain man both insisted that no robot was used to remove the clothes — as is the case when there is suspicion that a suicide bomber may still have explosives on the body. In this case, the soldiers apparently did not feel there was any such threat.

The police said that the driver was shot while attempting to run over the Israeli soldiers and that three of them were injured in the attack. Witnesses in the village disputed the assertion.

Uweisat’s father said later that he had been told that his son’s body was taken for autopsy to Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in south Tel Aviv.

The body of Uweisat was returned to his family for burial by the Israeli authorities a week later, on 14 April. Reportedly, only 15 people were allowed to be present at the burial in the pre-dawn hours.

Marian Houk is a journalist currently working in Jerusalem with experience at the United Nations and in the region. This article originally appeared in an earlier form on her blog, www.un-truth.com.