Israel's destruction of attackers' homes: 'Illegal, deplorable, counter-productive'

Jerusalem woke up on Tuesday to horrific images of slain Jewish worshipers, and scores injured in a terror attack on a synagogue. The assault which took place in the western Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof, shocked Israel to the core, as well as many others around the world. This is not surprising considering both the brutality of the attack and the fact it was carried out in a holy place, where innocent religious people were worshiping.

The two assailants, cousins from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabal Mukaber, were shot dead by the Israeli security forces. The incident in addition to the ongoing violence since the beginning of summer, left the city of Jerusalem more divided than for a long time.

The attack this week should have also sent a clear message to both leaderships that if they will not take measures to calm the situation down, further escalation and worse violence is around the corner. Regrettably, the Hamas praised the attack in Jerusalem and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the situation as the "Battle for Jerusalem."

He also accused the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas of involvement despite the latter's condemnation of the killing. Both sides are employing inflammable language, although it is hard to blame the Palestinian president for feeling angry considering Israeli behavior since the collapse of the peace process in April.

To make things worse, it emerged in recent days that Israel has also decided to return to a policy of demolishing houses of terrorists' families, even if they were killed during the attack.

The Israeli security establishment argues that this form of punishment serves as a deterrence for any other would-be assailants. Regardless of the fate they face, their families are going to pay a heavy price and will be left homeless.

In a society where three generations of one family might live under the same roof, one act harms quite a few people, from babies to the elderly. To prove the seriousness of their intentions, the Israeli security forces already demolished a home on Wednesday. The home in Silwan was that of the Palestinian who drove his car into a crowd last month, killing two people. He was killed in the attack. The Army also moved to demolish the houses of the two who carried out the killing at the synagogue in Jerusalem.

Ironically the policy of demolishing houses as a form of deterrence was abandoned back in 2005 at the request of the Israeli army. A report produced, following an investigation by the Israeli security establishment, found this action counter-productive.

There is actually evidence that house demolition led to a rise in the number of attacks. House demolition of Palestinian militants' houses is a form of collective punishment and an act of revenge, concealed behind a claim of deterrence. A similar "standard" was never applied to a Jewish terrorist. For instance when a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, slayed 29 Muslim worshipers in the Cave of Patriarchs, no one suggested to demolish his home as a deterrence.

According to the Israeli human rights organization B'tselem, in the height of the Second Intifada, between 2001-2005, 664 Palestinian homes were demolished in the occupied Palestinian territories as an apparent deterrence.

There is no evidence that the misery inflicted on thousands of innocent Palestinians enhanced Israeli security. It is worth remembering that the demolition of Palestinian houses in the West Bank also takes place for the purpose of expanding settlements, something which aggravates an already hostile population.

Arbitrary house demolitions represent not only a bad policy, but are also illegal and immoral. This is a clear violation of international law, more specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention, clearly prohibits forcing individuals and groups out of their homes within an occupied territory.

Any demolition of houses when there are no overwhelming military reasons is regarded as a grave breach of the Geneva Convention and could potentially lead to a war crime charge. And there is also, of course, a moral aspect. As deplorable as some of the acts committed by a few individuals, their punishment should not extend beyond their death or what the court decides.

Their families, as a result, suffered a loss too, for no fault of their own. To condemn them to destitution for an act that they did not commit is a moral travesty.

The decision by the Israelis to resume Palestinian house demolition following an attack on Jews in Israel is not a security decision but a political one, aimed to satisfy an angry public and extreme right-wing members of the current coalition. The Israeli coalition depends on satisfying their demands.

However, the lack of credibility of the deterrence argument, combined with the immorality and illegality of house demolitions should serve as an overwhelming reason not to resume this abysmal practice.

Yossi Mekelberg is Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent's University, London. He is an Associate Fellow of the MENA Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, and a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @Ymekelberg. The views expressed in this commentary are entirely his.

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