Zak Witus: Israel’s punitive home demolitions

Monday, April 11, 2016 - 3:38pm

“So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? … Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ ” — Genesis 19:22-25 

One person should not be punished for the acts committed by another. Most people, regardless of whether they abide by the moral codes of the Abrahamic religions, probably agree with this basic moral principle and therefore exclude collective punishment from their conceptions of justice.

Unfortunately, the Jewish state, the Judge of all between the Jordan and the Sea, has regularly imposed collective punishment on the Palestinians. We could cite many examples, from the killing of more than 50 inhabitants of the Palestinian village of Qibya in October 1953 to the two major Israeli assaults on Gaza since my Bar Mitzvah, in 2008 and 2014. But the example that I want to highlight here is Israel’s policy of punitive home demolitions, whereby the Israeli military, the Israeli Defense Forces, demolishes the homes of Palestinians suspected of crimes against Israelis.

The IDF began demolishing Palestinian homes as punishment in 1967, when Israel first occupied the West Bank and Gaza. By the outbreak of the first intifada (i.e., Palestinian uprising) in December 1987, the IDF had demolished almost 1,400 housing units. During the first intifada, Israel increased the rate of punitive home demolition, destroying 431 housing units as punishment in just four years.

From October 2001 to November 2004, during the second intifada, also known as the al-Aqsa intifada, Israel demolished 628 housing units. These 628 units were demolished because of the acts of 333 Palestinians, but they were the homes of almost 4,000 people. Roughly half of the homes demolished were never home to a Palestinian suspected of attacks against Israelis. According to the Israeli human rights non-governmental organization B’Tselem, in only 3 percent of cases did the IDF give the occupants prior notification before demolishing their homes.

To its credit, the IDF temporarily stopped demolishing homes as punishment in 2005 after an Israeli government report found that it rarely worked as a deterrent for terrorism — the avowed purpose of the program — and instead only further inflamed hostility. However, the memory of its own governmental report apparently faded, as in 2009 the IDF sealed two housing units and demolished another in East Jerusalem, causing 28 people to lose their homes.

Since the summer of 2014, after three yeshiva students were abducted and killed, the Israeli government officially decided to re-implement the ineffective policy. In July 2014, the IDF demolished the homes of two Hamas men suspected of carrying out the attacks, leaving eight people homeless, including four children. By year’s end, the IDF had demolished four homes, leaving 27 people homeless, including 13 minors. In 2015, 11 apartments were demolished by official order, rendering an additional 14 nearby apartments uninhabitable, leaving 85 people homeless, including 43 minors. Since last October, the IDF has demolished and fully or partially sealed 36 homes.

Just last week, the IDF demolished four families’ homes, punishing 28 people, including six minors, for the actions of three Palestinians, who were already dead at the time of the demolitions.

Please pause to reflect on these numbers.

How does Israel justify its return to this policy? In November 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed to demolish the homes of more families of east Jerusalem attackers. He said, “We have nothing against the residents of eastern Jerusalem, but we will not tolerate attacks on our citizens and we will act against those who do these things and against those engaged in incitement … With a determined and vigorous hand, we will restore security to Jerusalem.”

That same week, the IDF released this statement: “The destruction of terrorists’ homes sends a sharp, clear message to those who wish to harm Israeli civilians and security forces, that terrorism and causing harm to innocents carries with it a heavy price.”

A moment’s reflection reveals how these justifications are totally bankrupt. Rarely do these home demolitions amount to acting directly against those who attack Israelis, because typically the assailants aren’t living in the homes at the time of demolition, as Netanyahu is no doubt well aware. Furthermore, home demolition itself, the “heavy price” imposed by the IDF for terrorism and causing harm to innocents, amounts to terrorism and causing harm to innocents. Hence Israel cannot pretend to hold the moral high ground over Palestinians terrorists when it, too, engages in terrorism and harms innocents.

Aside from transgressing conventional morality, Israel’s policy of punitive home demolition violates international law (see here, under the headings “war crime,” “collective punishment” and “denying the right to due process” for further discussion). The United States, for our part, supports Israel as it runs afoul of international law, to the tune of billions of dollars in annual aid. So long as the United States continues to support Israel, you and I, insofar as we pay our taxes, bear personal responsibility for these illegal and immoral punitive home demolitions.

Lastly, a personal note: As a Jew, I am acutely aware of how anti-Semitic regimes throughout history — in Czarist Russia, Nazi Germany and elsewhere — denied my people our right to housing, and so I believe it is a moral imperative to speak out when this right is denied to others, especially by the Jewish state.

During our Passover seders in a few weeks, we Jews will both celebrate the Israelites’ liberation and our current freedom as well as observe how today people throughout the world still live in slavery and oppression. It has been my understanding throughout my Jewish upbringing that, as Jews, we are meant to feel others’ oppression as our oppression, since we, too, know what it is like to have been slaves, to be forced from our homes in Russia, in Germany, Poland and elsewhere.

Perhaps one might argue that it is not our duty, Americans and Jews alike, to eradicate oppression from the world. Very well, but let us at least not participate in it. Let us, the Jews, not repeat the crimes of our historic oppressors by denying the Palestinians their right to housing, among so many other rights that Israel denies them. We should demand that the government of Israel immediately cease demolishing homes as punishment. In 1953, following the Qibya massacre, the United States temporarily suspended all economic aid to Israel in order to express its disapproval. The United States should do so again now until Israel agrees to end its policy of harming the innocent for the crimes of the wicked.

Zak Witus can be reached at zakwitus@umich.edu