by Laura King | Arab News | February 16, 2003
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM, 16 February 2003 — 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.
In the course of Israel’s bitter struggle with the Palestinians, knocking down or blowing up family homes is 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 raised such thorny questions of logic and legality.
In the past six months, Israeli troops have methodically destroyed the homes of more than 130 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 Israelis’ family homes or lie in ambush at lonely roadsides, and the array of planners and paymasters and weapons procurers who are behind each such attack.
When Israeli troops arrive to blow up a Palestinian house, the actual 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 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 – in a civilized state, that’s not how you deal with people.’’
On a cold, drizzly afternoon in east Jerusalem earlier this month, 75-year-old Moussa Abassi, rheumy-eyed and leaning hard on a polished wooden cane, looked on as a yellow earthmover knocked big chunks of concrete from a hillside home that had been in his family for three generations.
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 US citizens. Weeks after the younger Abassi was sentenced to multiple life terms in jail, 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 heavy 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 Intifada 29 months ago, Palestinian assailants have staged some 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 recent months 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 because of the threat of demolition.
“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 to be true.”
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. The about 130 demolitions that have taken place since then compared to 16 in the previous calendar year, according to B’Tselem.
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 via groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad claiming responsibility and naming the person they consider to be a martyr. It has become commonplace for homes to be summarily destroyed within days or even hours of an attack.
Increasingly common, too, are home demolitions that come in response to an attack that took place as many as six or seven years ago. In such cases, the families involved are usually caught by surprise, having concluded that such a long-delayed punishment was unlikely.
By tradition, Palestinians tend to live in compounds or buildings that house an extended family, so a single home 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 and other attacks.
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 an 8-month-old baby.
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 before the soldiers order them all outside for the last time. 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 to loss of life. But the uprising has left the Palestinian economy in shambles, and in many cases, the destruction of a home — almost always a Palestinian family’s sole asset — sends an already hard-pressed clan spiraling into catastrophic 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, too, will become a target.
If the families move into a rental, the owners are usually nervous. “Our landlord keeps saying, ‘I don’t want you to stay here — I don’t want the Israelis to come and knock down this house too,’ “ said Morad Moussa, 20, whose Beit Jala home was destroyed because of his brother’s status as a wanted Hamas man.
Home demolitions have resulted in injuries to family members and neighbors and even 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 of a wrecked, the army acknowledges.
Late last year, only eleventh-hour intervention by US diplomats prevented the razing of a Bethlehem home belonging a well-known peace activist.
In some cases, homes are spared by virtue of the close-packed, ramshackle construction that is typical of Palestinian refugee camps.
Israeli army engineers and explosives experts have several times surveyed the home of Ayat Akhras, an 18-year-old honor student who blew herself up at a suburban Jerusalem supermarket, killing a teenage Israeli girl. But troops have refrained from destroying it because other homes on three sides, sharing common walls, would likely collapse as well.
Like many Palestinian families who believe their homes are under threat, the Akhras family 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, with their lawyer having secured a temporary court order protecting their home and those of their neighbors, the family simply waits.
“Eventually, they will come back,” the family patriarch, Mohammed Akhras, said.
Inside Israel, there is virtually no public debate about the practice of home demolitions. Most Israelis, traumatized by months of suicide attacks, tacitly approve of whatever measures the authorities believe will help stop the bombings.
But some Israeli commentators have warned that demolitions — like a range of other practices considered by the government to be anti-terror measures, from strict military curfews to university closures to mass arrests — serve to intensify Palestinian fury and despair, giving rise to the very real threat of more attacks.
“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 and whose wife and child were left sheltering with relatives. “Do you think any one of them will look at what happened here and not want revenge?” (LAT-WP)