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Israel's Demolition Policy Strikes Hard

Tactic aims to punish families of suicide bombers and deter such attacks. Rights groups, Palestinians question its legality and logic.

February 13, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

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."

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