Should Israel Destroy 'Terrorist's' House?

Angry Israeli right-wing protesters held signs reading "Destroy the house" in a demonstration this week outside the home of East Jerusalem Palestinian Hossam Dwayyat, who was shot dead after a deadly bulldozer rampage through a busy Jerusalem street last week.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak reportedly gave orders to the Israeli army to prepare to raze Dwayyat's house. However, final decisions won't be made until the end of the week, according to a Defense Ministry spokesman.

This case has sparked a hot debate in Israel over the morality and legality of house demolition, intended to both punish and deter further acts of violence. This once common policy was discontinued in 2005, when an Israeli military committee determined house demolitions were ineffective, and they were considered a public relations disaster by many.

Sarit Michaeli, spokesperson for B'Tselem, the Israeli information center for human rights in the occupied territories, opposes the demolition but can understand why some people favor them.

"In a way, it seems like a great idea," Michaeli told ABC News. "It would do something that satisfies a deep desire among many Israelis for revenge, to get over the anger, frustration and sorrow that many of us are feeling over this attack."

In this particular case, Hossam Dwayyat is not a typical "terrorist" figure. He operated alone in the bulldozer attack, without the support of any organization.

In a meeting held Monday by the Israeli Parliament's Internal Affairs Committee, a community leader from Dwayyat's village said that the attack was not nationalistic.

"It resulted from a malfunction in the head," Hassan Abu Asli said at the meeting. "This is a man that dealt with drugs, women and petty theft. He is not a man that would perpetrate ideological murder."

Yaron London, a widely respected anchor for Israeli news network Channel 10, said that the demolition doesn't punish Dwayyat, who is already dead. The impact of the demolition would rest on his family, and on the two other families whose houses are attached to his.

"According to the Holy Bible, you don't take revenge on the sons because of the sins of the fathers," London told ABC News. "This is a very ancient and just principle of Judaism and Christians. You just don't do it."

B'Tselem wrote a letter demanding the Israeli government not destroy the house.

"Punishing someone for the actions of someone they have no control over is not only immoral, but it is adopting the tactics of terrorist organizations themselves," Michaeli said. "This is what terrorist organizations do — they attack people for things they haven't done."

Shlomo Dror, spokesperson for the Defense Ministry, said that there is a strong possibility that the house demolition policy will be revived. "Now the issue is that we have attacks by terrorists from within Jerusalem," Dror told ABC News. "We see the possibility that we will see more acts of this kind if we do not take steps now to show that there are consequences for actions."

Concerns over Arab East Jerusalem have risen to the forefront since the attack. Haim Ramon, Israel's deputy prime minister, said last week that the security barrier dividing Israel from the territories in the West Bank should be changed to cut off the Arab areas in East Jerusalem as well.

There are about 250,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem. "They have identification cards and they can go freely through Jerusalem," Dror said. "So there is a lot of pressure on these people to do terror action. We're trying to tell them that the price they are going to pay is much more than they thought." Dror said that in the past, the threat of destroying the terrorist's house was one of the most effective deterrents.

"Some would-be terrorists decided not to perform the action in the end because they didn't want their house demolished," he said. "Sometimes, someone in the family would report that someone was about to do a terror action, because they didn't want someone in the family to get hurt."

This notion may work both ways. London said that these demolitions would increase the hostility and tension within a community. "Everyone can imagine the reaction of the children of this idiot or bigot when they will be adults," London said. "They will try to avenge the humiliation of the mothers and grandmothers."

The technical legality of house demolition is also an issue. According to the Geneva Convention, intended to protect noncombatants in occupied territories, any destruction of personal property belonging to private persons is prohibited except when absolutely necessary by military operations.

"The Israeli High Court does not accept this, but it is fair to say that the vast majority of legal scholars accept the position that the demolition of homes as punishment is expressly forbidden under international law," Michaeli said, noting that Israel's justification for home demolition instead rests on a legal stipulation remaining from the British mandate period in Israel.

London said that the situation in East Jerusalem is a question of Israel's sticking to its principles. "We say all the time that Jerusalem is Israel," he said. "Sur Baher [Dwayyat's village] is in Jerusalem, and therefore in Israel. So we have to behave according to Israeli laws and treat them as Israeli citizens."

Israeli's homes are not demolished in the same fashion, London said. "For instance, we didn't explode the house of Baruch Goldstein in Hebron [who killed 29 Muslims in 1994]," London said. "So according to our own laws, we cannot do it."

Shlomo Dror, the defense spokesman, disagreed. "From a legal point of view, we can do it," Dror said. "It's always the question of if it's right or not right. These are issues and we're checking them. It's not an easy decision."