Israel Destroys Homes to Deter Terrorists

It's been called both brilliant and desperate. A new policy by Israel's army started two weeks ago has already prompted five terrorists-to-be to turn themselves in to police.

Israel's Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a policy which allows the Israeli military to bulldoze the family homes of suspected terrorists. Since many of those targeted by Israeli army intelligence officers are teenagers still living at home with parents and siblings, the tactic has shifted the burden of the crime from the individual to the family.

But opponents question whether the policy is aimed at deterrence, or just destruction.

According to the Israeli Defense Forces, the policy has convinced five suspected terrorists to turn themselves into authorities. In each instance, the IDF said the suspect cited concern for his or her home.

"The demolition of the terrorists' houses and those of their dispatchers is designated to make the terrorists aware of the price of their actions, thus attempting to prevent additional terror attacks," according to an IDF statement.

Under the procedure, Israeli officials will notify a family that one of its members is being charged with aiding terrorist activity, and the family is then given the opportunity to surrender the accused. If handed over, one family member takes the fall and the others — along with their home — are spared.

If not, the Israeli government presents its case for demolition to the Supreme Court, where it must prove that the family knew of the terrorist plotting of the accused member. Families have the right to defend themselves in court. So far, 23 homes have been razed under the new law.

The U.S. State Department has criticized the Israeli government's initiative.

"Taking punitive actions against innocent people won't solve Israel's security problems," a State Department spokesman said at the time of the Israeli Supreme Court's decision last week to allow the procedure. Israel defends the practice by saying that the families knew of the terrorist plots, and were therefore party to the crimes.

Since the most recent intifada began in September 2000, more than 50 suicide bombings have targeted Israelis.

Unconventional Ideas?

The demolition of houses is just one of Israel's unconventional new policies they say they hope will end terrorist activity among Palestinians. At the same time, the IDF has also begun deporting the families of terrorists from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip.

And on Sunday, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered a temporary stop to an IDF practice called "the neighbor procedure." Under the prohibited procedure, Israeli soldiers would command Palestinian civilians to knock on the doors of homes of suspected terrorists and ask them to come out. Last week, a Palestinian teenager was shot and killed — though it remains unclear by whom — after IDF troops ordered him to retrieve a suspected terrorist in such a manner. Critics accused soldiers of using the teenager as a "human shield."

Both Israelis and Palestinians say it's too early to judge either policy's long-term merits.

One popular story circulating in the Israeli media — though unconfirmed by the IDF — described a Palestinian father who shot his would-be suicide bomber son in the leg rather than risk losing his home. The Israeli army also reports that some would-be bombers have turned themselves in, rather than being forced to do so by family.

But some Palestinians question whether Israel's has another motive for its policies.

Khalil Shikaki, director of the Center for Palestinian Research and Studies in Nablus, said destroying homes was just an eye-for-eye tactic to gain national support. Shikaki said the demolitions could be lumped with other acts carried out by the IDF — including the July 22 bombing of a Hamas leader's home, which killed 14 civilians — as ploys for popularity in Israel rather than some means to end the conflict.

"The basic rationale is revenge," Shikaki said. "The policy is aimed at the Israeli public to gain its acquiescence and support."

'So Much Hatred'

In Israel, officials and scholars say violence in the region has reached such a point that any effort to deter bombers — without infringing on their rights — was justifiable. The aim is to prevent terrorism before it happens rather than avenge it.

"There's so much hatred that you can't add much more," said Professor Efraim Inbar, of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel.

Inbar said the policy of destroying homes had been practiced by Israel's army for a half-century, so the Supreme Court's decision would only serve to provide families of accused terrorists with rights they didn't previously possess.

"There's nothing new under the sun," Inbar said. "This isn't a turning point, it's not changing anything."

Violence to Violence

Both Inbar and Shikaki said both the honorary and financial rewards paid to the families of suicide bombers remain an incentive to scoff at Israeli threats.

A majority of the bombers are Muslims, who believe that for their actions they will go to heaven as martyrs. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has promised to pay the bomber's family $25,000, though not every bomber's family has received money to date. The families of Palestinian gunmen or others who die fighting Israelis receive $10,000 from Saddam.

Charities based in Saudi Arabia and Qatar also donate money to the families of suicide bombers.

Though Israel says destroying homes promotes deterrence — and in at least fives cases, it has worked — Shikaki said it's too late to attempt low-level deterrence, and that destruction would only breed more destruction.

"The higher threat present does not lead to a lowered support for violence, it leads to an escalation," Shikaki said. "When it gets to talk of collective punishments, it only shows a bankruptcy of real ideas for peace."

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