Israel’s high court champions revenge against Palestinian families

A Palestinian from the Abu Jaber family sits on the ruins of the East Jerusalem family home that was punitively demolished by Israeli forces on 6 October 2015. A member of the family, Ghassan Abu Jaber, killed four worshippers in an attack on a synagogue last year.

Yotam Ronen

Israel is fast-tracking the demolition of homes belonging to the families of Palestinians accused of or involved in attacks on Israeli Jews.

These demolitions have long been condemned as illegal collective punishment — a war crime — against civilians under occupation. 

The measure is only used by Israel against Palestinians. Even in cases where Israelis are convicted of killing Palestinians — rare though such convictions are — their family homes are never demolished.

At an emergency security cabinet meeting Monday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tasked the justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, with finding ways to “legally expedite” the demolitions.

This step is but one of many draconian measures Israel has taken as part of Netanyahu’s “fight to the death against Palestinian terrorists,” which evolved from the “war” on stone-throwers the prime minister declared a few weeks ago.

The morning after the emergency meeting, Israeli forces blew up the homes of the families of Ghassan Abu Jamal and Muhammad Jaabis, both of whom are dead and suspected of carrying out separate fatal attacks on Israelis late last year. The men had been shot and killed on the spot.

More demolition orders have been recently issued against other Palestinian families. While Israeli legal proceedings were initiated months ago, the orders were issued apparently to appease the Israeli public’s anger after the killings of two Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank earlier this month and a stabbing in Jerusalem that killed an Israeli soldier and a West Bank settler last week.

Reports indicate the Israeli military may be preparing to demolish the homes of men it accuses carrying out the killing of the two settlers in the West Bank, even though the men Israel has detained have not received any sort of trial or due process. 

Champion of home demolitions

Shaked, the justice minister, notorious for her unbridled racism and calls for genocidal violence against Palestinians, has been a vocal critic of Israel’s high court. She views it as too soft on Palestinians. But she will likely find no resistance from the court to accomplish her new assignment.

Last summer, following the abduction and killing of three Israeli youths in the West Bank, Israel revived its practice of demolishing the homes of innocent family members of Palestinians accused of or involved in violent attacks against Israelis.

It had been almost entirely suspended for nine years.

Amnesty International has written to Netanyahu, calling on him to halt the demolitions, saying they are a clear form of collective punishment.   

A group of human rights organizations, headed by HaMoked, is urging the Israeli high court to end the practice, arguing that it is a grave violation of international law.

The Fourth Geneva Convention protecting civilians in times of war states that no one living under military occupation “may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed.”

It adds that “collective penalties” and “reprisals” against the population and their property are prohibited.

The United Nations Security Council, General Assembly, the International Commitee of the Red Cross and the International Court of Justice in The Hague, among others, have all affirmed repeatedly that Israel’s occupation is governed by the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Harming children

However, far from opposing these revenge tactics against families — including those with young children and elderly people — the Israeli high court has been its most consistent champion.

Indeed, the 2005 suspension came only after a military committee, formed in the face of international condemnation and internal pressure, concluded that punitive demolitions achieved the opposite of deterrence, its ostensible aim.

The committee warned that the Israeli army ”cannot tread the line of legality, let alone, the line of legitimacy [sic].”

But the court has backed the military every step of the way as it has repeatedly breached that line. And when Netanyahu moved to reintroduce the practice last year, the court predictably decided in his favor, citing decades of prior rulings in support of home demolitions as a legitimate form of deterrence.

“There is no dispute that [these] decisions would severely injure uninvolved parties, including young children,” the Israeli judges wrote, referring to the military’s decisions to demolish homes. Yet the court ruled that such decisions must be left to the discretion of military commanders.

Since it first ruled on the issue in 1979, the high court has repeatedly approved home demolitions, which were adopted from the repressive emergency regulations introduced by the British during the 1940s.

In 1994, it expanded their use, ruling that the state could demolish the former home of a dead man. And in 1996, the court allowed Israel to extend the practice to houses belonging to Palestinians within present-day Israel.

Aharon Barak, the reputedly liberal Israeli chief justice at the time, ruled that the emergency regulations “remain valid even when they conflict with the provisions of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” — the closest document Israel has to a bill of rights. Years later, however, Barak did question his position. 

The high court has always been most pliant in meeting the needs of Israeli politicians: during the second intifada of the early 2000s, the court allowed the military to deny Palestinians the right to a hearing before their home was demolished.

While the current reprisals against the Palestinians population are being implemented by the most far-right government in Israeli history, its most liberal institution long ago paved the way.


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