Shahaf Rabi
Former Founding Director of ICSTK

To Demolish, or Not to Demolish, That’s the Question

Sunday morning, September 16, 2018, a father fought with his son as the teenager refused to go to school. After he was beaten by his father, the enraged kid ran away. When the parents realized that their son was neither at home nor at school, the father informed the Palestinian Authority security forces. Sometime afterwards, the mother went to the nearby Meitar checkpoint, and informed the soldiers that her son intended to carry out an attack. It was several minutes after the mother had visited the checkpoint when her son, Khalil Jabarin, stabbed Ari Fuld in the back. As a result, Fuld died. Consequently, Israeli security forces raided the Jabarin family house (Yatta, near Hebron, West Bank) on Monday before dawn. I was neither surprised to hear about the raid nor about Khalil’s family members being interrogated. However, I could not help questioning the logic behind the mapping and measuring of their house – preparations made in order to demolish it. Why would it be in Israel’s interest to demolish the house in this case when there is no doubt that these parents tried to warn security forces about the attack? In this short piece I briefly relate to the history and goals of the house-demolition policy, the complex and controversial debate surrounding this policy, and finally, I explain why I believe that in this particular case the Jabarin family house should not be demolished.

Easily traced back to 1967, the house-demolition policy was just one counter-terrorism instrument out of several in Israel’s toolbox. Its activation was always in response to an attack or an activity that an individual took part in, and as a result, the property in which the individual resided in was marked for destruction. As such, once Israel identified a Palestinian who conducted an attack, the house in which the Palestinian lived in – whether the terrorist died or remained alive after the attack, whether the terrorist was or wasn’t the owner of the structure (i.e. lived in parents’ house) – was at risk of demolition. Goal-oriented like any other counter-terrorism policy, it was to combat – reduce – terrorism. This policy primarily relied on deterrence in order to fulfill its purpose.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict truly intensified once the second Intifada broke, and so did, in accordance with the policy, the number of demolished houses. However, as the second Intifada died down in 2005, Israel made the decision to terminate the policy. This decision was, at least partially, a result of the IDF’s house-demolition policy inquiry commission, headed by then Aluf Udi Shani. The commission’s main conclusions were that the policy was of dubious legal basis, being perceived as illegitimate, and perhaps most importantly, it was quite questionable whether it was effective – whether it actually deterred and decreased terrorism. So Israel stopped implementing the policy for three years. Albeit, in 2008, it was decided to resume the house-demolition policy. At times it was implemented religiously, other times less, yet Israel continues to assert its right to carry out this policy, as it does nowadays.

The house-demolition policy received a great deal of media and scholarship attention, examination and criticism. Many of the aspects were covered comprehensively (e.g. legal, ethical). But in this piece, I believe it would be sufficient to touch base on the aspect/question of effectiveness. This too is disputed, and frankly, unlikely to be resolved any time soon. In spite of the fact that it is of utmost importance to determine whether the policy is effective, it is quite a conundrum to do. Truly impressive and comprehensive researches appear to be scarce. However, these researches help clarify the goal of the policy as well as the means by which the policy seeks to achieve it.

Reviewing ample sources (state official, media and scholarship), it becomes unequivocal that there are two main means through which the implementation of the policy seeks to reduce acts of terrorism: (1) Deterrence, which is considered the primary one, and (2) Prevention. The two seem very similar, yet different.

The focus is usually on deterrence. Israel expects to deter terrorist organizations in a variety of ways. On the organizational level, for example, the destruction of the terrorists’ and/or their family’s house requires the organizations to allocate resources – particularly money – to rebuilding the house which Israel destroyed in response to the attack. It is reasonable to assume terrorist organizations prefer to invest money on other stuff, such as, but not limited to, weaponry. Certainly, Israel prefers that they spend their money on rebuilding houses than other options.

This deterrence, however, is also directed at the individual Palestinians involved in terrorist activity. That is, the groups’ operatives and Palestinians not-affiliated with any organization. But how does one conduct a research to examine if, for example, the policy deters Palestinians from joining the group? Or if it deters members of the group from taking a more direct and specific role – esp. in a particular operation? This poses quite a challenge even if one had access to the intelligence community’s classified information. As interesting and quite equally complex to examine, is the question whether the policy deters Palestinians not-affiliated with any organization to serve as what is often referred to as “aides.” That is, such as taxi drivers who’d refuse to drive a terrorist because they’d fear the ISA’s post-attack investigation would discovery them, and as a result, their house would be demolished too.

The way I see it, this is more or less where the discussion over deterrence meets prevention. Different people arrive to different conclusions when they have to determine whether the house-demolition policy is effective or not. I believe this is also due to the fact that researches focus on deterrence, usually neglecting prevention. So for as long as it is unclear if the policy deters, how about a more tangible examination of prevention? That is, the actual prevention of an attack. The intelligence community, particularly the ISA, invest immense efforts to get the information needed to foil every possible attack. We ought to evaluate if, and how much, the policy of house-demolition influences Palestinians to provide Israel with the information needed in order to thwart an attack because they do not want their house to be demolished. It could be that same Palestinian taxi driver who is scared to death to refuse to drive a terrorist, but once able, whether before, during, or right after the drive, reports to the Israeli security forces information about the attack. And this could, just as well, be a father requesting the P.A. security forces to locate his son and a mother informing IDF soldiers at a checkpoint of her son’s plans. Israel’s intelligence services prove time and time again that they truly excel in acquiring information from within terrorist organizations, even when plans are made within quite tiny and isolated terrorist cells. But this is a whole different ball game to acquire this information when it comes to the “lone wolf” attacks.

Therefore, what is it that Israel expects to achieve if it would demolish the Jabarin family house? What message would it convey the next time that some Palestinian would face the dilemma of participating or even “just” reporting of a future attack? Why would he or she bother if their home would be destroyed anyway? Why risk a backlash from the community they live in? This is why I believe Israel should not demolish the Jabarin family house. It’d be against the logic of the house-demolition policy, and would decrease, instead of increase, the odds that some other Palestinian in the future would decide to provide Israel with the information it lacks in order to prevent the death of another Israeli.

[links to relevant sources: #1; #2; #3; #4; #5]

About the Author
Shahaf Rabi is the former Founding Director of the Israeli Center for the Study of Targeted Killings, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He runs the Security Studies Review ( Reflecting his research interests, topics often written about include: future of warfare, targeted killing, innovation of armed organizations, and more.
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