As Israel pushes punitive demolitions, family of 13-year-old Palestinian attacker to lose its home

Isabel DeBre

AP  /  August 31, 2023

JERUSALEM – With the walls stripped bare and furniture dismantled, the east Jerusalem apartment is a far cry from the vividly-hued haven it was in early February, when members of the Zalabani family played cards on the cobalt couch and feasted on stewed chicken with richly spiced rice.

That February dinner — a day before 13-year-old Mohammed Zalabani boarded a bus at an Israeli army checkpoint in the Shuafat refugee camp and lunged at an Israeli police officer with a kitchen knife — was the last time the Palestinian family gathered in their home that will soon be blown up. Last week, Israel’s Supreme Court dismissed the family’s appeal and decided to destroy the new, third-floor apartment where they’ve lived for almost three years.

Demolition crews arrived Thursday to inform the family the explosion would take place within days.

The family’s case — which rights groups describe as uniquely problematic from a legal prospective — has drawn attention to Israel’s controversial practice of demolishing the family homes of Palestinian assailants. As violence surges in east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, Israel’s far-right government is more aggressively pursuing the policy. The government defends the practice as a deterrent against attacks.

“This is no solution,” said Mohammed’s mother, Fida Zalabani, her eyes wet as she recalled the effort that went into decorating a house that Israeli security forces ransacked and boarded up, drilling holes into the walls for explosives. “All my children, an entire community, will witness this and not forget it.”

On Feb. 13, two weeks after seeing Israeli police mistakenly shoot and kill his teenage friend for brandishing what turned out to be a fake gun, Mohammed tried to stab an Israeli police officer before being wrestled to the floor. A private guard protecting the officer fired toward the young assailant but accidentally hit and killed his own colleague.

Mohammed remains in juvenile detention, awaiting trial on murder charges.

Rights watchdogs — like legal aid group HaMoked, which filed the petition on behalf of the Zalabanis — describe such demolitions as collective punishment, leaving uninvolved parents, siblings and spouses homeless. The Zalabanis, a family of seven, have temporarily rented a cramped basement apartment.

“Home demolitions intentionally harm innocent people in the hopes that they deter other people from committing attacks,” said Jessica Montell, HaMoked’s director. “This is what makes them so blatantly illegal and immoral.”

Condemned by Western governments and the United Nations, the tactic also has sown divisions in the Israeli establishment, with some generals and judicial officials expressing concern that rather than containing attacks, the tactic may have the opposite effect.

The recent rise in fighting has sharpened scrutiny of Israel’s logic of deterrence, as the stepped-up demolitions and deadly military raids into Palestinian towns have failed to stop the wave of attacks.

“When Palestinians see that we destroy houses, their level of fear and frustration and hatred increases,” said Ami Ayalon, former director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service. “Those are the reasons that people join terrorist organizations.”

The practice is based on regulations imposed by the British Mandate in 1945, which authorized commanders to destroy insurgents’ homes. Israel made use of it after capturing east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war. During the first and second Palestinian uprisings, Israel demolished hundreds of homes belonging to militants. Some security officials credit the demolitions — among other harsh tactics — with curbing attacks.

Yaakov Amidror, former national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, described cases in which Palestinian fathers turned in their sons to prevent them from carrying out attacks that would have resulted in Israel’s demolition of their homes. “It is not a silver bullet to stop terrorism,” he said. “It helps.”

But in 2005, the Israeli army itself recommended a halt to such demolitions after a military panel determined the policy had no effect beyond inflaming hostility. Udi Shani, the now retired general who headed the army panel, said they couldn’t find a single case of deterrence.

“It caused revenge,” he said. “It was merely a way for us to look aggressive in the public eye.”

After almost a decade in which the army hardly blew up any homes, the punitive measure was resumed in 2014 during a spate of attacks in Jerusalem. The revival stirred a new debate over the policy’s effectiveness, legitimacy and legality.

“I consider home demolitions to be immoral,” Menachem Mazuz, a former attorney general and retired Supreme Court justice, recently told the Israeli daily Haaretz. “History will not judge us well.”

Now Netanyahu’s government — whose supporters accuse the previous government of weakness in the face of increased Palestinian attacks — have vowed to accelerate the demolitions. “We want to send a clear message of deterrence,” said hard-line National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has been convicted in the past of incitement and support for a terrorist group.

In the first half of 2023, Israeli forces demolished a dozen homes for punitive reasons, leaving nearly 60 Palestinians homeless, according to Israeli rights group B’Tselem — the highest number in seven years.

“It’s a security measure,” the Israeli military said. “It’s not a punishment tool.”

In an unprecedented move, Ben-Gvir ordered the immediate sealing of two homes belonging to assailants’ families before homeowners could appeal. For the past decade, the military has given advance notice of its intention to seal a home.

“They surrounded our house and we grabbed whatever we could carry before I understood what was happening,” said Jamal al-Qam, the uncle of a Palestinian gunman who killed seven people in east Jerusalem last February.

Last week’s decision on the Zalabani case marks the latest escalation under Netanyahu’s government, HaMoked said.

Israel has never before destroyed the family home of an assailant so young, it said, and in the past applied the policy selectively to those accused of perpetuating more serious attacks. Israeli authorities determined the police officer died due to the bullet fired by his colleague, not a stab wound. Further complicating the case, the demolition also affects an unwitting landlord, as the Zalabanis are still paying off their loan on the home.

The outcome of court appeals depends on the makeup of Supreme Court justices who remain divided over the tactic, Montell said, and typically rule based on whether they determine families had prior knowledge of the attack. Rewatching footage of her son bursting with youthful exuberance as he pranced on a soccer field, Fida Zalabani refuses to believe he tried to kill anyone.

The latest ruling comes as justices face intensified pressure from Netanyahu’s government, which includes ultranationalist Jewish settler leaders. The government is plowing ahead with contentious plans to weaken a Supreme Court that it has branded as liberal and overly interventionist.

As the High Court prepares to face off with the government over its own fate, justices have increasingly taken into account right-wing frustration and privileged state interests when it comes to the Palestinians, legal experts say.

“Because everything is so political now, the court is trying to avoid clashing with the government,” said David Kretzmer, expert in international law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “(Justices) are on the firing line, attacked by a government of settlers.”