[better late than never] Israeli judge left High Court because it gave blank check to ‘illegal, immoral’ house demolitions

Yossi Gurvitz

Mondoweiss  / December 24, 2021

Former Israeli High Court of Justice, Judge Menachem Mazuz says he left the Court last year because he could no longer lend legitimacy to Palestinian house demolitions.

Menachem (Menni) Mazuz, a former judge on Israel’s highest court, told Haaretz Thursday (Hebrew) that he considers house demolitions to be illegal, immoral and ineffective; and that his frustration over the issue was a major reason for his leaving the court. He left the Court in late 2020, when he had at least five more years of tenure ahead of him (Israeli judges retire at the age of 70).

Mazuz, who is also a former attorney general, sat on several hearings regarding the demand of the IDF to demolish the houses of the families of Palestinian militants (the militants themselves have often been killed beforehand). In all cases, Mazuz accepted the petitions of the Palestinian families but, except in one case, he was always in the minority of three judges. On one occasion in 2020, he managed to convince another justice to accept his position, and so a house demolition was denied. This brought the wrath of then President of the Court, Esther Hayut – and Mazuz was never again assigned to a house demolition case.

Mazuz likened Israel’s house demolitions to the punitive barbarism of the Hammurabi code (an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth), implying that Israel’s house demolitions are anti-Jewish.

Mazuz was speaking of the use of Statute 119 for demolishing houses of “terrorists.” Not about the practice of the civil administration of demolishing houses for “building without a permit.” (I don’t imagine the Hight Court would even hold a hearing on that practice.)

Mazuz also demanded a hearing by all 11 High Court of Justice justices on the house demolition policy. But the Court’s presidents, Miryam Naor and Esther Hayut, refused to hold such a hearing. Mazuz based his request on the fact that case law was made in the 1960s and 1970s, and that international human rights law had advanced significantly since.

Israel has used the British Emergency Statutes of 1945 in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 1967, even though this legislation was deemed in the 1950s by Menachem Begin (future prime minister) as “worse than the Nazi legislation.” Begin was very familiar with it: He was the commander of Irgun, against which the British used the Statutes. Statute 119 permits the military commander, basically without any reservations, to demolish a house if he deems a hostile act of any sort was committed within it.

As attorney general back in 2005, Mazuz ordered a re-evaluation of the house demolition policy; he believed it illegal then, he says, but he had to contend with 40 years of HCJ rulings which considered it legal. The Court always accepted the IDF’s claim the demolition was essential for security. Mazuz’s committee found that in fact there is no reason to think so; that house demolitions often led to radicalization and hostile attacks. Under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the house demolition policy stopped – not because of the Court, but, as so often in Israel, because of the then attorney general, Mazuz, who refused to protect it in court. In 2009, however, Benjamin Netanyahu came to power, and the policy was re-activated – with the Court ignoring the findings of the 2005 committee.

In the interview, Mazuz says he sees house demolitions as collective punishment, and that “I thought house demolitions to be immoral, contrary to law, and that its effectiveness is questionable. I feel that this is done in order to appease the public, even as the leadership knows this won’t prevent the next terrorist attack.”

Such an attack by a former HCJ justice on the Court is unprecedented, and the next house demolition cases will bear close watching.

Yossi Gurvitz is a journalist and a blogger, and has covered the occupation extensively