How long does it take to demolish a house?

Gideon Levy


Adar1 12, 5765

At the end of last week, the defense minister and the army realized they had made a small mistake: It turns out that demolishing homes in the territories is not a deterrent, and might even do harm.

Acting on recommendations from a military committee headed by Major General Udi Shani that reached those astounding conclusions, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered an end to the punitive practice of house demolitions. The outgoing chief of staff should be praised for appointing the committee and the minister who adopted its recommendations, but they should also be told: Shame on you, you and all the chiefs of staff and generals who for decades were behind that mass destruction. Shame on the prime ministers and defense ministers who backed it up and shame on the heads of the Shin Bet who gave the precise orders, and shame on the High Court that rejected dozens of petitions against the demolitions, with disgustingly blind support for the defense establishment's position, and shame on the media that rarely reported on the demolitions and hardly ever criticized them.

They were all partners to one of the worst deeds ever committed by Israel, especially because of its enormous scope. According to B'Tselem, since the start of the current intifada, the IDF demolished 675 houses for punitive purposes; more than 4,000 people were left homeless. For each person who took part in a terror action, 12 innocent people were harmed.

Despite these numbers, the High Court, the watchtower of justice, stubbornly refused to define the demolitions as collective punishment. Over time, the criteria for the punishment were eased. From demolishing only the homes of suicide bombers, the criteria were loosened to the demolition of practically anyone suspected of terror.

To those, add the victims of "exposure," meaning razing away the houses and buildings by the sides of roads and near settlements and outposts to prevent sneak attacks. The committee did not deal with the results of those actions, but the dimensions should be known. According to UNRWA, as of last September, the IDF had demolished 2,370 houses in Gaza, leaving some 23,000 people homeless. According to B'Tselem, in 2004 alone, the IDF demolished 1,356 homes for "exposure" purposes, leaving 10,418 people homeless.

With such data it is difficult to make do with a recommendation to cease the criminal behavior and move on to the next item on the agenda. Will nobody pay for the army's years-long "mistake"? Shouldn't the victims be compensated?

Behind every demolished home there is a family whose life was destroyed. It is difficult to understand for those who have never seen a bulldozer pull down a house, nearly always with everything inside, including the memories and the mementos between its walls, in most cases in front of the children who are always innocent and will carry the trauma in their hearts for the rest of their lives. The army imposed this terrible and arbitrary punishment without giving those punished a reasonable chance for self-defense. According to B'Tselem, in 97 percent of the cases, the people being punished were not given enough time to petition the court.

Actually, it is not clear why the chief of staff asked Shani to examine the efficacy of the demolitions. All he had to do was read a B'Tselem report from September 1989, to reach the conclusions he did after 15 more years of destruction. It is also not clear why Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon made do with examining only the demolitions for the sake of punishment, and ignored the main reason for the house destruction of recent years, which the IDF conducts with intolerable ease in Rafah, Khan Yunis, Beit Hanun and Jenin. Morally, there is no difference: the main harm is to the innocent.

Morally, did we say? How typical that the Shani report only deals with the efficacy of the demolitions. Would it be an exaggeration to expect an IDF committee, headed by a general, to say something about morality? Is the only measure of any action its efficacy? But if that is the only measure to be examined, then note should be taken of the fact that the terror flourished in the rubble of the demolitions we left behind.

Much of the responsibility is the High Court of Justice's. In the first intifada, the court rejected 30 petitions against house demolitions. What will Justice Aharon Barak say now, after ruling more than once that the demolitions were meant "to deter people who upset the public order," (as in HCJ 126/38), after the army itself admits that it made a mistake? Will he continue giving automatic backing to the defense establishment? Will he find the courage to apologize?

How long does it take to demolish a house? asked S. Yizhar in Davar in 1988, when authors still asked piercing questions here. "Less than the amount of time it took to think about whether to demolish it. How long does it take to think about demolishing it? Less than the ringing of the telephone that ordered the demolition. One push and it is gone. A hole gapes open in the familiar surroundings, and the family that has substance and a name and an address and people of all ages and relationships suddenly turns into a fable: The punished - at night, nobody sees where the family that was demolished goes. Nobody knows what they are doing now. And where they now sit in some corner where uprooted people go with their belongings under empty, heavy skies. Is anything being written about them now in one little corner?"

The light suddenly revealed to the army about the demolitions does raise hope. Maybe, years from now, an IDF committee will come to the conclusion that the assassinations were not efficient and that practice will stop, another committee will decide that the checkpoints were ineffective, and they will be taken down.

But until then we will continue in our blindness, establishing committees that reach the correct conclusions, but always terribly late.