‘Deterrent destruction’: nothing is immune

A new report about Israel’s war on Gaza earlier this year has been published by Amnesty International today. It focuses on the deliberate destruction of civilian and government infrastructure, and on what it calls many of Gaza’s ‘landmark buildings’. The practice of targeting civilian infrastructure is not new – not here or elsewhere – but can be traced back to the Nakba of 1948 and the war of 1967, as Yishai Schwartz over at the New Republic shows:

Israel’s house demolitions policy has its origins in the time of the British mandate, the era after the First World War and the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, when Great Britain was made responsible for much of the Middle East. Amid growing unrest from local Arab and Jewish populations, the British authorities adopted harsh tactics as they tried to maintain control and order. Britain gave wide authority for local military commanders to confiscate and destroy “any house, structure or land… the inhabitants of which he is satisfied have committed… any offence against these Regulations involving violence.” In the decades following Israel’s 1967 seizure of the West Bank from Jordan, Israeli use of the tactic has been sporadic, spiking in periods of particular unrest.

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Since the start of the second intifada in 2000, however, both home demolition (see the tireless work of ICAHD and Derek Gregory’s commentary here) and the military targeting of civilian infrastructure has been ratcheted up and now – once again – constitutes a staple Israeli military policy. In the war of summer 2014 we saw old tactics developed in the early days of the intifada come into sharper focus, one of the more controversial being the destruction of ‘terrorists’ homes, even after they had already been imprisoned. The punitive logic is deterrence: destroy their homes and they’ll think twice about resisting occupation. The tactic works as follows, according to Yahoo News:

[a]n unspecified number of notices warning of impending house demolitions have been issued to Palestinian families in the West Bank, whose relatives had carried out the attacks. The military said that families have 48 hours to petition against the notices. Should they fail to do so — or should the petitions be rejected — the houses would become subject to immediate demolition.

The destroyed apartment of Abdel Rahman al-Shaloudy, a Palestinian who killed a baby with his car in October 2014. Source: NYT

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Of course, the key questions here are moral, but there are also legal and political issues raised by the retributive destruction of homes: are they legal? What do they achieve, if anything? Acts of retribution, even amidst a war, are illegal: all attacks must serve a defined military advantage and that advantage must be proportional to the destruction caused. It is partly for this reason that Israel temporarily halted the widespread practice of ‘deterrent destruction’ in 2005 following the publication of a commission report (Hebrew) that found that “it rarely worked as a deterrent and instead inflamed hostility.”

When Israel announced the renewal of the policy in November 2014, even the U.S. State Department followed suit in condemning the practice as ineffective, and spokesman Jeff Rathke criticized Israel for its irrationality: “This is a practice, I would remind, that the Israeli government itself discontinued in the past, recognizing its [negative] effect.”

But yesterday, Schwartz cites a new ‘study’ that “contradicts the widely held belief that demolitions don’t work”. The study, published by the Journal of Politics (not one I often read, I must say) in May 2014 claims to “empirically [document] the effects of house demolitions on future suicide attacks”. The focus is on the early days of the intifada and therefore constitutes “a longitudanal study”, according to the study. Here is the abstract and its pure Political Science with a capital P and S (I almost wrote BS):

This paper examines whether house demolitions are an effective counterterrorism tactic
against suicide terrorism. We link original longitudinal micro-level data on houses demolished by the Israeli Defense Forces with data on the universe of suicide attacks against Israeli targets. By
exploiting spatial and time variation in house demolitions and suicide attacks during the second
Palestinian uprising, we show that punitive house demolitions (those targeting Palestinian suicide
terrorists and terror operatives) cause an immediate, significant decrease in the number of suicide
attacks. In contrast, Palestinian fatalities do not have a consistent effect on suicide terror attacks,
while curfews and precautionary house demolitions (demolitions justified by the location of the
house but unrelated to the identity of the house’s owner) cause a significant increase in the number of suicide attacks. The results support the view that selective violence is an effective tool to combat
terrorist groups and that indiscriminate violence backfires.

But Palestinians have had to endure over 60 years of having their homes destroyed. Their resistance today – in the streets of the West Bank and across Gaza bear testimony to the fact that this policy has not and will not work. Now counterpose the formalism of the above with the following video by BTselem that shows what the damage and destruction of homes does to those who once lived there. This isn’t the post I set out to write and there is much more to be said on the histories and geographies of targeting civilian infrastructure…so more very soon.

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