Hebron, occupied West Bank – Sobbing, Ghada Qawasmeh stares at her destroyed home, a two-story stone villa the family built over the course of nine years. The mother of seven is inconsolable, thinking of her husband, Hussam, who is now in an Israeli prison. “This is collective punishment,” she says. “What did I or my children do?”
Before dawn on Monday, Israeli troops destroyed the Qawasmeh family’s house in Hebron in the occupied West Bank.
Israeli officials said the demolition was carried out as punishment for Hussam Qawasmeh’s alleged involvement in the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli settler teens in June, and came after Israel’s supreme court affirmed the army’s position.
Last month, Israel accused three men of being behind the disappearance and subsequent death of the Israeli youths, who were hitchhiking from a Jewish settlement near Hebron: Hussam and Marwan Qawasmeh, and Amer Abu Eisha.
Abu Eisha’s family home was also demolished on Monday, while Marwan Qawasmeh’s was sealed off with cement.
“We are determined in bringing the ruthless murderers of Gilad, Eyal and Naftali to justice. The demolition of the terrorists’ homes conveys a clear message to terrorists and their accomplices that there is a personal price to pay when engaging in terror and carrying out attacks against Israelis,” said Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesperson, in a press statement.
While Marwan and Abu Eisha are in hiding, the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, said Hussam admitted to receiving funds for the operation from Hamas operatives in Gaza. But Hamas officials have denied any involvement, and so far, no evidence against the three men has been divulged.
Meanwhile, Amer Abu Eisha’s mother, Nadia, is more composed: this is the second time that her home has been demolished since 1995. Back then, a man wanted by the Israelis sought shelter in the building.
“We’ve spent more than 15 years building this house for us and our children,” Nadia said. “God knows what we’ve been through to do that. This is my life, my shelter. But they will demolish, and we will rebuild.”
Parts of the Abu Eisha and Qawasmeh’s homes were demolished last month.
Israeli rights group HaMoked urgently petitioned the Israeli supreme court in July against the demolition of the three men’s homes. On August 11, the court rejected the appeal, arguing that “the demolition of the houses was imperative to deter other terrorists from committing additional severe terrorist attacks”.
In this case, the court decided to support army claims “that the deterioration in the security situation justifies a return to the policy it had already invalidated”.
“The supreme court’s position has always been [that it’s] not competent enough in military affairs,” said Jeff Halper, the founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. “Almost always, when the army says it has to do something, the court says it can.”
For decades, the Israeli authorities have been demolishing the homes of Palestinians it accuses of carrying out attacks. But in 2005, they announced a halt to this practice, which human rights groups regularly condemned as an act of collective punishment.
Between 2001 and January 2005, Israeli forces demolished 664 homes as punishment, leaving more than 4,000 Palestinians homeless, according to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. In these cases, no evidence was required to prove that the alleged attacker’s family had any prior knowledge of his or her plans.
The demolitions are often carried out by armoured bulldozers within hours of the attack, and in the late night hours, without enough prior notice to allow families to salvage some of their belongings. In Ghada’s case, the Israeli State Attorney accepted HaMoked’s request to give her family 12 hours’ notice before her house was flattened.
According to Halper, house demolitions do not serve the army’s intended purpose. “They know it doesn’t deter,” he said. “What it does is it helps the Israeli people feel that they’ve been avenged. It’s basically collective punishment.”
Moshe Ya’alon, a former army chief of staff, was one of the first in Israel’s top echelon to question the practice. He formed a review committee in 2004, which found that home demolitions were harmful to Israel because they bred hatred among Palestinians.
Prior to that, Israeli authorities had maintained that in many cases, fear of home demolitions led families to turn in their relatives to Israeli or Palestinian authorities to stop them from carrying out attacks.
Punitive demolitions have so far only applied to Palestinians: the homes of three Israelis who are accused of murdering Mohammad Abu Khdair, a Palestinian teenager from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Shu’fat, remain intact. In July, two minors and an older man beat Abu Khdair and burned him alive, in apparent revenge for the death of the young Israelis.
During the search for the three missing Israelis, the Israeli army arrested approximately 1,000 Palestinians in a series of nightly raids.
“They won’t demolish the Israelis’ houses,” Halper said. “They will say it’s not a pattern. It’s a one-off thing, it’s a bad apple, it’s a crazy guy. And therefore since it’s an isolated event, it doesn’t warrant demolishing a house because there’s nothing preventative here.”
In the meantime, both Nadia and Ghada are still coming to terms with the levelling of their homes.
“I lost a son, I’m missing another,” said Nadia, who has six children, one of whom is dead, another at large, and a third in prison, along with his father. “The bricks are meaningless. I want my son and husband back. They are the ones that mean the world to me.”