The Demolition Drug: Does Destroying Terrorists’ Homes Work?

A large photograph on the front page of today’s Ha’aretz shows border police holding back a few dozen young Jewish right-wing extremists who wanted to march into the village of Jabel Mukaber. That’s the home town of the terrorist who murdered eight students at the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva a week and a half ago. The demonstrators were demanding that the army demolish the home where the terrorist’s family lives.

Immediately after the bloody attack, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak promised to check to see whether the army could legally demolish the terrorist’s house. The implication was that, if the lawyers okayed it, that’s what Barak would do.

During the decades of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, this was standard procedure. The claim was that demolishing a terrorist’s house had a deterrent effect on potential terrorists. If they knew that their whole family would suffer, they’d think twice about killing Jews.

The same logic was used to justify a whole host of lesser collective punishments meted out to the Palestinians. When I served in the West Bank as a reservist during the first Intifada, we forced Palestinians to black out nationalist graffiti, to climb up electric poles to take down Palestinian flags, and to dismantle jerrybuilt roadblocks made of boulders. No one claimed that the Palestinians we force to do these things were the ones who had painted the graffiti, put up the flags, or built the roadblocks. We knew for a fact that they hadn’t. But the argument was that if they had to do these things, they would make sure that such things didn’t happen in their neighborhood any more.

I saw no evidence at that time that this policy worked. As far as I could tell, such policies were based not on evidence. Rather, they satisfied two non-rational, emotional urges: to get back at the Palestinians for daring to oppose us, and to give the high army command something to report to the political leadership. We’re not sitting on our hands, we’re actually doing something about the uprising!

In fact, almost unnoticed, the army stopped demolishing terrorists’ houses about three years ago. No official reasons was given, but an article that appeared in Ha’aretz’s Hebrew edition on February 17, 2005 tells us why. The chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, received a report from a special committee that he had been set up to study the procedure. After examining the procedure empirically, it reached the conclusion (according to the news article—the report was never made public) that destroying the homes of terrorists causes more damage than benefit. In other words, it produces more terrorist attacks than it prevents.

Efrat Silber, a researcher whose PhD dissertation is an empirical study of home demolition and other procedures used by Israel to prevent terrorism, reached a similar conclusion. While she told me on the phone today that, as one might expect with such a complex subject, there is evidence that points both ways, the bottom line is that home demolitions don’t work. (I asked her for a copy of her dissertation and will write more about it in a future post.)

Now, if you read my previous post, “Getting the Treatment Right,” this will sound very familiar. Demolishing terrorists’ houses is the homeopathy of anti-terror strategy. Lots of people think it sounds great, and a lot of people believe it. But for years and years no one bothered to test it empirically to see if it really worked. And when someone did—first an army study commission and then an independent researcher—it turns out that, as intuitive as it might be, it’s quackery.

And that’s a shame. Quack medicine is a waste of money, and it can be dangerous if it keeps people from seeking and receiving effective conventional treatments. Quack anti-terror tactics waste resources and prevent the military and political leadership from seeking effective and evidence-based ways of fighting terrorism.

None of this will convince the fanatics who tried to march into Jabel Mukaber yesterday. They don’t want to fight terror effectively. They want revenge. I understand their anger, but they are deluded. They should get their heads checked by a qualified, and conventional, physician.

5 thoughts on “The Demolition Drug: Does Destroying Terrorists’ Homes Work?”

  1. I have no reason to doubt the study you cite, but there is more to the march to Jabel Mukaber. By putting up Hamas and Hizbullah flags and erecting a large mourning tent, the killer’s family was, for lack of a better term, “rubbing Israelis’ faces in it.” There was a feeling that the government was allowing this to go on. Such feelings have led to vigilantism throughout history (see San Francisco after the Gold Rush), so yesterday’s incident should come as no surprise. To have allayed these feelings, the government should have informed the killer’s family that a more modest mourning should be preformed. Furthermore, since Olmert was going to announce the Givat Zev homes anyway, he should have said that he was building 100 homes for each murder victim. The government was pretending that these feelings of anger didn’t exist, when instead, it should have addressed them in a way that would channel those feelings away from violence.

  2. I am certain that Olmert and Barak had no intention of knocking the house down. They said they were considering it, knowing that they could count on the Supreme Court to block it, just like the Supreme Court now intervenes in military operations.

    David Gleicher makes a good point above. The Left has enjoyed lording it over the Right for the last several years. They feel that since they control all the organs of coercion in the state (e.g. SHABAK, Supreme Court, Police, State Prosector’s Office) plus the electronic and print media, that the views of the right-wing public can be ignored. This was especially apparent during the destruction of Gush Katif, which Sharon was explicitly elected to office promising NOT to do. Thus, when he betrayed his promise and got a majority of the Likud MK’s to go along, the Left had its ultimate triumph…the annihilation of the political Right as a significant force in Israel politics.
    So now there are a very large number of people, including myself, who feel totally alienated and disenfranchised from political life in the country. The framers of the US Constitution felt that was a very dangerous situation, thus they demanded large majorities to enable amending the Constitution or pass foreign treaties. Here in Israel, democratic thinking never progressed very far and the founders of the state viewed Eastern European political models and the prototype for the state they wanted to build, and not the British/American view of democracy. One possible way of dealing with the anger is to use the police, courts and prisons for dealing with dissenters. However, that can be counter productive.
    So as long as the political Establishment in Israel views the suppression of the Right, including hamstringing its ability to govern when it wins by endless press attacks and frivolous police investigations of right-wing politicians merely to harrass them, anger is going to continue to build and it is unclear how it will manifest itself. This is a very dangerous situation, and those in control of the state and its institutions are the ones responsible for this situation due to their arrogance.

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