RAMALLAH -- The Army trucks pulled up just after lunch one day this month. Several dozen soldiers cordoned off the area while others entered the stately stone house. Some sealed off the five second-floor rooms, nailing sheet metal across doorways and windows. Others went to the third floor where they drilled holes and inserted plastic explosives.
Three hours later, the hammering and drilling stopped. Ramzi Jaber, who had lived here for 45 years, his wife, two sons, two daughters-in-law and three grandchildren were ordered to the street outside where they stood mutely.
The silence was shattered by a loud thunderclap. A great cloud of brownish gray smoke engulfed the top of the house, then lifted to reveal the crushed third story, its rubble raining down on the yard below. The soldiers packed up their gear and left.
The Jaber house was the 23rd this year to be demolished or sealed, either fully or partly, by Israeli soldiers in retaliation for Palestinian terrorist attacks. It was singled out because Nader Jaber, 28, Ramzi's son, is suspected by the authorities of participating in the bloodiest attack in Israel in the past five years -- the December 1983 bombing of a Jerusalem bus that killed six Jewish civilians, including two sisters, 11 and 13, and wounded 41 others.
Of all the punishments that Israel's military authorities can mete out against suspected terrorists in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, house demolitions are perhaps the most controversial and in many ways the most personal -- affecting not only a suspect but often his parents, wife and children as well.
Yet they are increasing. The Jaber house was the 126th to be demolished or sealed since 1985, according to Law in the Service of Man, a Palestinian rights monitoring group based here. By contrast, in the early l980s there were less than a dozen a year.
As in many such cases, Nader Jaber, a Fulbright scholar who studied engineering in the United States, was never arrested, questioned, tried or convicted of a crime. Israeli authorities say he fled the United States in late 1986 when he learned that Israel planned to seek his extradition. He did not own the house, and his family says he has not lived there since 1983.
The Israelis contend Nader fled the country after the bus massacre, but he actually left for a master's program at Vanderbilt University two years later, according to a knowledgeable source. He left on a travel document issued by Israel after passing a routine security check, the source said.
Critics contend house demolitions violate the Geneva Convention's bans against destruction of civilian property and collective punishment. They also accuse Israel of violating its own standards of due legal process because the penalty is ordered by a military administrator, not by a court, and is usually carried out before a suspect is tried or convicted.
Finally, many critics claim that such actions amount to a double standard of justice because no suspected Jewish terrorist has ever had his house destroyed, a fact that former defense minister Moshe Arens once conceded made him uneasy.
Nonetheless, officials justify house demolitions as the swiftest and most dramatic method of retaliating against terrorist attacks and of perhaps deterring future ones, and they have been upheld by Israel's Supreme Court.
"We do it only on very, very hard cases where blood was involved and we do it very carefully," said Yoni Siegel, spokesman for the occupation authorities. "We know that the United States especially doesn't approve, but we think that this is another way to make people understand that terrorism is not the way."
But Nahida Jaber, Nader's mother, surveying the damage this month, asked, "Is this democracy when before you try a person, before you even arrest him, you destroy a house? When they do this thing, how do they expect us to react? It can only lead to more hatred and more violence. This is not the way to solve our problem."
The Jaber house is located on a quiet block near downtown Ramallah, a predominantly Christian Arab city 15 miles north of Jerusalem. The house was built by Ramzi Jaber's father, a prominent local businessman, and Ramzi remembers carrying floor tiles inside as a small boy.
He married Nahida in 1953 and they have lived here since, raising a daughter and four sons -- three of them civil engineers -- and presiding over a large, boisterous clan.
Nader Jaber is the second-oldest and his family says he was an A student who took a job in a laboratory at Bir Zeit University here -- a center of Palestinian nationalist fervor -- after getting a bachelor of science degree from San Francisco State.
"Until now, we don't believe he was involved in anything," said Nahida. "He never talked politics. He always studied, he was very bright and very quiet. I am sorry he has lost his future."
Nader was due home for Christmas last year, his mother said, but last fall the police arrested a young Palestinian who apparently implicated Nader as his partner in the bus attack. Nader then vanished, and Israeli soldiers began coming to the three-story house and asking questions about where he had slept and when he had left. Ramzi Jaber then got a lawyer to petition the Supreme Court for an injunction to prevent demolition.
After a spate of bad publicity in the late 1970s, the authorities had cut down dramatically on practices such as detention without trial, deportations and house demolitions. But in 1985 the number of terrorist incidents nearly doubled and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, although a leader of the more dovish Labor Alignment, cracked down.
Israel justifies the demolitions under a British emergency regulation. The regulation was imposed in 1945, when Britain administered Palestine, and Israeli authorities say they inherited it from the period of Jordanian rule, from 1948 to 1967. It purportedly permits a military commander to destroy the property of anyone he suspects of involvement in a violent offense.
The British say, however, that the regulation was withdrawn when they left Palestine in 1948 and Jordanian officials say it was never applied by them during the 19 years of Jordanian rule. But Israel's high court has upheld its validity.
In a ruling last year, the court said house demolitions could have a deterrent effect because a prospective terrorist "should know that his criminal acts will not only hurt him, but are apt to cause great suffering to his family." It reaffirmed that ruling last month in the Jaber case, a decision that left the family bitter.
After making several trips to Nader's old room on the third floor, the soldiers, three weeks ago, ordered the family to remove all its possessions from the top two stories. The next day they returned to blow them up.
While they drilled and pounded upstairs, the family sat downstairs, defiantly drinking coffee and staring numbly at each other. Then they were ordered outside.
"We were angry, we were boiling inside," said Nahida. "But if they wanted us to feel punished or broken, we didn't. They had hurt us, but they did not frighten us."
After the explosion, neighbors slipped through the Army roadblocks and gathered around the family. Then everyone walked slowly back to the house.
"The whole neighborhood was there," recalls Joost Hiltermann, a staff worker with Law in the Service of Man. "Children started laughing. It may have been a deterrent for the parents, but for the children in the neighborhood, the ones who grow up to do this kind of thing, it obviously had just the opposite effect."
In the spacious downstairs of the Jaber home now, there is a double bed in the lounge room where the parents sleep, along with a crib for one of the grandchildren. There is a double bed in the dining room and another in what was the breakfast room. When another son and daughter-in-law and two grandchildren from Saudi Arabia visit this summer, someone will sleep on the floor, said Nadia Jaber.
As the soldiers were leaving, the Jabers noted that the explosive charge had been too strong. It was supposed to demolish only the top story, but is also blew the top off the second floor and sent rubble crashing down into the stairwell, making it impossible to use. The blast also severed water pipes and the telephone line. The fire department quickly restored water and electricity.
The soldiers were apologetic. They said there would be compensation if Ramzi Jaber would make application at the local military headquarters.
But none of the family will go there. "We're not going to deal with them," says Nahida.
"If they come and offer compensation, fine, we'll accept, but we won't beg them for it. It's not the house. The hell with this pile of rocks. It's what they do to us."