HEBRON, West Bank — Said Kawasmeh received the order from Israel’s military last week. His two-story house was to be demolished, and his large family had 48 hours to leave.
The reason: Kawasmeh’s son is a key suspect in the brutal kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers whose fates helped reignite the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The son, Marwan, has disappeared. So Israel has zeroed in on his family.
“I built this house, and I own it,” lamented Kawasmeh, seated on a chair in his empty house. Outside, the family’s possessions lay in boxes and shopping bags, or scattered on the ground. “Why do they want to punish me?”
As Israel pummels Hamas’s infrastructure inside Gaza, it is also trying to prevent attacks originating from the West Bank and Israel — by obliterating the houses of the relatives of Palestinians who allegedly have harmed Israelis. In doing so, Israel’s military has returned to a controversial policy of punitive demolitions that has displaced thousands of Palestinians over the years.
The policy — different from Israel’s ongoing practice of destroying Palestinian structures it claims are unauthorized or built without valid permits — had been abandoned nine years ago because the military deemed it an ineffective deterrent against the Palestinian militancy.
Since the policy was reintroduced last month, the family house of a Palestinian charged in the shooting death of an Israeli civilian has been demolished. Now, the houses of Kawasmeh and two other suspects in the slayings of the Israeli youths are on the list. On behalf of the families, human rights lawyers have appealed to the Israeli military to stop the demolitions. They also plan to petition Israel’s highest court if necessary. But the activists said that they do not expect to succeed and that the houses will probably be demolished as early as this week.
“Regardless of the situation, it is morally outrageous to punish individuals or families for the action of others, [people] who have not been involved in any kind of lawbreaking,” said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group. “In a nutshell, it is an official policy of harming the innocent.”
Israeli government officials say Palestinian militants are considered heroes by their communities, which shower them and their families with money and other forms of financial support. Such encouragement helps perpetuate a cycle of militancy, the officials say.
“The defense community, the government and intelligence communities all believe that using demolitions can serve as a deterrent that can balance somewhat these inducements,” said a senior Israeli government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. “It levels the playing field.”
The renewal of punitive house demolitions comes at a time when Israelis feel extremely vulnerable to attacks by Palestinian militants. Hamas militants are firing rockets at Israeli towns and infiltrating Israel through tunnels, even as Israeli forces are fighting the militants in Gaza and battering the strip with airstrikes.
Between 2001 and 2005, Israel’s military demolished 664 houses belonging to suspected Palestinian militants and their families, according to B’Tselem. The policy was abandoned in 2005 after the military determined that the demolitions bred resentment and inspired fresh recruits, helping fuel the Palestinian insurgency.
The order to destroy the Kawasmeh home comes as the government is facing pressure from Israelis to bring the killers of the three Israeli youths to justice.
Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Natftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar, both 16, were kidnapped June 12 while hitchhiking home from their religious schools in the West Bank. After an 18-day search, they were found in a field in the occupied territory, shot to death.
Israel accused Hamas of orchestrating the killing. Israeli troops cracked down hard on the militant group in the West Bank; Hamas responded by escalating rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.
Hours after the teens’ bodies were found, Israeli troops arrived in Hebron and stormed into the homes of Marwan Kawasmeh and a nearby neighbor, Amer Abu Aysha. The soldiers used explosives to destroy a portion of both houses, and they arrested relatives. Both men, whom Israel alleges are Hamas operatives and the primary suspects, had been missing since the teenagers disappeared. A third suspect, who allegedly played a minor role, is in Israeli custody.
Two days after the bodies were found, on July 2, a Palestinian teenager was abducted in Jerusalem and beaten to death in apparent revenge. Although Israel later arrested and indicted three Israelis on charges of murder, the slaying fanned the tensions. On July 8, Israel launched an operation in Gaza.
Last week, female relatives and children sat inside the Abu Aysha home. The Israelis had arrested the male relatives. The house was already empty and partially destroyed by Israeli soldiers. On the second floor, the blue sky was visible through a gaping hole carved by explosives. Cracks scarred the ceilings and egg-yellow walls. Windows were shattered.
Outside, the Palestinian Red Crescent had erected a tent for the family to sleep in.
Relatives said Amer Abu Aysha is a 32-year-old blacksmith, married with three small boys. They denied that he was a member of Hamas and insisted that they had not heard from him. They believe the Israelis kidnapped him and Kawasmeh and framed them for the deaths of the Israeli teens to have an excuse to attack Hamas and weaken it in the West Bank.
“Nobody has convicted Amer,” said Muhammed Abu Aysha, his uncle, who was visiting the home. “Even if he was convicted, the people who live in this house had nothing to do with it. Why should they have to pay the price?”
“The three Israelis who killed the Palestinian kid, are their houses going to be destroyed?” he asked.
At the Kawasmehs’ house, relatives said Marwan, 29, was a barber. His mother denied he was a Hamas member.
The Israeli government official said that often a suspect’s relatives “are not innocent civilians.” In this case, members of both families are believed to have strong ties to Hamas, said Moussa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher in Hebron for B’Tselem, arguing that Israel “wants to satisfy the Israeli settlers and Israeli public” with the demolitions.
Around Hebron, long-standing tensions between Palestinians and Israeli settlers have deepened during the past five weeks. Israelis here said they are convinced that Kawasmeh and Abu Aysha are guilty.
“I don’t think it’s enough punishment,” said Jakov Dvash, 18, referring to the demolitions. “In America, people get the death penalty for lesser crimes. They murdered three children, God sake.”
A few steps away, a Palestinian named Muhammed painted pottery in his shop. “They haven’t done anything,” said Muhammed, who out of fear refused to give his full name. “Until now, who says this? Only the Israelis. Until now, there is no proof.”
Other Palestinians warned that demolitions would only help breed more resentment against Israel and potentially mean more recruits for Hamas.
“They are creating a whole generation filled with hatred by doing this,” said Muhammed Abu Aysha. “If you ask me if there will be peace, I don’t think so.”
Ruth Eglash and Sufian Taha contributed to this report.