JERUSALEM — On Oct. 13, Ala’a Abu Jamal, a Palestinian Israeli employed by Israel’s national telephone company, rammed his company car into a Jerusalem bus stop, got out and stabbed to death a 60-year-old rabbi. Abu Jamal was shot dead at the scene.
A week earlier, Israeli military forces blew up the home of Abu Jamal’s neighbor and cousin, Ghassan, who, with another relative, had attacked a Jerusalem synagogue in November 2014, killing six Israelis.
Abu Jamal, a 33-year-old father of three, tried to stop the soldiers from destroying his cousin’s home but instead was beaten and humiliated, said his father, Daoud.
“They broke his ribs and bruised him badly,” he said. “He took sick leave from work and that was when he decided to carry out the attack.”
Abu Jamal’s explanation for his son’s violent act challenges a recently revived Israeli government policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinian assailants to deter future attacks.
More than three months of violent assaults by Palestinians against Israelis show no signs of abating. Twenty-four Israelis have been killed; more than 140 Palestinians have been killed carrying out attacks or were shot by Israeli forces during clashes.
Now, Israel appears to be stepping up its punitive response by fast-tracking the demolition of homes where the attackers lived. In the past two weeks, three Palestinian homes in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank have been destroyed by the military. Many more have been measured for future demolition or their occupants served with demolition orders.
“Home demolitions are not something that we want to do, but we are trying to save innocent people’s lives and stop the terror,” said Israel’s public security minister, Gilad Erdan. “We believe in human rights, but in every democracy you have to find a balance between those freedoms and the biggest freedom, which is staying alive.”
As a member of the security cabinet, Erdan said Israel strongly believes the measure is working well as a deterrent.
The extended Abu Jamal family lives in the crowded East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber, where many of the stone homes are connected and hug a mountainside overlooking Jerusalem. Each new generation has built a dwelling atop of the previous one.
At the highest point are the remains of Ghassan’s home. The force of the Oct. 6 explosion also destroyed the house of his older brother, Muawiya, and damaged adjacent properties as well.
A narrow passageway leads to the home of a cousin, Uday, who was also involved in the synagogue attack. Uday’s home, where he lived with his parents, still stands but has been “sealed,” which means filled with cement from the floor up to the light fixtures. It’s now just a hunk of concrete.
Ala’a Abu Jamal’s home is a few levels down from the others. On Jan. 4, it was also sealed.
“Demolishing homes is one of the most immoral policies conducted by the Israeli occupation,” Saeb Erekat, the Palestine Liberation Organization secretary general, said in a statement last month.
He called it “systematic collective punishment of our people.”
“It really does not matter whether this is an effective deterrent or not. It does not change the fact that it’s illegal under international law to punish people who did not commit a crime,” said Sari Bashi of Human Rights Watch, which has been monitoring the uptick in demolitions.
Demolishing the homes of Palestinians involved in attacks against Israelis was common during the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israel. However, the effectiveness of the policy as a counterterrorism tool was fiercely debated, and in 2005 a military panel found its efficacy questionable.
Few homes were demolished between then and 2014, when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank. Then Israel destroyed the homes of two perpetrators, members of the militant Islamist group Hamas.
Since October, at least seven Palestinian homes have been demolished. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem estimates that about 20 people, mostly women and children, have been left homeless.
Shaul Bartal, a retired major who served in the West Bank, said the situation for Palestinians is different from how it was 10 years ago.
“Back then, the Palestinian Authority was in a stronger financial position, and almost as soon as the homes were destroyed, the families would receive compensation to rebuild,” Bartal said.
Now, he said, the homes are unlikely to be rebuilt, making people think twice about leaving their families homeless.
Additionally, Israeli media outlets have reported that relatives of at least two attackers have turned them over to the Israeli authorities, hoping it would save their homes.
“They say there is a study that proves it is working, but we have never seen it,” said Dalia Kerstein, executive director of Hamoked, an Israeli non-governmental organization that helps Palestinians fight demolitions legally.
Kerstein regularly appears in Israel’s Supreme Court to argue against the demolition orders. These days, however, she is rarely successful. Security arguments almost always win.
“In court they say this is a deterrence, but everywhere else in the world they would just call it revenge,” she said.
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.