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Rare Israeli ruling against practice of demolishing homes of Palestinians accused of violence

Protesters in Tel Aviv lift placards during a demonstration against a court decision blocking the military’s plans to demolish the home of a Palestinian man accused of killing an Israeli soldier on Aug. 16. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — An Israeli court decision last week stopping the military from demolishing the family home of a Palestinian man accused of killing a soldier represents a rare intervention against a policy that is widely popular in Israel but sharply criticized abroad.

The man, Nazmi Abu Bakr, is accused of dropping a block on an Israeli army unit from the roof of his third-floor apartment during a predawn clash in his village in the occupied West Bank.

A three-judge panel of Israel’s Supreme Court ruled it would be “disproportional” to displace the accused man’s wife and eight children, who were apparently asleep and unaware of the unfolding events.

The move was hailed by human rights activists who said it showed an emerging discomfort in the courts about a policy that amounts to collective punishment. Judges have only occasionally halted such home demolitions but in several recent cases have limited demolition to only parts of structures.

“It’s not just a violation of Israeli law but of ancient Jewish law. You don’t punish the son for the sins of the father,” said Jessica Montell, head of the HaMoked, a human rights group that brought the case to court on behalf of Abu Bakr’s family.

Her organization has no objection to the accused being tried and, if convicted, imprisoned, she said. But it regularly files to stop related demolition orders. “There is a growing group of judges that recognizes this policy is problematic.”

But the ruling against “punitive demolition” sparked outrage among conservative Israeli politicians at a time when control of judicial appointments is at the heart of frictions within Israel’s fractious coalition government. Protesters gathered Saturday outside the Tel Aviv home of Supreme Court President Ester Hayut to condemn “judicial dictatorship.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has railed against “liberal judges” in response to his indictment last year on corruption charges, immediately called for the high court to reopen the case after what would normally be the judges’ final word.

“My policy as prime minister is to destroy the homes of terrorists, and I intend to continue with it,” Netanyahu said in remarks in front of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Abu Bakr, 49, has been charged in military court with the murder of 21-year-old Staff Sgt. Amit Ben Ygal. In the early hours of May 12, Ygal was part of a unit that entered the West Bank town of Yabad in pursuit of four suspects from a previous rock-throwing incident. Several people taunted soldiers or threw stones, according to reports at the time.

According to the indictment, Abu Bakr was in his family apartment on the top-floor of the three-story building he shared with his extended family. He allegedly heard the disturbance about 4:30 a.m., saw the soldiers below and dropped a concrete block. It struck Ygal, who died soon after at a hospital in Haifa.

Army investigators said Abu Bakr admitted to dropping the block. According to alleged transcripts of his interrogation leaked to the media, Abu Bakr said he had only meant to injure the soldiers. At his first court appearance, he said, “I didn’t murder anyone on purpose.”

Abu Bakr has yet to be convicted. But in keeping with its policy, the Israeli military ordered the destruction of his top-floor apartment soon after he was indicted.

Supporters say the policy is not meant to serve as punishment for a crime and should not be connected to a final verdict. Rather, it is meant to make others think twice about carrying out violent attacks.

“Demolishing the house is not a punishment according to the law. It’s an act of deterrence,” said Eran Ben-Ari, legal adviser of a right-wing advocacy group for settlers and victims of terrorist attacks. “Both soldiers and citizens could be killed in the next terrorist activity that won’t be deterred because of this verdict.”

His organization has called for the Israeli army to seek a review of the ruling by the complete high court and is confident there are enough supporters on the bench to uphold the order to raze Abu Bakr’s house.

The military’s punitive demolition policy has had an up-and-down history. The strategy, which dates to the British Mandate period, was used by Israeli commanders during the second intifada, or uprising. A 2005 military commission questioned the deterrent value of punitive demolitions, and the practice stopped for almost a decade. The army resumed demolitions in late 2014, after three Jewish religious school students were kidnapped and killed.

A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces declined to comment for this story.

In recent years, some judges have been willing to curtail demolition orders, in some cases directing that only the accused attacker’s own room be destroyed or filled with foam to prevent damage to surrounding structures. And several judges have staked out limits to the practice, halting those they say were ordered too long after the fact and those not proportional to alleged offenses.

In the most recent case, the majority of the three-judge panel said rendering Abu Bakr’s children and wife homeless was an excessive response.

The home-demolition policy puts a particular burden on women, according to Palestinian activists. Often, they say, the wife or mother of an accused attacker is left scrambling to find shelter for the rest of the family

“Our research shows it is usually the woman who bears the pressure of both the psychological and the physical impact,” said Reem Natsheh of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling in Ramallah.

Abu Bakr’s wife and children have been living with other family members. In an interview, she said they still worried they would lose the house where she has lived for 23 years.

“I hope they will not punish innocent children and their mother for something they haven’t done,” said Sohila Asfour, 45.

After the court’s decision, a video went viral of the killed soldier’s devastated father lowering the Israeli flag to half-staff in protest of the ruling. Baruch Ygal said halting the demolition only added to his family’s pain.

“This Palestinian family has their husband alive, they have their children alive,” he said in an interview. “Our only child is in the cemetery. Who is suffering more?”

Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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