At first, after the house was demolished by the Israeli army, Maher Salem thought his father had been arrested by soldiers.
But as the hours went by last Sunday, and he received no news, he began to suspect the worst. "We cut through the concrete in his room and found his hand," said Maher of his father Ashur, a retired carpenter. "We continued digging and we pulled out his body."
The destruction of the six-story Salem house, which left 56 people homeless, was one of three demolitions last in the Beit Lahiya area of homes belonging to relatives of Palestinians blamed for attacks on Israelis. Maher's brother, Hisham, a wanted leader of the armed wing of Islamic Jihad, orchestrated an attack in Tel Aviv in 1996 that killed 20 Israelis and has staged subsequent attacks, the Israeli army says.
They come as part of a larger Israeli policy of rapid-fire demolitions launched in August. The military says is a bid to create a deterrent to the suicide bombings that have ravaged the country for two years. According to army spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal, the demolition campaign was launched after an army assessment concluded that part of the motivation for suicide bombers was that their family's status improved after the bombing, with their child's act being widely viewed as heroic. "Also in some cases we saw that the family somehow encouraged the bombing and afterwards the parents would say how proud they were. We decided to break this trend."
Army intelligence has found specific cases of bombers being discouraged by their families because their house would be destroyed, Captain Dallal says. "We hope that now the family will pay more attention," he says.
For those whose houses are destroyed, the Israeli army action is the beginning of a journey into deepening poverty and severe psychological stress, according to Dalal Salameh, a Palestinian legislator from Balata refugee camp in Nablus in the West Bank. "These are people who have already lost their jobs because of the economic siege and now they lose their houses for which they worked 20 or 30 years. They don't know where to begin again." Ms. Salameh believes demolitions fuel a desire for revenge and "encourage more extremism in our society."
In that sense, the demolition campaign, launched with the backing of Israel's two major parties, Labor and Likud, is a sign of the times. Human rights advocates argue they constitute collective punishment and contravene the Fourth Geneva Convention. At the outset of the campaign, in August, Israel's High Court of Justice for the first time gave approval to demolitions without prior warning.
"This is the ripest environment for house demolitions ever," says Jeff Halper, head of the Israel Coalition Against Home Demolitions. "It is open season out there." Since August, there have been 88 demolitions of homes of relatives of militants, compared to nine in the first half of the year and eight in all of 2001, according to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem. November was the peak month with 30.
House demolitions derive their legal basis from emergency regulations promulgated by the British authorities in 1945 and adopted by the Israeli state after its establishment in 1948.
In August, the High Court of Justice accepted the army's argument that giving Palestinians 48 hours to appeal the demolition order could endanger the lives of Israeli soldiers. The decision left discretion to grant judicial review in the hands of the local army commander.
In Beit Lahiya, Maher says his father was deaf and must have slept through the soldiers loudspeaker evacuation announcement. He says troops gave residents three minutes to leave the house and refused to halt the demolition despite pleas by relatives that his father, a refugee from Israel's establishment in 1948, was still inside. The army says it searched the building for two hours and found no one.
In April, during fighting in Jenin Refugee Camp, an Israeli bulldozer destroyed a house on top of Jamal Fa'id, a wheelchair bound resident. Halper says other civilians have been buried alive during demolitions.
Typically, in the first few weeks after a house is demolished, family members stay with relatives or neighbors who generally are themselves poor and have little space for them, Salameh says. In Nablus, a committee comprised of representatives from the governorate, the municipality, Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, Hamas and other factions provide families with grants of $200 a month for four months so that they can rent apartments. The families apply for a renewal but it is seldom granted, she says.
Those who live in refugee camps are able to get some assistance from the United Nations, enabling them to rebuild part of their homes, Salameh says. As a result, a family that formerly lived three in a room would now have seven or eight people packed into the same room, she says.
Israel announced last Monday that the army plans to demolish another 15 Palestinian buildings in Hebron to create a safe corridor for Jewish worshipers from the Kiryat Arba settlement to reach the shrine at the Cave of the Patriarchs. Israeli officials say the buildings are abandoned, but Hebron mayor Mustafa Natsheh says the step will displace Palestinian families. In Beit Lahiya, Islamic Jihad leader Khaled Batsh says: "If the Israelis destroy our homes and demolish our lives, the Palestinian resistance should destroy their homes," he said. "If anyone destroys two houses in Tel Aviv, this will stop."
Is the Israeli deterrence strategy working?
Yoni Figel, an analyst at the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, says that there's not enough data yet to tell. Still, Figel backs the home demolitions, saying "any measure at this time that can contribute to deterrence cannot be excluded."