Bill Van Esveld is a Jerusalem-based Israel researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The grim Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken a further, dramatic turn for the worse in recent days with children being deliberately targeted on both sides. Soon after the news broke on June 30 that a search team had found the bodies of the three abducted Israeli teenagers, a car with Israeli license plates hit a 9-year-old Palestinian girl, apparently deliberately, badly injuring her. Then, on July 2, witnesses said, a group of Jewish Israelis abducted Mohammed Abu Khudair, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, in East Jerusalem. His charred body was found later that day. Two other Palestinian boys, ages 7 and 10, reportedly escaped similar kidnapping attempts.
With tempers rising on both sides, world and local leaders have issued calls for calm. But calm is proving hard to attain. Israeli thugs ran rampant in East Jerusalem on July 1, chanting “Death to Arabs” and attacking people who answered their questions in Arabic-accented Hebrew. And Palestinians from the murdered 16-year-old’s neighbourhood clashed with Israeli security forces.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, condemned the abduction of the Israeli teenagers and pledged to “hold their kidnappers accountable.” Israeli leaders condemned the killing of the Palestinian teenager and ordered a criminal investigation, and police reportedly arrested violent thugs during attacks. Israel’s justice minister, Tzipi Livni, denounced an Israeli Facebook campaign calling for “revenge” for the Israeli teens’ killings, called the killing of Abu Khudair a possible “act of terrorism,” and said that “Israel must be a state governed by law.”
And yet, since June 12, Israeli authorities have been involved in what looks a lot like revenge on Palestinians in the form of collective punishment. Israeli forces have killed at least five Palestinians and detained about 450, including 150 who remain in administrative detention without charge, trial, or the ability to challenge or even see the evidence against them.
The last time Israel held so many administrative detainees was 2009 – the same year Israel last punitively destroyed the family home of a Palestinian suspect. On June 30, Israel blew up the family homes of two abduction suspects. It later blew up the family home of a suspect in the April killing of an Israeli security officer with the full backing of the Supreme Court. And Israeli forces blew up a dairy farm owned by a Muslim charity that Israel claims is affiliated with Hamas.
Extremist violence against Palestinians, from Israeli settlers’ vandalism and burning of Palestinian mosques to beatings to property destruction, is a long-term security problem that has been getting worse – with more than twice as many attacks resulting in casualties or property damage in 2013 as in 2009, according to UN records. A big part of the problem is the failure of law enforcement; police close 91 per cent of Palestinian complaints of settler violence without filing an indictment.
On July 1 Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a petition by Hamoked, an Israeli rights group, to stop the military’s plans to demolish the family home of Ziad `Awad, the Palestinian accused of killing Baruch Mizrachi, the Israeli security officer. The court said it had no reason to stop the demolition, citing emergency regulations dating back to 1945, the time of the British Mandate. On July 2, Israeli forces blew up `Awad’s West Bank home – part of a duplex, owned by his brother, where `Awad had lived with relatives including his wife and children
Imagine how Israelis might react if the military detonated the family home of a Jewish extremist, displacing his wife and children. They rightly would see it as a blatant injustice to punish families for the acts of their relative, even one who had actually been convicted of a crime after a fair trial.
On July 2, as many as 1,000 people demonstrated in Jerusalem against “anti-Arab racism,” Haaretz reported – but that same day, hundreds of Jewish students demonstrated in Jerusalem, demanding vengeance for the three Israeli teenagers. “The people demand collective punishment,” they chanted. If Israel’s government is to help achieve calm, it should not pander to such emotions. As a first step, it urgently needs to end punitive demolitions of suspects’ family homes.