Israel’s collective punishment is nothing but revenge

The last few weeks saw the return of the Israeli practice of collective punishment

Yossi Mekelberg

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The fortitude of a democracy is truly tested in time of conflict when there is a real or even perceived threat to a state’s security. Societies are presented with fewer moral dilemmas regarding human rights and values when they do not experience violence or a threat of violence as part of their daily reality. However, the true colors of a free society show in time of fear and bloodshed. It seems that Israel is failing this test throughout her years of conflict with the Palestinians. In the occupied West Bank and the blockaded Gaza, Palestinian’s rights are constantly and continuously violated. Beyond the green line there is no trace of Israeli democracy, only a very harsh occupation. A source of particular concern is the implementation of collective punishment policy by the Israeli security forces, on the Palestinian population in contravention of international law. The phenomenon is taking place not only as a specific response to Palestinian militants’ attacks on Israeli targets. It is a daily occurrence aimed to deter the population from any form of resistance out of fear and to ensure the security (not to mention control of the territories) of Jews at the expense of Palestinians’ basic rights.

Demolishing houses is just one form of collective punishment inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel

Yossi Mekelberg

The last few weeks saw the return of the Israeli practice of collective punishment, especially house demolitions, of entirely innocent Palestinians, for acts, deplorable as they might be, that were carried out by others. The Israeli government argues that house demolitions, as other forms of collective punishment, are actually not punishments but aim to deter others from carrying out similar attacks on Israelis. However, there is no evidence that collective punishment deters would be assailants. Hence, the demolition of houses of the families of Palestinians, who killed Israelis in terror attacks, can only be regarded as an act of punishment and revenge. Moreover, punishing the innocents could lead more people, especially the young, into the arms of extremist elements in the Palestinian society and consequently breeds more violence. As we all watch the Israelis and Palestinians sleep walk with their eyes open into another vicious and prolonged cycle of violence, treating the innocent and the guilty as one and the same is illogical, contravenes international law and violates natural justice.

Deplorable violence

I find some of the violence against Israelis, recently mainly in Jerusalem, deplorable and counter-productive, also to Palestinian interests. Who could or would justify the killing of a three month old baby, as was the case when a Palestinian deliberately drove onto the pedestrian crowded pavement? Or, the early morning killing of Jewish worshippers in their synagogue while they were praying? The Palestinians have the right, some argue the duty, to resist the Israeli occupation; nevertheless, this type of violence has always led to further Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Israelis and tainted their reputation around the world. These methods have brought the Palestinians no closer to the dream of an end to the Israeli occupation and self-determination. Therefore, one should not be surprised that the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas condemned these acts, though in recent months his own rhetoric is on occasion rather inflammatory. It is also regrettable that some among the Hamas leadership did not follow Abbas and opted to praise the killing of Israelis in recent incidents.

Nevertheless, regardless of one’s utter condemnation of the killing and the maiming of innocent people, it is always the assailants’ responsibility and not their families or anyone else. Furthermore, in the vast majority of cases, attackers are killed by the Israeli security forces during these incidents. Punishing their families, with three generations often living in the same household, is morally reprehensible. How can one justify leaving babies or elderly members of a family homeless, even if a member of their family committed an atrocity? No family of an Israeli terrorist has ever been treated in a similar fashion, leaving them homeless. In a country governed by the rule of law, those who committed offenses are the ones who face the weight of the law not their families, friends or neighbors. Hurting the innocent does nothing but demonstrate to them the cruelty of the Israeli occupying force. It reveals its inability to differentiate between its enemies and those who would like to live in peace and coexistence with Israel.

Demolishing houses is just one form of collective punishment inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel. The blockade on Gaza, using disproportionate force and the building of the Separation Wall/Barrier are just a few of the forms of collective punishment wielded against Palestinians. The idea of collective punishment is not new and is ingrained in Israeli security thinking. General Moshe Dayan, who served as chief staff and defense minister, asserted more than sixty years ago that even if not moral: “The method of collective punishment so far has proved effective ... There are no other effective methods.” This has always been a very short sighted approach, not only by Israel, but also by other occupying forces elsewhere. In the long term, collective punishment can only sow hatred and breed generation after generation of hopelessness and haplessness and consequently more conflict and bloodshed.

Not an effective deterrent

Ironically, and contrary to Dayan’s views, in 2005 the Israeli practice of demolishing houses almost stopped on the recommendation of an IDF committee, which found that house demolitions are not an effective deterrent. In the four years prior to this recommendation, the years of the bloodshed of the Second Intifada, 664 Palestinian homes were demolished in the Occupied Territory as a form of punishment, according to figures by the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem. This left some 4,182 innocent people displaced. The clear conclusion was that throughout these years of extreme violence, house demolition was not a deterrent. Moreover, there is complementary evidence that collective punishment radicalizes not only those who suffer from it directly, but also others who sympathize with the victims of collective punishment.

Collective punishment is not only ineffective and morally inexcusable, it is also in direct contravention of international law. The prohibition of collective punishment is clearly affirmed in the Hague Regulations and the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions. Last week one of the most reputable international human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch, reiterated that any collective punishment is regarded as a war crime. Their Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director Joe Stork said that “Punitive home demolitions are blatantly unlawful … [and] Israel should prosecute, convict, and punish criminals, not carry out vengeful destruction that harms entire families.”

Considering that collective punishment carries all the hallmarks of being illegal, ineffective and immoral, why on earth would the Israeli government decide to return to such a policy? It is a sign of a government which led the country to the brink of conflict and is out of sorts as to how to pull it back from it and is hence trying to score cheap and short term political points. It has no courage to address the root causes of the conflict between the two people and instead exercises empty nationalist bravado of which collective punishment is one manifestation. In their minds collective punishment is a show of force. The truth is that it is a sign of weakness and a reflection of a lack of any creative ideas to how to get out of the quagmire they created themselves.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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