NEW YORK – The decision by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government to demolish the family home of Abdelrahman al-Shaludi, a Palestinian who rammed his car into a group of pedestrians, killing two (including a three-month-old baby), was both callous and counterproductive. By punishing people whose only known offense was being related to a criminal, Israel inadvertently shifted the focus from the attack, the perpetrator of which was killed immediately after his crime, to Israel’s apparent embrace of a policy of collective punishment.
If Israel’s principal concern is deterring terrorist attacks, it should be doing everything in its power to ensure that such acts are universally condemned. This includes making sure that people who carry out attacks, and those who aid and abet their crimes, are lawfully punished.
Punishing terrorists’ families and neighbors, or those who share their ethnic and religious identity, has the opposite effect, intensifying hostility toward Israel and dissipating the moral outrage that should be mobilized against the actual perpetrators of terrorism. As observers increasingly equate the two sides, regarding both as victims and victimizers alike, international support and sympathy for Israel wanes.
This is not the first time that Israel has been accused of collective punishment. Israel’s government regularly destroyed the family homes of alleged terrorists for years before acknowledging that the policy was damaging its image – without deterring terrorist acts. The latest house demolition seems to confirm that Israel’s government is resuming the practice of collective punishment that it abandoned a decade ago.
Why would Netanyahu’s government resume a failed policy? The most likely explanation is that Netanyahu wants to reassure the Israeli public that no act of terrorism will be tolerated – even if that means a vindictive and cruel response. In fact, such domestic political considerations were probably also a major driver of the killing and destruction that took place in Gaza over the summer.
Of course, Israel has the right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket barrages like that launched from Gaza into its territory, and to punish lawfully those responsible. But Israel did more than defend itself. It mounted a demonstrably disproportionate response, killing a large number of noncombatants, including hundreds of children, and destroying thousands of homes and commercial enterprises. While the initiative may have appeased Israeli public outrage over the rockets, it damaged Israel’s standing in many other countries considerably.
More problematic, Israel’s actions in Gaza probably increased its vulnerability to terrorist attacks, not only by fueling animosity toward Israel, but also by suggesting that Netanyahu’s government will most likely discredit itself with its response. That propensity to act against its own interests to appease an enraged and emotional public was underscored by the recent destruction of al-Shaludi’s family home.
To be sure, Israel is not alone in responding irrationally to terrorist provocations. Some aspects of the United States’ response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, reflect the same tendency – but on a significantly larger scale and with more far-reaching consequences. While the attacks were immensely costly in terms of lives lost and material damage, the US-led war in Iraq that followed was beyond disproportionate; it was truly devastating. And its consequences continue to unfold, as the brutal predations of the Islamic State attest.
It is time for governments in Israel, the US, and elsewhere to recognize that by allowing their citizens’ outrage to drive their responses to terrorist attacks, they are offering themselves as the terrorists’ best weapon. Only by adopting a pragmatic and legal approach can they galvanize support against their enemies and reduce their citizens’ vulnerability to attack. That, rather than slaking the public’s thirst for vengeance, should be their primary objective.
Aryeh Neier, President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a founder of Human Rights Watch, is the author of The International Human Rights Movement: A History.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.