Rahul Sharma (Editor)

House demolition in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit
House demolition in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict

House demolition is a method utilized by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip against Palestinians. Since the occupation of the Palestinian territories following the Six Day War in 1967 down to 2015, it has been estimated by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions that Israel has razed 48,488 Palestinian structures.


Demolition may be done to enforce building codes and regulations, which in the occupied Palestinian territories are set by the Israeli military. IDF explanations for other house demolitions include use as a counter-insurgency security measure to impede or halt militant operations Claims it functions as a potent deterrent against terrorism, in significantly decreasing Palestinian terrorists attacks, have been met with counter-claims, some from the Israeli Defense Forces, that the measure has no proven deterrent effectiveness and is counter-productive. Human rights organizations and the United Nations criticize the ongoing demolitions of Palestinian homes as violating international law, and Amnesty International has contended that the Israeli government actually uses demolitions to collectively punish Palestinians and to seize property for the expansion of Israeli settlements.Theodor Meron advised the Israeli government in 1968, soon after the occupation of the Palestinian territories in the Six Day War, that the practice contravened international law, in particular the Geneva Conventions.

House demolitions have occasionally been used to remove illegal Israeli outposts, and in 2005 to dismantle the settlements in Gaza.


The practice originated under the British Mandate, when the government gave authority to military commanders to confiscate and raze “any house, structure or land... the inhabitants of which he is satisfied have committed… any offence against these Regulations involving violence.” During the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, the British military frequently demolished homes in villages implicated in rebel activity, with entire villages sometimes being destroyed. Some 2,000 Arab homes were demolished during the Arab revolt. In 1945 the authorities passed the Defence (Emergency) Regulations and Regulation 119 made this practice available to the local Military Commander without limit or appeal. During the Jewish insurgency against the British in the 1940s, the British only employed this tactic one time against the Jews. In August 1947, after failing to quell the Jewish insurgency, the British military received clearance from the High Commissioner to demolish Jewish homes. Subsequently, a Jewish home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Shaul where arms were discovered during a routine search was destroyed.

In 1968, after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, Theodor Meron, then legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, advised the Prime Minister's office in a top secret memorandum that house demolitions, even of suspected terrorists's residences, violated the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in war. Undertaking such measures, as though they were in continuity with British mandatory emergency regulations, might be useful as hasbara but were 'legally unconvincing'. The advice was ignored. His view, according to Gershom Gorenberg, is shared by nearly all scholars of international law, prominent Israeli experts included.

In a 1987 letter, the British said this regulation had been repealed in 1948. However, the repeal was not published in the Palestine Gazette, as required in law at that time, and Israel still operates the contentious policy of punitive military house demolition under the 1945 British DER 119.

During the Second Intifada, the IDF adopted a policy of house demolition following a wave of suicide bombings. Israel justified the policy on the basis of deterrence against terrorism, and providing an incentive for families of potential suicide bombers to dissuade the bomber from attacking. Demolitions can also occur in the course of fighting. During Operation Defensive Shield, several IDF soldiers were killed early in the conflict while searching houses containing militants. In response, the IDF started employing a tactic of surrounding such houses, calling on the occupants (civilian and militant) to exit, and demolishing the house on top of the militants that do not surrender. This tactic, called "Nohal Sir Lachatz" נוהל סיר לחץ "Pressure Pot", is now used whenever feasible (i.e., non multi-rise building that is separated from other houses). In some heavy fighting incidents, especially in the 2002 Battle of Jenin and Operation Rainbow in Rafah 2004, heavily armored IDF Caterpillar D9 bulldozers were used to demolish houses to widen alleyways, uncover tunnels or to secure locations for IDF troops. The result was an indiscriminate use of demolitions against civilian housing unconnected to terrorism that left 1,000 people homeless in the Rafah Refugee Camp.

According to a report by Amnesty International in 1999, house demolitions are usually done without prior warning and the home's inhabitants are given little time to evacuate.

In February 2005, the Ministry of Defense (Israel) ordered an end to the demolition of houses for the purpose of punishing the families of suicide bombers unless there is "an extreme change in circumstances". However, house demolitions continue for other reasons. In 2010 (to 9 Nov) 315 Palestinian-owned structures have been demolished in East Jerusalem and Area C (including 17 structures demolished by their owners following demolition orders). 402 people have been displaced and about 1,296 people have been otherwise affected.

In 2009, after a string of fatal attacks by Palestinian against Israelis in Jerusalem, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled in favor of the Israeli Defense Forces to seal with cement the family homes of Palestinian terrorists as a deterrent against terrorism.


A January 2015 efficacy study by Benmelech, Berrebi and Klor distinguishes between “punitive demolitions”, in which homes belonging to the families of terror operatives are demolished, and “precautionary demolitions”, such as the demolition of a house well-positioned for use by Palestinian snipers. Their results, which The New Republic calls "politically explosive" indicate that "precautionary demolitions" have caused suicide attacks to increase, a “48.7 percent increase in the number of suicide terrorists from an average district,” while in the months immediately following a demolition, punitive demolitions caused terror attacks to decline by between 11.7 and 14.9 percent.

IDF arguments

House demolition is typically justified by the IDF on the basis of:

  • Deterrence, achieved by harming the relatives of those who carry out, or are suspected of involvement in carrying out, attacks Benmelech, Berrebi and Klor call demolitions of this type, targeting the homes of terror operatives “punitive demolitions”.
  • The following types are labeled as “precautionary demolitions” by Benmelech, Berrebi and Klor, however punishing they may feel to the impacted families.
  • Counter-terrorism, by destroying militant facilities such as bombs labs, weapons factories, weapons and ammunition warehouses, headquarters, offices etc.
  • Forcing out an individual barricaded inside a house, which may be rigged with explosives, without risking soldiers' lives
  • Self-defence, by destroying possible hideouts and rocket propelled grenade/gun posts
  • Combat engineering, clearing a path for tanks and heavy armoured personnel carriers
  • Destroying structures rigged with booby traps and explosives in order to prevent risk to soldiers and civilians
  • Human rights organisations' criticism

    The United Nations (UN) and human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross who oppose the house demolitions reject the IDF's claims, and document numerous instances where they argue the IDF's claims do not apply. They accuse the Israeli government and IDF of other motives:

  • Collective punishment, the punishment of an innocent Palestinian "for an offence he or she has not personally committed."
  • Theft of Palestinian land by annexation to build the Israeli West Bank barrier or to create, expand or otherwise benefit Israeli settlements.
  • According to the United Nations, about 1,500 homes were demolished by the IDF just in the Rafah area in the period 2000-2004.

    In 2004, Human Rights Watch published the report 'Razing Rafah: Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip'. The report documented what it described as a "pattern of illegal demolitions" by the IDF in Rafah, a refugee camp and city at the southern end of the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt where sixteen thousand people lost their homes after the Israeli government approved a plan to expand the de facto "buffer zone" in May 2004. The IDF’s main stated rationales for the demolitions were responding to and preventing attacks on its forces and the suppression of weapons smuggling through tunnels from Egypt


    Demolitions are carried out by the Israeli Army Combat Engineering Corps using armored bulldozers, usually Caterpillar D9, but also with excavators (for high multi-story buildings) and wheel loaders (for small houses with low risk) modified by the IDF. The heavily armored IDF Caterpillar D9 is often used when there is a risk demolishing the building (such as when armed insurgents are barricaded inside or the structure is rigged with explosive and booby traps). Multi-story buildings, flats, and explosive labs are demolished by explosive devices, set by IDF demolition experts of Yaalom's Sayeret Yael. Amnesty International has also described house demolitions that were carried out by the IDF using "powerful explosive charges".

    The use of house demolition under international law is today governed by the Fourth Geneva Convention, enacted in 1949, which protects non-combatants in occupied territories. Article 53 provides that "Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons ... is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations."

    However, Israel, which is a party to the Fourth Geneva Convention, asserts that the terms of the Convention are not applicable to the Palestinian territories on the grounds that the territories do not constitute a state which is a party to the Fourth Geneva Convention. This position is rejected by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, which notes that "it is a basic principle of human rights law that international human rights treaties are applicable in all areas in which states parties exercise effective control, regardless of whether or not they exercise sovereignty in that area."

    As a punitive measure

    As a punitive measure, some studies find that house demolitions are an effective deterrent against terrorism. They are related to the identity of the house’s owner, and result in a 'significant decrease' of Palestinian terrorists attacks. However, Amnesty International has criticised the lack of due process in the use of house demolitions by Israel. Many demolitions are carried out with no warning or opportunity for the householder to appeal. In 2002, a proposed demolition case was appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court who ruled that there must be a right to appeal unless doing so would "endanger the lives of Israelis or if there are combat activities in the vicinity." In a later ruling the Supreme Court decided that demolitions without advanced warning or due process can be carried out if advance notice would hinder demolition. Amnesty describes this as "a virtual green light" to demolition with no warning.

    While many challenge the idea that house demolitions have a dissuasive effect, one study by a Northwestern and Hebrew University group concluded that prompt demolitions brought about a lowering of suicide attacks for a month. In the authors' view this proved beneficial for the security of both civilian Israelis and Arabs. An internal IDF report of 2005, analyzing the effectiveness of the policy during the Al-Aqsa Intifada in which 3,000 civilian homes were demolished, found that terror attacks increased after house demolitions, only stimulated hatred of Israel, the damage caused outweighed any benefits, and recommended the practice be dropped.

    Criticism and responses

    The effectiveness of house demolitions as a deterrence has been questioned. In 2005 an Israeli Army commission to study house demolitions found no proof of effective deterrence and concluded that the damage caused by the demolitions overrides its effectiveness. As a result, the IDF approved the commission's recommendations to end punitive demolitions of Palestinian houses.

    A number of human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, oppose the practice. Human Rights Watch has argued that the practice violates international laws against collective punishment, the destruction of private property, and the use of force against civilians.

    Israeli historian Yaacov Lozowick, however, implied that there is a moral basis for demolishing the houses of families of suicide bombers, stating:

    "Demolishing the homes of civilians merely because a family member has committed a crime is immoral. If, however,... potential suicide murderers... will refrain from killing out of fear that their mothers will become homeless, it would be immoral to leave the Palestinian mothers untouched in their homes while Israeli children die on their school buses."

    In May 2004, The Israeli Foreign Ministry publicly stated:

    "...other means employed by Israel against terrorists is the demolition of homes of those who have carried out suicide attacks or other grave attacks, or those who are responsible for sending suicide bombers on their deadly missions. Israel has few available and effective means in its war against terrorism. This measure is employed to provide effective deterrence of the perpetrators and their dispatchers, not as a punitive measure. This practice has been reviewed and upheld by the High Court of Justice"

    US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticised the Israeli government's plans to demolish Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem calling the action a violation of international obligations.

    Recent conflicts

    House demolition has been used in an on-again-off-again fashion by the Israeli government during the Second Intifada. More than 3,000 homes have been destroyed in this way. House demolition was used to destroy the family homes of Saleh Abdel Rahim al-Souwi, perpetrator of the Tel Aviv bus 5 massacre, and Yahya Ayyash, Hamas's chief bomb maker, known as "the engineer", as well as the perpetrators of the First and second Jerusalem bus 18 massacres, and the Ashkelon bus station bombing.

    According to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem:

  • From October 2001 to December 2005, Israel has demolished 668 homes as punishment, leaving 4,182 people homeless.
  • Israel has demolished 1,746 homes for alleged military purposes since B'Tselem started keeping statistics in this category in 2004.
  • According to the United Nations, about 1,500 homes were demolished by the IDF in the Rafah area in the period 2000–2004.
  • In November 2008 B'Tselem filmed an armed Israeli Policeman wearing a riot helmet headbutt a Palestinian women. The confrontation occurred during a protest, after the Jerusalem municipality destroyed two houses because it said they were built without permission.

    As a regulatory measure

    Some house demolitions are allegedly performed because the houses may have been built without permits, or are in violation of various building codes, ordinances or regulations. Some International human rights groups and community figures claim that Israeli authorities are in fact systematically denying building permit requests in Arab areas as a means of appropriating land. This is disputed by Israeli sources, who claim that both Arabs and Jews enjoy a similar rate of application approvals.

    According to Amnesty International, "The destruction of Palestinian homes, agricultural land and other property in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, is inextricably linked with Israel’s long-standing policy of appropriating as much as possible of the land it occupies, notably by establishing Israeli settlements." In October 1999, during the "Peace Process" and before the start of the Al Aqsa Intefada, Amnesty International wrote that: "well over one third of the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem live under threat of having their house demolished. ... Threatened houses exist in almost every street and it is probable that the great majority of Palestinians live in or next to a house due for demolition."

    "House demolitions ostensibly occur because the homes are built 'illegally' - i.e. without a permit. Officials and spokespersons of the Israeli government have consistently maintained that the demolition of Palestinian houses is based on planning considerations and is carried out according to the law. ... But the Israeli policy has been based on discrimination. Palestinians are targeted for no other reasons than that they are Palestinians. ... [Israel has] discriminated in the application of the law, strictly enforcing planning prohibitions where Palestinian houses are built and freely allowing amendments to the plans to promote development where Israelis are setting up settlements."

    Dr. Meir Margalit of Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions writes:

    "The thinking is that a national threat calls for a national response, invariably aggressive. Accordingly, a Jewish house without a permit is an urban problem; but a Palestinian home without a permit is a strategic threat. A Jew building without a permit is ‘cocking a snook at the law’; a Palestinian doing the same is defying Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem."

    Current demolition issues

    The Palestinian village Aqabah, located in the northeastern West Bank, is currently being threatened by demolition orders issued by the Israeli Civil Administration against the entire village. The Civil Administration had previously expropriated large areas of privately registered land in the village, and as of May 2008 it has threatened to demolish the following structures: the mosque, the British government-funded medical clinic, the internationally funded kindergarten, the Rural Women's Association building, the roads, the water tank, and nearly all private homes. According to the Rebuilding Alliance, a California-based organization that opposes house demolitions, Haj Sami Sadek, the mayor of the village, has circulated an open letter asking for assistance. Gush Shalom, the Israeli Peace Bloc, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions are said to be supporting the campaign.

    In May 2008, a UN agency said that thousands of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank risk being displaced as the Israeli authorities threaten to tear down their homes and in some cases entire communities. "To date, more than 3,000 Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank have pending demolition orders, which can be immediately executed without prior warning," the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report.


    Statistics have been compiled by ICAHD recording the number of demolitions of existing houses in the two parts of Jerusalem. According to ICAHD, there are many more building violations in the western (Jewish) parts of Jerusalem, but the great majority of actual demolitions are carried out in the eastern (Palestinian) parts. ICAHD statistics on house demolitions in Jerusalem were cited in the "2005 County Reports on Human Rights Practices" by the United States Department of State. For 2004 and 2005 ICAHD's figures are as follows:

    ICAHD's report further claims that building inspectors record only a small proportion of the infractions in West Jerusalem (usually illegal extensions or porches), and say that no entire residential building in the Western section has ever received demolition orders or been demolished. ICAHD claims that: "The Jerusalem Municipality expropriates land, prevents preparation of a town planning scheme for Palestinian neighborhoods, and refuses to grant building permits, causing a severe housing shortage, forcing residents to build without a permit, after which the Ministry of Interior and the Municipality demolish the houses, so the residents move into homes outside the city, and then the Ministry of Interior revokes their residency and banishes them from the city forever".

    ICAHD's conclusions have been disputed by the Israeli Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who argue on their website that the larger number of Palestinian demolitions is simply because many more Palestinian homes have been built illegally. They claim to have "document[ed] a pattern of politically-motivated behavior and criminal profiteering that characterizes much of the construction in the Arab sector of the Holy City", notwithstanding the punitive house demolitions, which have been effective as a deterrent against terrorism by means of a 'significant decrease' Palestinian terrorists attacks.


    Statistics quoted by CAMERA and FMEP:

    Though the statistics do not show the nationality of the permit requestee nor the nationality of the land owner, CAMERA argues that these figures show that the denial of permits to Arabs and Jews is not based on the ethnicity of the applicant, but instead is generally meant to uphold Israeli master plans and building codes.

    In contrast, Amnesty International highlight in these figures the small number of Palestinian permit requests (only about 10 percent of the Israeli requests), and argue that this is indicative of the tiny (and ever-shrinking) percentage of land that the Palestinians have available for their use. In 2008 Nicoletta Dimova wrote in the Palestine-Israel Journal that "today, the city's Palestinians are only allowed to build on about 9% of the 17,600 acres of land comprising East Jerusalem", the remainder having been expropriated by Israeli authorities for use by Israeli settlers or as land where Israel currently permits no construction.

    Area C

    According to B'tselem, since the 1993 Oslo Accords Israel has issued over 14,600 demolition orders for Palestinian infrastructure, of which it has destroyed roughly 2,925. In the period 2000-2012, Palestinian were given only 211 permits to build, from 2009-2012, only 27 permits were given. In 2014, according to Ma'an News Agency, citing Bimkom, only one such permit was issued.

    Demolition of settler homes

    In 2005, the Israeli government demolished many houses of Israeli settlers who were transferred in accordance with the Israeli disengagement from Gaza. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said this was done by request of the Palestinian Authorities. Houses have also been demolished in several Jewish outposts such as Amona.

    In February 2017, Israeli forces began an operation to evacuate settlers from the West Bank outpost of Amona after the Supreme Court stated that it must be demolished by 8 February.


    House demolition in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict Wikipedia