Israel’s policy of house demolitions in the Occupied Territories includes the demolition or sealing of houses as a punitive measure where an occupant of the house was involved, or suspected of being involved, in acts of violence. The demolition is based on Section 119 of the Emergency Defense Regulations, of 1945, which grants the military commander broad discretion in demolishing or sealing all or part of a house or structure. Demolitions pursuant to this section, despite its draconian nature, are not carried out following a court order – decision of the military commander is sufficient. The demolition is not implemented in place of criminal punishment, but in addition to it. Worst of all, the main victims of the demolitions are the occupants of the demolished structure, and not the persons whom Israel claims were involved in acts of violence (who are dead or are in custody and await, in most cases, long prison sentences). Clearly, then, the act constitutes collective punishment, which violates the fundamental principle that an individual may not be punished for the acts of someone else.
Section 119 also violates the rules of international law applying in territory under belligerent occupation, which prohibit the destruction of private or public property, except where rendered absolutely necessary by military operations. However, the demolition of houses as a means of punishment is not a “military operation.” International law also explicitly prohibits collective punishment of the population under occupation, and also prohibits acts of reprisal and the use of intimidation.
Except for rare cases, the High Court of Justice rejects petitions filed against house demolitions, and refrains from questioning the position of the security forces that the demolition of houses deters Palestinians from committing violent acts. However, over the years, the petitions have achieved some results. The HCJ has set limitations on the exercise of the broad discretion given to the military commander, by requiring him to issue a detailed Demolition Order that states the reason for the demolition, its scope, and the source of authority for the demolition. Furthermore, the HCJ has required that the occupants of the house be given an opportunity to be heard before the house is demolished, and to appeal to the HCJ of Justice if the military commander rejects their arguments. In addition, if the right to be heard is not granted prior to demolition, the legal advisor for the West Bank must state reasons in writing for denying that right.
Despite the rulings of the HCJ in these matters, many houses of Palestinians have been demolished as a punitive measure although no demolition order was issued, and before the occupants were allowed to state their arguments opposing the demolition, and without even giving them the opportunity to remove their possessions. In addition, the demolition of houses has resulted in damage to nearby areas and adjacent apartments, houses and structures.