Israeli Police: the Daily Practice of Collective Punishment Against Palestinians



On June 23, 2014, the Israeli government decided to relaunch its strategy of punitive demolition of Palestinian homes, despite having considered this method as counter-productive and having therefore abandoned it in February 2005. On July 1, Israeli soldiers thus dynamited the house of Awawde Ziad’s family, a Palestinian from Idhna (near Hebron), who was then detained and is awaiting trial for killing an Israeli policeman. The Israeli organization HaMoked has since filed several appeals against this punitive destruction with the Israeli Supreme Court, emphasizing the violation of international law that such an act constituted. But these appeals have all been rejected, the court alleging that the deterrent effect of such a measure was legitimate. On August 11, the Israeli army destroyed two more Palestinian homes in Hebron and then, in November, five in Jerusalem, each time for punitive reasons against families and/or the entourage of Palestinians pursued for specific attacks against Israelis.

This method of punitive housing demolition has been used by the Israeli army and the Jerusalem police since 1967. HaMoked lists nearly 1,800 cases of punitive demolitions or placing a seal over Palestinian homes between 1967 and 1998, when this method was suspended for the first time, then resumed during the Second Intifada (2000-2004), when the Israeli army destroyed 664 new homes of relatives of Palestinian fighters, leaving a total of 4,182 people homeless.

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Palestinian apartment destroyed in collective punishment measures. / Photograph by Jacob Burns/Amnesty International (2015)

In a 2015 report for Amnesty International, Jacob Burns documented the destruction of two apartments belonging to the families of two Palestinians shot after having killed five Israeli civilians and a police officer in the Har Nof Synagogue in Jerusalem in November 2014. The house where one of them used to live in East Jerusalem with his wife and three children was subsequently destroyed by the Israeli police, along with its furniture and a neighboring house. The house where the second Palestinian used to live belonged to his grandfather. There, the Israeli police used another ruination technique: they broke a window and, through it, proceeded to pour 90 tons of concrete into the rooms where the author of the attack used to live — in another example documented by Burns, the concrete was also poured into the common areas — leaving about one meter between the concrete and the ceiling of each room. Burns’ photographs (see on the two previous pages), show us a rather surreal space, recalling artworks like Rachel Whiteread’s or Gianni Pettena’s. This method is particularly vicious since the house was destined to collapse into the adjacent ravine under the weight of the concrete and sink. Here, the ruination process is first concealed because its effects are limited to within the home (except for the broken window), while its spectacular appearance (the collapse of the house) is left for later when the police will be long-since withdrawn. It also constitutes a cruel dilemma for the owner about whether to evacuate his house before it collapses, or to risk his life by continuing to live there.

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Palestinian apartment destroyed in collective punishment measures. / Photograph by Jacob Burns/Amnesty International (2015)

Through a permanent state of exception, the Israeli government, its army, and its police intend to systematically situate their action in a legal context as a simulacrum of legitimacy. In the case of the punitive demolitions of Palestinian homes, this action is based on a state of emergency law set up by the British Mandate in 1945. This law states that a military commander may order the destruction of a house or land from which an ‘enemy’ attack is suspected to have been carried out, or owned by relatives of the person suspected of such an attack.

This legal article had however been canceled before the end of the Mandate (1948) and its spirit had, in all ways, been superseded by the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), ratified by the Israeli government in 1951. The 33rd article stipulates the following:

No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.

Pillage is prohibited.

Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.” (Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.)

Once again, the legal justification for the Israeli police’s actions is therefore only legitimate within an internal rationality to its apartheid politics towards Palestinians — of course, no Israeli housing was ever destroyed following an attack perpetrated by one of its inhabitants — and in violation of international law despite its ratification by the Israeli government.

Punitive demolitions of Palestinian homes correspond to an unequivocal form of collective punishment. Beyond the legal definition of this concept, we can wonder about the notion of “collective.” It involves judging a group of individuals together, the legitimacy of which is only possible through an essentializing process. In other words, no person or institution other than the people themselves may rule on the moral ties that they have with a person convicted of wrongdoing. The application of collective punishment therefore forces essentializing ties between relatives, and in a context of ethnic discrimination, such a sentence can only strengthen the fundamental separation between those who dominate and those who are dominated.

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Demolition of a Palestinian home demolition in East-Jerusalem by the Israeli police (2013) / Zuma Press, Inc. – Alamy Stock Photo

Relatives and neighbors are not the only entities affected by the collective punishment incarnated by punitive demolitions: so too is architecture. Despite the editorial line of this publication that systematically presents architecture as an instrument of domination, in whatever form it might take, it is important to also recognize its ability to embody a vessel of memory and culture for the people living in it as well as for people who have been familiarized to it. The level of memory and cultural significance varies depending on the architecture affected, yet it is inherent to all dwellings. A home might have been transferred from generation to generation in a given family, it might have constituted a particular communal site in a given town, it might have embodied an architectural heritage participating in the collective narrative of a nation — in Palestine more than anywhere else. Whatever the stories carried through a home may be, what is being destroyed through the punitive measure of housing demolition has little to do with what a court is subjecting to its judgment.

This logic of collective punishment can be also found in the regular bombing of the Gaza Strip, of course, but also in other operations of the Jerusalem police. After political demonstrations in the occupied eastern part of the city, the Israeli police regularly send trucks to spray “skunk” (a noxious chemical solution) on the walls of Palestinian homes. This deterioration of Palestinian living conditions should also be understood as a process of ruination, despite the fact that the buildings’ structures are not affected in this case — in the context of a mediatized Apartheid, it also has the ‘advantage’ of its invisibility, in contrast to outright demolition.

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“Skunk” truck used by the Israeli army and police to spray pestilential liquid on Palestinian homes and bodies (2015). / (above) Pacific Press.

This practice also involves a particularly disturbing imagery about the essentialization produced by the collective punishment measures of the Israeli police, as they resemble methods reserved for cohorts of noxious species, such as rats or insects. The ultimate goal of such methods consists in forcing these species to flee from their habitat by making their breathing atmosphere toxic. Such tactics can only be used if there is a conscious or unconscious understanding of sprayed bodies and objects as fundamentally abject.

Abjection can be defined as matter “out of place” (Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, 1966), with the result being, for the body or institution that determines (and designates) this abjection, an effort to ‘clean-up’ this excessive matter. What these racist measures do not take into account, however, is the fact that the persisting existence and presence of those that are expected to flee becomes a form of resistance in itself. In the context of an atmosphere made toxic and the resistance opposed to it, we can think of Frantz Fanon’s concept of “combat-breathing” as the very core of anti-colonial struggles (A Dying Colonialism, 1959).

Of course, the air and land bombs dropped by the Israeli army in Gaza are dramatically more expressive of the fundamental violence through which the State of Israel has existed “on its own conditions” since its creation in 1948. As horrible as it must be to live for two or three days with no escape from the putrid “skunk” smell, it cannot be compared to the absolute destruction of one’s home and the killings of one’s loved ones. Nevertheless, what the Israeli police’s use of crowd-control spray illustrates is perhaps even more profound in its fundamentally racist essentialization and segregation of the Palestinian people: it does not ‘simply’ deny them rights, it also denies them the status of being human — this could be the very definition of racism — by using the same methods that farmers might use against pests. As this issue attempts to show, the police are only the bearer of the most spectacular forms of a violence that is inscribed into the very structure of a society. This is also true about the Israeli police.

(This text is a translation/revision of a chapter in Léopold Lambert, La politique du bulldozer: La ruine palestinienne comme projet israélien, Paris : B2 Éditions, 2016).