JERUSALEM – Israel's defense minister ordered a halt Thursday to the controversial policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinian homicide bombers and gunmen after an internal army review concluded it has not deterred attackers but has inflamed hatred.
Since the 1967 Middle East War (search), Israel has razed more than 2,400 Palestinian homes as punishment or deterrence — leaving thousands of people homeless — including 675 houses destroyed in the past four years of fighting, according to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem.
Human rights groups have condemned the demolitions as collective punishment and a violation of international law, and long have demanded that they be halted.
The army review found the practice has inflamed hatred. The Haaretz newspaper said there were no more than 20 cases in which the threat of demolition deterred attackers or pushed their families to turn them in. Militant groups compensate families of attackers and help them rebuild, weakening possible deterrence.
House demolitions, along with other army practices, such as targeted killings of Palestinian militants, were suspended after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) declared a truce last week.
In announcing the halt to house demolitions, the military said in a statement that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) decided to accept the recommendation of army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon to "stop exercising the legal right to demolish terrorists' houses as a means of deterrence."
A military official said that while the practice had a deterrent effect in some cases, the army "weighed if the deterrent was strong enough in order to continue the policy of the demolition of houses, and the chief of staff ... concluded especially when there's more quiet, it's not the time to use this policy."
B'tselem says the Israeli military has destroyed a total of more than 4,000 Palestinian homes during the current conflict, most in operations to clear away buildings used by militants as cover for attacks or to widen security roads. Those practices were not included in Thursday's decision.
In the Gaza Strip, 2,991 homes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair in the last four years, leaving some 28,483 people homeless, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.
Amnesty International, a leading human rights group, praised Thursday's decision but said it did not go far enough.
"The overall number of houses that have been demolished in the last four years is in excess of 4,000, and out of those, the category announced today was a fairly small category," said Donatella Rovera, the human rights group's researcher on Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said the change in policy on demolishing houses was part of the package of measures Israelis and Palestinians agreed to earlier this month at a summit in Egypt where they declared an end to four years of bloodletting.
The package, Ashrawi said, was meant to end not only the demolition of homes, but Israeli military raids and assassinations of wanted men as well.
"We think this is the implementation of one part of the deal, and we hope they will implement all the other parts," she said.
The three-story home belonging to the family of Ala Sanakra, local leader of the violent Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade in the West Bank refugee camp of Balata, was demolished last fall after he recruited a 19-year-old woman to blow herself up at a Jerusalem junction, killing herself and two Israeli policemen.
Sanakra, a bachelor, had his own apartment in the family compound, which was home to nine people. He said the army could have demolished his rooms and spared the rest of the house.
The demolition "motivated me to send more people on missions and gave more motivation to our fighters," Sanakra said by telephone Thursday.
He said he has the money to rebuild, but won't because he fears the army will raze any new construction. For now, he rents a room nearby for $180 a month. He said his mother often visits the pile of rubble that was once her home and drinks her morning coffee there.
The policy of house demolitions is a holdover from the British rule of Palestine, and has been used off and on in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, peaking during the first Palestinian uprising from 1987-1993 and in the current round of violence. Efforts by human rights groups to halt the practice in the courts have failed.
B'tselem said that in many of the demolitions since 2000, adjacent buildings were also damaged or razed. The group said that in half the cases, the army never claimed the houses it demolished were home to Palestinians directly involved in attacks. In 97 percent of the demolitions, residents received no warning, the group said.
Boaz Ganor, an Israeli counterterrorism expert, said the policy has been applied too indiscriminately in the past four years, but should not be halted entirely. The military should raze houses if relatives of an attacker were involved in violence, or if an attack led to many Israeli casualties, he said.
Ganor acknowledged that effectiveness was not the military's only consideration, and that demolitions are a way of settling scores and appeasing public opinion.
The army revived the policy in October 2001, after a three-year lull. "People expect from governments extreme steps against terrorism, to show something is being done," Ganor said.
The report did not examine Israel's demolition of roughly 3,500 other houses near military posts and settlements, which the army says was needed to prevent attacks on soldiers.