Home Wrecking

In Jerusalem Home Demolitions, the Biblical Justice of Revenge

The terrorists are dead, but Israeli authorities punish their families by destroying their houses. This is supposed to act as a deterrent, but may be an incitement.

11.25.14 7:20 PM ET

JERUSALEM—“I am the father of the martyr,” says Ibrahim Hijazi, a well-dressed pensioner with milky blue eyes and a mark on his forehead gained by years of Muslim prayer. He has just emerged from one of the many homes that sit on top of a small hill in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tur. “Would you like to see the house?”

The apartment in question was the home of Muataz Hijazi, the man suspected of shooting and wounding right-wing activist Yehuda Glick at point-blank range on Oct. 29. The following day, Muataz was killed on the roof of this building.

Glick is a central figure in the Temple Mount movement that campaigns for Jewish prayer in the al-Aqsa mosque compound, a controversial goal that contributes greatly to the current serious unrest in Jerusalem.

Now, Ibrahim Hijazi’s home is awaiting demolition for the crimes of his son. As one surveys the ground-floor Hijazi household, one wonders how the two-story building will stand after the demolition, and what will happen to Ibrahim’s nephew’s family, currently living above him. Their home probably will be devastated, too, but they received no demolition notice.

Ibrahim said that Israeli forces came to his house early on the morning of Nov. 23 to survey locations for the deployment of soldiers and police officers as the home comes down, a procedure that always provokes outrage.

It’s in the name of deterrence, and in reaction to the recent wave of violence, that Israel has reinstated its controversial policy of levelling the homes of relatives of those suspected of committing acts of terror. The demolition men also are due to bulldoze the houses of the cousins Ghassan and Uday Abu Jamal, killed after murdering four worshippers and a policeman at a West Jerusalem synagogue. It does not matter if the perpetrators of the crimes are dead, apparently, the destruction of their families’ homes is supposed to intimidate the living.

The practice is controversial, to say the least. In a recent press release, Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Joe Stork called housing demolitions “blatantly unlawful,” saying that Israel should punish assailants with due process of the law, abstain from employing collective punishment, and “not carry out vengeful destruction that harms entire families.”

Ibrahim Hijazi walked me through his barren house, emptied ahead of the demolition. “This is the room of my daughter,” he said, pointing at the white walls lightly sprinkled with dots of pink paint, the only indication that a girl may have lived here. He then walked to the next room.

“Here is the room my three sons shared.” Muataz Hijazi, the middle son, slept here.

It’s obvious that the house holds countless memories for Ibrahim. Regardless of his middle son’s attempt on Glick’s life, three other children with clean records, along with their mother, called this place home. But whatever emotional attachment is there, it’s all null and void now. “We have until the 26th of November to appeal the decision, but it’s useless,” he told me. “We’re just waiting.”

The family seems to be prepared. Not only is the house empty, but they went as far as to write “ahlan wa sahlan,” “welcome” in Arabic, to greet the Israelis at different spots along the walls. 

At this point, Ibrahim has lost more in a month than many do in decades. His son, his home, and if certain Israeli politicians have their way, his right to live in Jerusalem may be taken away next.

So, how did this come to pass? Why did Muataz attempt to kill Yehuda Glick?

The family isn’t convinced that he did. They say that the Israelis framed him in order to light the powder keg of religious war over the al-Aqsa compound. But witnesses say Muataz definitely was the shooter, and he even went so far as to apologize to Glick before pulling the trigger.

Ibrahim began his son’s story by explaining that his family lived in the United Arab Emirates until Muataz was 16. They returned to Jerusalem in 1998.

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“It was this year when the Israelis first harassed him,” the father explained. One day while walking near the Palestinian side of Jerusalem’s Old City, a group of soldiers demanded his son’s identification and repeatedly asked him, in Hebrew, how many times he had been in prison.

“My son didn’t know Hebrew then, he simply couldn’t respond.” According to Ibrahim, the police officers grabbed him by the shoulder and struck him in the face. They then began to speak with him in Arabic: “Answer, or we’ll go and fuck you.”

The teenager was shaken by the incident, and his father remembers having to console him for hours that day.

If Ibrahim’s account is true, the harassment continued, culminating in the young man’s arrest at the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000. Muataz had used his knowledge of electrical wiring (he was trained as an electrical technician) to cause small electrical fires in West Jerusalem buildings, using smoke, his father says, to “scare the people inside.”

Israel didn’t see it this way, and convicted him of seven counts of arson committed in 17 days in 2000. According to the online version of the Israeli daily with the highest circulation, Yedioth Ahronoth, he was also a member of Islamic Jihad.

His original sentence was six years, but “violent behavior,” including an attack on two guards with a shaving razor and on another with his handcuffs, meant that he was not released until 2012.

Ibrahim says that his son spent over 10 years in solitary confinement because of these incidents. The only faces he saw were those of the guards assigned to his cell, lawyers, judges, and occasionally members of his family when they were allowed to visit. Ibrahim says he repeatedly wrote letters asking for his son to be taken out of seclusion. Israeli Authorities only responded to one.

“What was the response?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he replied, before continuing with the story.

The family contends that Muataz was regularly abused and further threatened with rape.

The allegation may or may not be true, but it is not implausible. Israeli jails are known to be brutal and the Palestinian Prisoner’s Club, a group that campaigns for Palestinians arrested inside Israel, recently released a report saying that 40 percent of Palestinian children detained in Jerusalem have been sexually abused.

When Muataz was released in 2012, he was hardened. In an interview conducted at that time, Muataz said that he was looking forward to being a “thorn in the Zionist plan of Judaizing Jerusalem.”  

But he was also damaged. He had trouble staying focused, trouble remembering where he placed things like his keys and wallet, and he suffered from lingering depression.

The Sourcebook for Solitary Confinement, a reference work prepared by Sharon Shalev, fellow of the Mannheim Center for Criminology at the London School of Economics, lists a broad range of side effects from extended isolation. According to the book (PDF), this type of punishment can lead to a “constellation of symptoms,” including “surges of panic or rage,” “delirium, characterized by a decreased level of alertness,” and “random, impulsive and self-destructive behavior.”

Perhaps conditions stemming related to the confinement, mixed with years of frustrating dealings with Israeli soldiers and police, and religious fervor led to the attempted assassination of Yehuda Glick.

“Believers suffer from human treatment. Now we believe that God will save us, not man,” Ibrahim said about his current situation on Sunday. “It depends on patience.”

Now all the family can do is wait for the bulldozer. “We thought they would come last night, but we think there was too much rain.”

On Monday evening, the rain seemed to be letting up.