What international law says about Israel's planned destruction of Palestinian assailants' homes

Robert Goldman, Professor of Law, American University, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

After a deadly attack that killed seven people outside an East Jerusalem synagogue, the Israeli government responded by sealing off the home of the Palestinian suspect in preparation for its destruction. The family home of a 13-year-old accused in a separate East Jerusalem shooting has likewise been earmarked for destruction.

This is not unusual. Israel has demolished the homes of thousands of Palestinians in recent years. Bulldozing properties of those deemed responsible for violent acts against Israeli citizens or to deter such acts has long been government policy.

But it is also illegal under international law. As an expert on international humanitarian law, I know that holding the family of assailants responsible for their acts – no matter how heinous the crime – falls under what is know as collective punishment. And for the past 70-plus years, international law has been unequivocal: Collective punishment is strictly prohibited in nearly all circumstances. Yet, when it comes to the demolition of Palestinian homes, international bodies have been unable to enforce the ban.

Rules governing how occupying powers can treat civilians are covered by the Fourth Geneva Convention – one of four treaties adopted after the end of World War II, largely as a response to the horrific excesses of Japanese and German occupying armies.

Article 33 of the 1949 convention states: “No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.” It adds: “Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.”

Since Israel is an occupying power in the eyes of the the United Nations, as well as under the terms of both the Fourth Geneva Convention and the earlier 1907 Hague Convention, then Palestinian civilians under Israeli occupation would fall under the “protected persons” designation of the Geneva Conventions.


The Geneva Conventions reiterate their position on protected persons further in Article 53: “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.”

That slight caveat would apply to instances in which, for example, an armed resistance group used a home belonging to a protected person to fire at an occupying power’s army. But clearly that is not the case in the deliberate destruction of a home belonging to an assailant who launched an attack elsewhere.

Collective punishment is banned not only by the instruments of international humanitarian law, but also by human rights conventions that apply during peacetime and armed conflicts, including occupation.

And such prohibitions are not a quirk of international law – they are common to almost all major legal systems in the world.


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