In the wake of Monday’s suicide bombing in Netanya, Israel’s Defense Minister (and Likud leadership contender) Shaul Mofaz has decided to attempt to resurrect the practice of demolishing terrorists’ family homes. According to Mofaz, “the defense establishment has changed its mind” regarding the effectiveness of demolitions as a deterrent against suicide terrorism, despite the fact that less than a year ago an IDF panel investigating the issue determined unequivocally that the demolitions didn’t work.
In fact, I can think of no good reason for anyone’s mind to have “changed” regarding these demolitions; there is no empirical evidence that they ever served to reduce the number of terror attacks against Israel, and there is no theoretical reason to think that they should have worked.
Those who favor home demolitions love to trot out examples of parents who, to save their house, have alerted Israeli authorities to their child’s plan to carry out a suicide bombing. The IDF’s investigating commission discovered that there had in fact been very few of these cases – something like twelve over several years, as I recall. Twelve individual cases of deterrence do not make a very convincing case for a policy that has been tremendously costly to Israel’s reputation; and in fact, there is every reason to believe that Israeli home demolitions have actually increased rather than reduced the supply of volunteers to carry out suicide attacks.
Suicide Terrorism: A Rational Choice?
According to Rational Choice Theory, punishment can work to reduce crime in two ways. Specific deterrence ensures that someone who has already committed a crime and been punished for it will think twice about repeating his misdeeds; for obvious reasons, this type of deterrence is of limited value in reducing suicide terrorism. General deterrence reduces the probability that any given person will commit a crime in the future, since he will be aware of the likelihood of punishment. General deterrence works when potential criminals (what is a “potential” criminal? look in the mirror!) weigh the benefits of committing a crime against the likelihood and possible severity of punishment, and decide that the cost/benefit ratio is too high.
Home demolitions are unlikely to work as a general deterrent because they oppose a transcendent benefit (furthering the Palestinian national cause, enjoying the eternal pleasures of paradise including 72 houris, and even automatic entry to paradise for one’s relatives) with a mere economic punishment. Since his family house is likely to be replaced by the Palestinian Authority or foreign donors, and families of shahids receive special pensions and the like (assuming, of course, that the checks don’t bounce), the potential suicide bomber is likely to feel that “martyrdom” is a pretty good deal even if his family’s house is demolished.
Further, for deterrence to reduce the number of suicide terror attacks, it would have to be extraordinarily effective. A simple thumbnail calculation will illustrate the problem: There are at least three million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Even assuming that the Gaza Strip is now completely sealed off from Israel, we are still dealing with something between one-and-a-half and two million West Bank Palestinians. Of these, at least fifteen percent are in the age group (let’s say from eighteen to thirty years old) that commits most suicide attacks. This means that there are around a quarter-million potential suicide bombers living in the West Bank! How many recruits do the terror organizations actually need? Even in their most “active” years, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Martyrs of al-Aqsa don’t go through more than a few hundred volunteers (and probably fewer than one hundred) for suicide missions. Since the terror organizations need to convince only a tiny percentage of their “target market” to join up, there is no likelihood that a policy of deterrence through house demolitions will prevent them from reaching their recruiting goals. In fact, home demolitions, by increasing the Palestinian perception of unjust victimization, makes the job of the terrorist recruiters that much easier.
Certainly many individuals decide against volunteering as suicide terrorists because they don’t want their family’s home to be demolished; and a few others do volunteer but are turned in by their relatives. But there is no convincing evidence that the terror organizations have ever had to curtail their activities because of a shortage of recruits, although I must admit that I speculated about the possibility a few weeks ago.
Rage and Retribution
If punishment cannot be justified as a deterrent, it may still be justified as righteous retribution: people ought to be punished for their crimes. But demolishing the family home of a suicide bomber fails a simple righteousness test: the people being punished are not the ones who planned, facilitated, or carried out the attack, so justice is not being done. This is why home demolitions are such a disastrous policy for Israel’s international standing; they come across as collective punishment, which is considered déclassé these days.
If home demolitions can’t be shown to be an effective way of saving Israeli lives – and they can’t, because they’re not – and home demolitions can be shown to be unjust and costly to Israel – which they can, because they are – why are some of us so enthusiastic about the idea? I have no qualifications as a psychologist and few as a sociologist, but I have a theory (a borrowed theory, truth be told, but it’s mine now) about this nonetheless: Home demolitions, along with some of the other measures Israel takes (ostensibly) to reduce Palestinian terrorism, are essentially an “institutionalized rage” response. We Israelis are understandably angry when terrorists kill us in cafés and shopping malls, but we don’t act out by throwing rocks or firing guns into the air. Instead, we let our security forces act on our behalf, justifying whatever they do in the name of “fighting terrorism” even when they pursue policies – like home demolitions – that manifestly don’t reduce terrorism.
Of course, some counter-terrorist measures do work. I’m hardly a “bleeding-heart liberal” on these issues; for example, I favor a policy of “targeted killings” if it’s carried out carefully and efficiently. But anything we do in the name of fighting terrorism – especially policies and practices that are politically costly because they smack of collective punishment – needs to be justified by rational cost-benefit calculations. Home demolitions cannot be justified in this way.
Public Policy and Political Stunts
Shaul Mofaz is no dummy; I assume that he knows everything I’ve said here, probably considerably better than I do. Why, then, did he throw his weight and considerable reputation behind a resumption of home demolitions? I can only think that Mofaz is pulling a cheap political stunt, trying to harness public rage at the latest Islamic Jihad outrage in order to strengthen his position in the Likud. I’m quite disappointed – I had thought that Mofaz was above such things. It’s always sad to see a good soldier turn into a mediocre politician.