The ICC and Israel: Prosecuting the Punitive Demolition of Palestinian Homes – Part 1

by Elvina Pothelet

[Elvina Pothelet is a Visiting Researcher at the Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Geneva. This is the first part of a two-part post.]

Last Friday, a car-ramming attack in the West Bank killed two Israeli soldiers and injured two others. While the suspect was apprehended shortly thereafter, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pledged on Twitter to “work to demolish the home of the terrorist”. This statement reflects the commitment of the current Israeli government to an infamous policy of “punitive home demolitions”, which consists of demolishing the home of relatives of Palestinians suspected of security offences against Israel in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (two other types of demolitions are “administrative demolitions” of houses built without a permit and “clearing demolitions” carried out on the pretext of military needs such as during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014). Punitive demolitions have been widely documented (see e.g. here, here, here, here, here, and here) and denounced as amounting to collective punishment, a violation of IHL and a war crime under many national laws. Yet, the practice is surprisingly absent from the ICC Prosecutor’s preliminary examination reports on the situation of Palestine. In her 2015, 2016 and 2017 annual reports, Fatou Bensouda mentions house demolitions only under the heading of “settlement activities” which would seem to exclude punitive house demolitions.

The ICC does not have jurisdiction over the war crime of collective punishment as such. The case for including this crime in the Rome Statute has already been convincingly argued, but it was not proposed as an amendment at the 2010 Kampala Review Conference. However, as will be argued below, punitive demolitions could be prosecuted under other war crime counts. The OTP should include them in her preliminary investigation: not only could this lead to concrete charges before the ICC, and offer some prospect of justice for the hundreds of Palestinians who lost their homes since mid-2014, it could also deter the current and future Israeli governments from pursuing such a policy.

The first part of this post addresses the qualification of the policy as a “grave breach” of the Fourth Geneva Convention (GCIV), prosecutable under Art. 8(2)(a) of the Rome Statute, while the second part will address alternative qualifications as well as admissibility concerns.

The grave breach of extensive destruction of property

Israel’s policy of punitive demolitions could qualify as the grave breach of “[e]xtensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly”, under Art. 8(2)(a)(iv) of the Rome Statute. Below, I will examine the elements of this crime.

First, Art. 8(2)(a) crimes require an international armed conflict (IAC). The qualification of the situation in the West Bank as one of occupation, and hence an IAC to which IHL applies, should not raise any serious legal issues and is acknowledged by the Israeli Supreme Court. (The question of the conventional applicability of GCIV in the West Bank and whether this is condition for war crimes under Art. 8(2)(a) of the Statute is beyond the scope of this post. However, it can be argued that the grave breaches provisions of GCIV underlying Art. 8(2)(a) crimes need only apply as a matter of customary law. Note that this question would not arise for Art. 8(2)(b) war crimes, discussed in part 2 of this post, given the absence of reference to the GCs in the chapeau of the article).

A second contextual requirement for the applicability of all Art. 8 crimes is that “the conduct took place in the context of and was associated with an international armed conflict” (nexus requirement). Given that Israel views demolition orders as an administrative sanction, a claim that they constitute mere law enforcement measures unconnected to the conflict is foreseeable. This argument would not hold up. If ICC judges follow, like they did in the past, the Kunarac test (the conflict – or occupation – “must play a substantial role in the perpetrator’s decision, in his ability to commit the crime or in the manner in which the conduct was ultimately committed”), there is no reason to expect the Court to question the existence of a sufficient nexus. The practice of punitive demolitions is intrinsically linked to the occupation since it is carried out in response to acts committed against Israel as the occupying power, made possible because Israel controls the territory on which the houses are located, and implemented via the occupation apparatus (authorized by the military commander under the military law applicable in the West Bank and executed by the IDF as the occupying force).

A third consideration is the protective scope of Art. 8(2)(a)(iv). The chapeau of Art. 8(2)(a) requires that the property be “protected under the provisions of the relevant Geneva Convention”. GCIV does not define which property is “protected” under its provisions but it makes sense to follow the reasoning of the ICTY according to which property belonging to protected persons is itself protected under GCIV (Blaskic, TJ, para 149-150). Given that the owners of the houses destroyed by Israel in the West Bank “find themselves […] in the hands of [an] Occupying Power of which they are not nationals”, they are protected persons under Art. 4 GCIV and therefore their property can be said to be “protected” as required by the chapeau of Art. 8(2)(a). As to the type of property contemplated in Art. 8(2)(a)(iv) specifically, it includes property protected under Art. 53 GCIV, i.e. “real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons” (William Schabas, paras. 291-292; Knut Dörmann, p. 83). The property of Palestinian suspects and their relatives would thus fall under the protective scope of Art. 8(2)(a)(iv).

Fourth, according to the ICC Elements of Crimes for Article 8(2)(a)(iv), the destruction must be “extensive and carried out wantonly” and “not justified by military necessity”. In Blaskic, the ICTY indicated that “[t]he notion of ‘extensive’ is evaluated according to the facts of the case” (Blaskic, TJ, para. 157). Referring to the ICRC Commentary for Art. 147 GCIV (on which Art. 8(2)(a)(iv) is based), the judges emphasize that a single act may (or may not) suffice to characterize an offence under this count. This reasoning suggests that the extent of the destruction can be deduced not only from one incident but also from a pattern. Thus, every single demolition by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) need not be extensive; rather, the cumulative effect of the demolitions accounts for the extensive nature of the practice. The adverb “wantonly” has been interpreted by the ICTY as meaning that “the perpetrator acted with the intent to destroy the property in question or in reckless disregard of the likelihood of its destruction” (Kordic, TJ, para. 346). Given that the punitive demolition of Palestinian homes is implemented as part of a policy, this element should not raise any doubt. Hence, a 2014 Expert Opinion authored by four Israeli scholars concludes that:

“While any individual house demolition operation, executed on the basis of a specific order, will likely fall short of the legal standard of extensive destruction, […] a Policy leading over the years to hundreds or even thousands of house demolition not justified by military necessity, may pass the threshold of wantonness under Article 8(2)(a)(iv)”.

The requirement that the destruction be carried out “unlawfully” should be “assessed in the light of the overarching concept of military necessity” (OUP Commentary, Chapter 71, para. 51; see also Dörmann, p. 83) (the fact that the ICC Elements of Crimes for Art. 8(2)(a)(iv) do not mention the “unlawful” element but only that of “military necessity” (Element 2) confirms this interpretation. The concept of “military necessity” is often understood as the equivalent of “necessities of war” (used in Art 23(g) of the 1907 Hague Regulations). The Israeli government has successfully argued before the Israeli Supreme Court that these demolitions comply with military necessity (for an analysis of these cases see here, here and here). While the exact meaning of “military necessity” is controversial, it is uncontroversial that it differs in nature from security considerations. One way military necessity has been explained is that “[t]here must be some reasonable connection between the seizure or destruction of the enemy property and the overcoming of enemy forces” (U.S. DoD Manual, 5.17.2). The punitive nature of the demolition cannot possibly be reconciled with even the most generous understanding of military necessity, which is prospective in nature. The use of the term “deterrent” by the Israeli government, in an effort to signal the preventive as opposed to punitive nature of the policy seems to reflect no more than a difference in rhetoric – Israeli executive and judiciary branches did use the term “punishment” throughout the 1970s and 1980s to designate the same practice. Destroying private housing to sanction a perceived affiliation with “the enemy” is too far removed from the objective of overcoming enemy forces. In addition, claims that the policy is “necessary” have been challenged on the basis of empirical data showing that the policy is, in fact, ineffective at deterring terrorism. The 2014 Expert Opinion further argues that the unlawfulness of the demolitions also derives from the fact that they constitute collective punishment.

8 Responses

  1. How about prosecuting the Turks and Erdogan for excesses committed in the course of the ongoing Operation Olive Branch? Or are the Kurds devoid of any rights? Why has the international community failed to act against Damascus when the regime forces mercilessly bombed Ghouta? Where was Amnesty International when the Yazidis were massacred and their women raped?

  2. Kumar, just a hunch, but I think Elvina ran out of words before she could address all of the world’s problems and injustices in her blog post. But I am quite sure the editors here would be happy to entertain your all-encompassing analysis.

  3. “Where was Amnesty International when the Yazidis were massacred and their women raped?”

    If you used this magical thing called “google,” Kumar, you would have been able to find out all by yourself that AI was busy writing endless condemnations of ISIS’s treatment of the Yazidi…

    Try this — it’s called a “search”:

  4. So,according to Prof Heller, the atrocities committed against Yazidis have been adequately addressed and justice has been done. Grow up Prof! Display, at least for once, some maturity and justify that you are even fit to be a teacher. Once again pity your students! The so-called Prof has chosen to keep mum on the rest of the comments made by me against Turkish forces and Syria.

  5. Kumar asked “[w]here was Amnesty International when the Yazidis were massacred and their women raped?” I pointed out the vast amount of Amnesty’s reporting on the Yazidis. Now he says that I somehow claimed that “the atrocities committed against Yazidis have been adequately addressed and justice has been done.” And he claims I need to exhibit maturity? Pathetic.

  6. In the course of discussing serious issues like the one raised by the author and excesses carried out by the Turkish and Syrian forces and atrocities on the Yazidis, the idiotic comments of the “Prof” comes as a comic relief. Apart from passing personal comments, I am forced to ponder about his erudition.

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