In her recent book on the application of international humanitarian law by national courts, Sharon Weill describes the “apologist role” that is sometimes played by domestic judicial bodies, whereby decisions of courts serve to legitimise unlawful state policies. Last week’s judgment by the Israeli Supreme Court (sitting as the High Court of Justice) upholding the orders of a military commander to destroy and seal a number of Palestinian houses in the West Bank is an exemplary case in point.
The judgment in Qawasmeh et. al.is significant for it provides judicial approval for the recent reinstatement of Israel’s punitive house demolition policy after a “decade-long hiatus”. The judges condone practices of collective punishment, despite the existence of a clear prohibition of such practices under international humanitarian law. The approval is not inadvertent, for the judgment shows that the Court is fully aware of the harm caused to persons other than the perpetrator by the practice of demolishing or sealing the houses of those responsible for criminal or hostile acts.
The background facts of the case are well-known, given that the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June 2014 served as the trigger for a violent escalation leading to ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in Gaza. The Israeli authorities identified the alleged perpetrators of this crime and ordered the demolition or sealing of their homes “in view of the need to deter others from the recurrence of similar actions” (although one residence was already destroyed once the individual was identified). At the time of the judgment, two of the suspects had not been arrested and the third had not yet been tried. Since then, the demolition and sealing orders have been carried out, with a statement by the Israeli military expressly referring to the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the orders and its rejection of the petitioners’ appeals.