Collective Punishment


By Daoud Kuttab

For 14 years, George Qumsieh, a stonecutter, worked to build a three-story stone home in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour. In February 1981, he and his family—his wife, four daughters, and three sons—moved into their new home. Nine months later, Israeli soldiers arrived at the home to arrest their youngest son, Walid, age 15. The army accused Walid of having thrown stones at an Israeli military vehicle four days earlier, in which a side window was broken. No soldiers were reported to have been injured in the incident.

The following day, and before the Shin Bet (General Security Service) had completed interrogating Walid, more troops arrived at the Qumsieh home. Ariel Sharon, the newly appointed Likud defense minister had promised an “iron fist” policy against Palestinians. Members of an Israeli engineering brigade placed the explosives and blew up the Qumsieh stone house. Months later, Walid was sentenced to seven years in jail based on the confession of his friends.

Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, collective punishments are a war crime. Article 33 of the Fourth Convention states: “No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed,” and “collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.” Israel, however, does not accept that the Fourth Geneva Convention or the Additional Protocols apply to the West Bank de jure, but says it abides by the humanitarian provisions without specifying what the humanitarian provisions are.

By collective punishment, the drafters of the Geneva Conventions had in mind the reprisal killings of World Wars I and II. In the First World War, Germans executed Belgian villagers in mass retribution for resistance activity. In World War II, Nazis carried out a form of collective punishment to suppress resistance. Entire villages or towns or districts were held responsible for any resistance activity that took place there. The conventions, to counter this, reiterated the principle of individual responsibility. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Commentary to the conventions states that parties to a conflict often would resort to “intimidatory measures to terrorize the population” in hopes of preventing hostile acts, but such practices “strike at guilty and innocent alike. They are opposed to all principles based on humanity and justice.”

The law of armed conflict applies similar protections to an internal conflict. Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 requires fair trials for all individuals before punishments; and Additional Protocol II of 1977 explicitly forbids collective punishment.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank differs from almost anywhere else because it has continued for more than one generation. Demolition of Palestinian houses has been a regular event in the occupied territories. Most often, the army acts following a bombing directed against Israeli civilians. On July 30, 1997, a bomb exploded in West Jerusalem, killing fifteen, including two suicide bombers, and injuring 170. The army responded by punishing the families of those suspected of carrying out the bombing as well as the village where they came from. Homes of the families of four residents were completely demolished, as were eight homes in East Jerusalem. For one month, Israeli soldiers barred almost everyone from entering or exiting the West Bank.

Officially, the army destroyed the houses because they were built illegally. However, an unnamed defense official stated that the demolitions were meant as a signal to the Palestinian authorities that they could not “resume normal life until they take certain measures to combat terrorism.”

Other security measures by the Israeli Army are no less controversial but are more ambiguous under international law.

Take travel restrictions. Issa from Bethlehem and his fiancée, Farida, from Jerusalem decided to get married on September 13, 1997, in the Mar Elias Christian Church south of Jerusalem. Following the July explosion, the Israeli Army announced a tight closure of the territory under control of the Palestinian Authority. So a Palestinian from Bethlehem could not obtain permission to travel to Jerusalem; and had they decided to move the wedding to Bethlehem, Farida could not have gotten permission to enter the area under Palestinian Authority control. After three abortive attempts to cross Israeli checkpoints, the groom, dressed in his wedding finest, circumvented the restrictions, climbed walls, and walked hours on dirt roads to make the ceremony. Most of the guests stayed home. Most of the restrictions on Palestinians began after Israel annexed the West Bank in the 1967 war, but they were largely ignored until the Gulf War. In March 1993, after a series of stabbings in Israel, the government there established a permanent checkpoint between the rest of the West Bank and Israel, and began routinely sealing off the occupied territories. The closure blocked the movement of Palestinians and of goods into or out of the territories, except for those with valid permits. Since then, Israel has repeatedly imposed a “total closure,” banning Palestinians from reaching hospitals, schools, educational institutions, diplomatic missions, and places of worship in Jerusalem. Travel restrictions, while taken as punishment by those suffering under them, can be but, are not necessarily a collective punishment; they may be a security measure in response to a security breach. Some advocates have argued that semipermanent restrictions border on collective punishment.

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  2. Arab-Israeli War