10 December '14..
“Israeli security forces revived a controversial antiterrorism policy,” the New York Times reported in November, “demolishing the East Jerusalem home of a Palestinian man who plowed his car into pedestrians last month, killing a baby and a young woman.” Anyone who follows the conflict knew precisely what they were going read, without a doubt, at some point in the article. And sure enough, Times reporter Jodi Rudoren gets there eventually: Israel halted “the widespread practice in 2005, when a commission found that it rarely worked as a deterrent.” For a decade, this claim has been used against Israel. And now we know it’s false.
In an important piece on the issue on Monday, Yishai Schwartz explained how this narrative took hold:
The problem is, the commission conducted no serious study of the demolitions’ effects, and the latest evidence actually points in the opposite direction. The 2005 Times article on which much of the subsequent coverage seems to have been based is itself an overstatement of a contemporaneous account in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. But Haaretz made no claims about conclusive findings, simply stating that the military committee recommended ending the program and referencing a general, preliminary “study of the first 1000 days of the conflict” from 2003 that merely stated, “as of today, there is no proof” of effective deterrence from the demolitions.
The ineffectiveness trope was just simple enough for the media to understand. Schwartz explains that the Israeli leadership was looking for a justification to end the practice of demolishing the homes of terrorists. Violence from the intifada had been waning, and Israeli leaders wanted a return to normalcy of sorts.
The problem is that if home demolitions worked, how could they justify ending them? The commission’s report was not based on a real study of the practice and was never intended to be the last word on the topic. It was simply to give the political class cover. Yet the media absorbed the spin all too well, and it became conventional wisdom.
Now that conventional wisdom is about to be upended. Schwartz writes of a forthcoming study by Israeli academics (who personally weren’t exactly enthusiastic about the practice), which comes to a very different conclusion:
In fact, they found two separate correlations. Precautionary demolitions resulted in a significant increase in suicide attacks, a “48.7 percent increase in the number of suicide terrorists from an average district,” according to the study. By contrast, punitive demolitions led to a significant decrease in terror attacks, between 11.7 and 14.9 percent, in the months immediately following the demolition. The study suggests that, at least in the aggregate, terrorists can be understood as “rational actors”: “The results support the view that selective violence is an effective tool to combat terrorist groups and that indiscriminate violence backfires.”
This will not be the last word on the debate over home demolitions, nor should it be. It’s only one study, a snapshot of one (albeit important) time period. Additionally, you can separate the moral implications of the policy from its efficacy, to some degree.
I say “to some degree” because they are connected in one respect: the media can paint Israel as an irrationally violent actor if it can also declare that Israel knows the demolitions don’t have practical benefits. Of course, even if Israel believes it deters terrorism, that does not automatically give it a clean ethical bill of health. Lots of tactics would deter terrorism, many of them repellent. Israeli leaders must still grapple with the moral considerations of the policy.
There’s also a difference in how the policy is implemented. What’s interesting is that the clearly “more moral,” so to speak, use of the tactic is also more effective. Yet punitive demolitions, as Schwartz notes, can still be considered by critics to be a form of collective punishment. (Who else lives in the home? What was their involvement in the terrorist attack? These things matter a great deal.)
But there is far less ambiguity on the media’s role in all this. How this narrative formed actually belongs on the syllabus of a Media Bias 101 course (which Rudoren should take–or teach, depending on how you feel about media bias against Israel). There was a politicized commission used to produce a foregone conclusion to support a decision political leaders had already made. On top of this politicized intelligence/research, you had Haaretz report it–a sure sign of trouble ahead. When Haaretz reports something, despite its well-known truthfulness deficiency, the leftist media abroad picks it up. (Haaretz is not a newspaper for Israelis but rather for foreign correspondents.)
That means the New York Times will be among the first to broadcast it, especially if it’s critical of Israel’s security establishment, and regardless of its accuracy. That can (and will) persist even after initial stories get debunked, which is why the Western reporting on Israel is so unimaginably terrible. Will the Times stop referencing the now debunked narrative on housing demolition? Whether they do will indicate if there is still any room at all for the facts in the paper’s reporting on Israel.