(Jerusalem) – Israel should impose an immediate moratorium on its policy of demolishing the family homes of Palestinians suspected of carrying out attacks on Israelis. The policy, which Israeli officials claim is a deterrent, deliberately and unlawfully punishes people not accused of any wrongdoing. When carried out in occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, it amounts to collective punishment, a war crime.

In at least five instances in 2014, Israeli authorities have demolished or sealed the family homes of Palestinians suspected of killing Israelis, leaving dozens of people homeless. On November 19, 2014, Israeli forces used explosives to destroy the family home of an East Jerusalem man who ran down and killed a baby girl and fatally wounded a woman on October 22. Israeli authorities have said they will demolish seven more family homes of Palestinians suspected of killing Israelis, including five homes in East Jerusalem.

“Punitive home demolitions are blatantly unlawful,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Israel should prosecute, convict, and punish criminals, not carry out vengeful destruction that harms entire families.”

The Israeli military ended an earlier policy of punitive home demolitions in 1998, but reinstituted it after the start of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000. From 2000 to 2005 Israeli forces punitively destroyed more than 650 Palestinian homes, displacing more than 4,000 people, according to data collected by B’Tselem, an Israeli rights organization. In 2009, Israeli forces punitively demolished and sealed off the family homes of Palestinians who killed Israelis.

Following the most recent attack on Israelis, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated on November 18 that he had “ordered the demolition of the homes” of two men he called “human animals” who killed five civilians during an attack on a synagogue that day: Rabbis Aryeh Kupinsky, Kalman Levine, Moshe Twersky, and Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, and police officer Zidan Saif. Israeli forces responding to the attack killed the assailants, Uday and Ghassan Abu Jamal, cousins from East Jerusalem. Human Rights Watch condemned the attack, for which a Palestinian armed group claimed responsibility.

Israeli forces arrested 10 of the men’s relatives on November 18 and released 8 of them the following day, staff at a Palestinian prisoners’ rights group, Addameer, told Human Rights Watch.

Israeli spokespeople contend that under Israeli law, Palestinian families can object to punitive demolition orders within 48 hours and then appeal to Israel’s high court. However, Israel’s High Court of Justice has refused to apply the absolute prohibition in customary international law against the collective punishment of civilians in occupied territory when ruling on petitions against punitive home demolitions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, instead claiming the demolitions could be justified as “proportionate” if balanced against the need to deter other Palestinians from carrying out attacks. The military suspended punitive demolitions in 2005 on the recommendation of a study by a military committee that found the policy did nothing to deter Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

On August 7, the court rejected an appeal by HaMoked, an Israeli rights group that cited the international law prohibition against a planned punitive demolition. The court ruled that such demolitions were a lawful form of “deterrence” under the British Defense (Emergency) Regulations of 1945, which Israel incorporated into its law. The petitioners also argued that Israel’s application of the regulations is discriminatory, since Israeli forces have not destroyed the family homes of Israelis who killed Palestinians. The verdict stated that the latter phenomenon was “extremely exceptional” and ruled that the petitioners had not proven that the military had discriminated in its determination of which homes should be demolished, which “is situated at the heart of [its] discretion.”

On June 30, in the West Bank city of Hebron, the Israeli military detonated explosives in the family homes of two men suspected of kidnapping and killing three Israeli teenagers on June 11.

Military forces completely destroyed the two homes, and sealed that of a third suspect, leaving it uninhabitable, on August 18. On July 2, the military used explosives to destroy the West Bank home of a Palestinian man accused of killing an Israeli security officer in 2013. In total, the military actions displaced 29 residents of the four homes, according to UN data.

An Israeli spokesperson, Mark Regev, told The New York Times on November 19 that demolitions of the family homes of Palestinians who attacked Israelis were necessary to offset “a culture of support within Palestinian society” for such attacks, including financial support to the attackers’ families. However, the international law prohibition of collective punishment, including deliberately harming the relatives of criminals, is absolute. Moreover, the 2005 Israeli military report noted that punitive home demolitions increased hostility toward Israel. Justifying punishment of people who are not responsible for a criminal act just because they might “support” it would set a dangerous precedent which could come back to haunt Israelis.

International law applicable to occupied territory has prohibited collective punishment since at least the Hague Regulations of 1899. Courts around the world have treated the imposition of collective punishments as a war crime.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu should reject a policy of punitive home demolitions,” Stork said. “It is a basic principle of law that one person should not be punished for another’s crime.”