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Israel suspends policy of demolishing Palestinian attackers' homes

JERUSALEM—The Israeli military said Thursday it would stop demolishing homes of Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen as punishment because an internal panel concluded the practice didn't deter attacks.

The policy, which the military defended in a written statement as its "legal right," could be reinstated "if an extreme change in circumstances takes place."

Human rights activists lauded the abandonment of the punitive policy, which has resulted in Israel demolishing some 1,800 Palestinian homes since the 1967 Middle East War.

But other groups, including the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, said the decision may not end most Israeli razing practices in Palestinian areas. Some 4,100 homes have been destroyed by Israel since the last Palestinian uprising began in late September 2000, according to the human rights group B'tselem. Most of those buildings were destroyed, not as punishment, but to eliminate cover for gunmen and expand security buffer zones and roads.

"Our biggest concern is the mass home demolitions in Rafah, which left almost 30,000 people homeless," said Paul McCann, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, referring to the southern Gaza border town with Egypt.

For now, all types of demolition are effectively on hold since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas declared an end to hostilities at a meeting at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik on Feb. 8

The army panel found that the demolitions inflamed hatred rather than provided deterrence. Only 20 families of would-be suicide bombers came forward and turned their relatives in during the past four years, the daily newspaper Ha'aretz, reported.

In the past four years of violence, some 675 homes were destroyed in punishment for terror attacks against Israelis, leaving 4,239 Palestinians homeless, B'tselem said.

In 97 percent of the cases, residents received no warning before their houses were destroyed, the human rights group said. Often, adjacent homes and buildings were also damaged.

After the military panel delivered its report, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon recommended to Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz that the policy be stopped, and he accepted.

That infuriated some relatives of Israeli victims. "If even one child is saved by destroying houses, it's worth it," said Arieh Bachrach, whose son Ohad, 18, was killed by Palestinian gunmen in 1995 while hiking in a West Bank valley near Jericho. "If we had the policy of destroying houses 10 years ago, then perhaps my son would be alive today."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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