Data analysis: Effects of house demolitions during the Second Intifada

Economists on Peace contributor Esteban F. Klor delves into the effectiveness of Israel’s counterterrorism policies.

Although it is commonly argued that government policies to deter terrorism and disrupt the operations of terror organisations tend to be effective, alternative theoretical models suggest that they may have a boomerang effect. According to this view, harsh measures of counterterrorism backfire by fostering hatred and attempts to exact revenge. In particular, while counterterrorism policies typically affect the general population, the effectiveness of counterterrorism policies depends on their ability to target terror organisations directly.

A number of scholars studying insurgencies and counter-insurgencies have raised similar arguments. That literature posits that selective measures of violence are effective because they are consistent with a notion of fairness. In addition, they do not distort individuals’ incentives to join the insurgent group since selective violence punishes only those directly involved in acts of insurgency and terrorism.

On the contrary, indiscriminate counter-insurgency measures backfire because they create new grievances, fail to generate a clear structure of incentives, and allow insurgents to solve collective action problems. As a consequence, indiscriminate violence against civilians increases popular support for terrorist and insurgent groups. Terrorists and insurgents usually translate this increase into bigger cadres and increased violence against their political opponents.

Despite the wide interest that counterterrorism policies draw, and the abundance of related theoretical studies, there is little empirical evidence on the effectiveness of selective and indiscriminate measures of counterterrorism when both measures are simultaneously applied. Assessing the effectiveness of counterterrorism policies requires detailed micro-level data on terror attacks and counterterrorism operations, as well as clear criteria to differentiate between selective and indiscriminate measures. Unfortunately, such detailed data are typically not publicly available.

In a recent research paper joint with Efraim Benmelech and Claude Berrebi, we attempted to fill this gap by linking novel micro-level data on house demolitions, a policy used by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to combat and deter terrorism and suicide attacks, to empirically document the effects of house demolitions on future suicide attacks.

We differentiated between the two main types of house demolitions carried out by the IDF: precautionary demolitions and punitive house demolitions. Precautionary demolitions are intended to prevent the launching of attacks from specific locations and are not related to activities carried out by the owners or occupants of the houses being demolished. In contrast, in punitive house demolitions, the IDF demolishes or seals houses that were home to Palestinian suicide terrorists, or to individuals suspected, detained, or convicted of involvement in violent acts against Israelis.

Our analysis shows that punitive house demolitions lead to fewer suicide attacks in the month following the demolitions. The effect is significant and sizeable – a one standard deviation increase in punitive house demolitions leads to a decrease of 11.7 per cent in the number of suicide terrorists originating from an average district. That said, this effect is highly localised and completely disappears a month after the demolition. In contrast, precautionary demolitions, which are not related to activities of the houses’ owners and occupants, are associated with more suicide attacks. Our estimates show that a standard deviation increase in precautionary house demolitions leads to a 48.7 percent increase in the number of suicide terrorists from an average district.

“The analysis indicates that, when targeted correctly, counterterrorism measures such as house demolitions provide the desired deterrent effect. When used indiscriminately, however, house demolitions lead to the radicalisation of the population and backfire, resulting in more subsequent attacks.”

That said, while interpreting our results one needs to keep in mind that house demolitions may not be an efficient policy because it may cause some undesirable consequences. The use of house demolitions may lead to an increase of non-suicidal terror attacks or bring about animosity from the international community against its use. However, by showing which types of demolitions deter suicide terrorists and which promote more terrorism, we were able to shed more light on the desirability of house demolitions and their effectiveness as a counter-suicide-terrorism tool.

Our analysis addressed the short-term effects of counter-terrorism measures on the subsequent number of suicide terror attacks during the Second Intifada. Resorting to a longer-term perspective, we can’t help but highlight that the Second Intifada ended, and with it, the number of suicide attacks against Israelis came to a complete stop. But, were the counterterrorism measures we analyzed in this paper one of the main causes behind the cessation of suicide terror attacks? Our results show that counter-terror measures, even if they are effective, have only a limited effect on fluctuations on suicide terrorism. This leads us to the conclusion that the main factors bringing about the beginning or the complete ending of terror campaigns belong to the political rather than the military realm.

The opinions expressed throughout this article are the opinions of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Vision of Humanity or the Institute for Economics & Peace. 

Esteban Klor

Economist on Peace

Esteban F. Klor (PhD NYU 2002) is The Herczeg Family Professor and current chairman of the Department of Economics at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His current research analyzes the interaction between terrorism, counter-terrorism, and political preferences of the terrorists’ perceived constituency and their targeted population.

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