IRAQ-BORIN, West Bank, July 19 — In a change of tactics, the Israeli Army today rounded up 21 male relatives of two fugitive Palestinian militants whom it blamed for attacks this week and threatened to deport them. The fugitives' houses were also destroyed.
The deporting of relatives of violent militants — probably to the Gaza Strip but possibly abroad — has been debated by top Israeli commanders for weeks as a way to combat terrorism, which has been reduced but not stopped by the army's reoccupation and curfews on the West Bank. The tactic could face extensive legal wrangles.
Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein is to meet soon with army officials to make a legal determination whether the men can be deported. He is said to have initially recommended that there were legal grounds for "selective deportation to Gaza" for people "directly involved in supporting" the militants. There has also been discussion about sending them abroad, possibly to Lebanon, as was done during the first Palestinian uprising, from 1987 to 1993.
The threat of deportation drew immediate protests from Palestinian officials and Israeli human rights organizations.
"I see this as a war crime; I see this as a crime against humanity," said the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat. "It's a very alarming development."
B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, issued a statement saying that "punishment of innocent persons will constitute an unerasable moral blight on the State of Israel" and that the policy would violate the Geneva Convention against both collective punishment and deportation.
"One of the most fundamental principles of the rule of law is that one person cannot be punished for the actions of another," the statement said. "A state engaging in such collective punishment, even in response to murderous attacks against its own innocent civilians, loses moral justification for its action."
The Islamic militant group Hamas, a sponsor of suicide bombers, said it would respond to such a tactic with "a message of explosions and destruction into every place where seekers of martyrdom can reach."
Israeli officials said the tactic was intended to break up the family support systems for suicide bombers. Many cases involve payments of $25,000 from Iraq or other Arab backers, which a Foreign Ministry legal adviser, Daniel Traub, called "bribery to commit mass murder."
"We've seen mothers appearing in videos of suicide bombers before they go out to commit their atrocities," Mr. Traub said. "We've seen families of suicide bombers afterward expressing the wish that their other children will follow suit. We have to try to break that cycle."
In their effort to end the terror attacks, Israeli commanders have tried virtually everything at their disposal, including the reoccupation, which has kept some 700,000 Palestinians locked in their houses, with only brief breaks, and isolated villages. A recent editorial cartoon in the leading newspaper Haaretz showed a group of generals sitting around a conference table, with one saying, "Anybody have any ideas?"
Even the normally dovish foreign minister, Shimon Peres, said on the Israeli radio that he would support the measure. "Look, it is obvious that we are being pushed to do things that we would willingly prefer not to do," Mr. Peres said. "But what happened this week, the two grave incidents, it almost leaves us no choice."
The army used deportations and house destructions extensively during the first intifada, or uprising. At one point, the army dumped 400 militants by helicopter on the stony hills of southern Lebanon. Many eventually returned, tutored in bomb-making by skilled Hezbollah guerrillas.
The army strikes today came shortly after midnight in two places near Nablus.
One target was the home of Nasser Aseida, 26, in the village of Tel, down a valley and up a hill from this even more remote village. The army said he was the Hamas mastermind of the ambush of an armored bus on Tuesday when a roadside bomb immobilized the bus and three gunmen in Israeli Army uniforms raked its roof with automatic-weapons fire. Nine Israelis died.
The second was the home of Ali Ajouri, 23, in the Askar refugee camp on the edge of Nablus. The army said he was a leader of the Fatah-affiliated Aksa Martyrs Brigades who sent two teenage suicide bombers to Tel Aviv on Wednesday night. That attack killed three men: a Romanian, a Chinese and an Israeli.
In the Askar camp, Palestinians said about six other flimsy houses nearby were destroyed or badly damaged when the army blew up the Ajouri residence, leaving at least 22 people homeless.
Reporters saw an elderly neighbor, Tahir Faris, sobbing at the ruins of his house, home to 11 relatives.
"All my house was lost," he cried. "What did I do, God? I worked all my life to build the house, and now it's lost."
In Tel, one resident, Jaffar Zeidan, said the army came in shortly after midnight, left after four hours, then returned this afternoon. After blowing up the Aseida residence, they took a number of men into custody.
"There is nothing left for Israel to do except imposing pressure and punishment on the families," said Mr. Zeidan, 31, who said he evaded capture. "This method of punishment will lead to a stronger reaction. It will not prevent people from commiting any acts."
There was similar defiance from this little village, where residents said there had been no water for 34 days because the tanker truck that normally services it cannot get through. Men and boys take donkeys to a spring down the road to fill plastic jugs. An army bulldozer was building more barricades today, and an armored personnel carrier sat athwart the road, blocking the way.
"There is no water; we can't buy food; we can't buy vegetables," said the mayor, Ibrahim Kadous, materializing among the donkeys. "It's harassment."
"I am ready to fight to buy food for my family," he continued. "And the people will fight for revenge. This will not stop the intifada; this will escalate the intifada."