Israel Razed a Palestinian Mansion as Collective Punishment, U.S. Intervention Be Damned

The IDF blew up the family home of a Palestinian accused of murdering an Israeli. The High Court rejected a petition against the demolition, which argued that the assailant lives in the U.S. Even the intervention of the American secretary of state was to no avail

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The ruins of the Shalabi family's house, this week. A crushed luxury home, perhaps one of the most luxurious homes Israel has demolished in the occupied territories.
The ruins of the Shalabi family's house, this week. A crushed luxury home, perhaps one of the most luxurious homes Israel has demolished in the occupied territories.

The scene is as stupefying as it is dismaying: a spectacular marzipan cake on which someone sat down hard, with their full weight, utterly squashing it. The cake imploded and only one level of its original structure remains, squashed and folded into itself.

Maybe it’s the luxuriousness, if not gaudiness, of the house that calls to mind a marzipan cake. Maybe it’s the red-tiled turrets: Even now, after Israeli dynamite blew the building to smithereens, the heaps of ruins still exude a certain ostentation. Here’s a group of red tiles, over there the plaster ornaments remaining from the roof protrude from the rubble. Steel rods tangling skyward between the concrete panels seem to cry for help. A crushed luxury home – perhaps one of the most luxurious homes Israel has demolished in the occupied territories.

Is it harder to see a grand mansion that has been razed than a wretched refugee hovel that suffered the same fate? That’s a hard call. But a house that was ordered to be razed as collective punishment – a war crime in itself – leaving its occupants, including the totally innocent children who lived in it, homeless, should have generated a public discussion in Israel. But Israel languishes in its relentless moral torpor, under the cover and with the encouragement of the High Court of “Justice” which, like an automaton, approves every thuggish measure of the occupation army, so much so that the demolition of the homes of terrorists’ families is perceived as an obligatory act and sometimes even cause for celebration.

The home of Shalabi's family in Turmus Ayya is demolished.Credit: Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

And hardly anyone protests. Not even when there’s a punishment implemented in the manner of an apartheid state: The Jewish terrorist whose family’s home is demolished has yet to be born. The homes of the murderers of the Dawabsheh family and of the teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir – like the homes of Ami Popper, Haggai Segal and others of their ilk – stand proudly intact. But the home of the Shalabi family in the affluent West Bank town of Turmus Ayya, north of Ramallah, was demolished last week.

All are not equal before the law.

It was the house of Sanaa Shalabi, the estranged wife of Muntasir Shalabi, a Palestinian citizen of the United States who, in May, shot and killed yeshiva student Yehuda Guetta and wounded two others at the Tapuah Junction, near Ariel in the West Bank. Sanaa Shalabi lived here with three of her children, 9-year-old Sara and her brothers Mohammed, 15, and Ahmed, 18. Ahmed was taken into custody for two weeks in an attempt to put pressure on his father, who was still hiding out at the time.

The Shalabi house, in Turmus Ayya. Israeli troops broke the door down and punctured walls when measuring the interior of the structure ahead of the demolition.Credit: Alex Levac

We were in the house three weeks before it was demolished. It was luxurious outside and luxurious inside. Its exterior facade was covered in stone, its floors were marble, the furniture betokened prestige and wealth. The walls had already been punctuated with holes drilled by Israeli soldiers in preparation for the demolishers-to-come. Everything was ready for the great pyrotechnics show put on by the Israel Defense Forces.

The demolition was indeed a dazzling pyrotechnical event, which would not shame the special-effects team of any war movie. The rooms were blown up in rapid succession by soldiers via remote control: Flashes and booms eradicated room after room, each floor in turn, and within seconds the job was done and the house collapsed into itself, sending dust billowing skyward. Someone shouted, in vain, “Allahu akbar,” but here, in Turmus Ayya, what is great is not Allah but the IDF.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement condemning the demolition of the house. “The secretary and other senior officials here at the State Department in recent days have raised these concerns directly with senior Israeli officials, and we will continue to do so as long as this practice continues,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price stated. The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem added: “As we stated numerous times, the home of an entire family should not be demolished for the actions of one individual.”

The Shalabi house.Credit: Alex Levac

For a moment it seemed that the demolition would be postponed – but only for a moment. When dawn broke the morning after the official American statement, the house was no longer standing. The sensitivity of the United States regarding preservation of human rights, especially in the case of American citizens – all the members of the Shalabi family hold U.S. passports – did not help in the slightest. Was the Americans’ intervention only meaningless lip service to placate the left wing of the Democratic Party? Apparently, because the fact is that Israel did not put off the demolition after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that it was necessary due to “the State of Israel’s security considerations.”

The so-called security consideration that concerned for Israel was a 17-year-old two-story building. Since the Shalabis separated in 2008, four of their seven children have been living in America and Muntasir, 44, has married three other women: Ingrid, from the Dominican Republic, who lived with him in Santa Fe before he was arrested in the West Bank; Roxana, an American woman; and Arcila, from Mexico. Sanaa lived alone with the three other children in the Turmus Ayya house. Muntasir stayed there when he visited on vacations, as he did recently. Sanaa told us the whole story a month ago, when she also showed us the master bedroom, which was completely empty.

Sanaa, 40, is now living with relatives in Turmus Ayya. No one has suspected her of any involvement in the attack in May or of knowing anything about it. When the Supreme Court justices – Isaac Amit, David Mintz and Ofer Grosskopf – found no impediment to destroying the mansion, even though they acknowledged that Sanaa’s estranged husband lived in it only two months a year during family visits, and also ruled out the possibility that he is mentally ill (though it’s not clear on what basis they determined that), Sanaa realized that her home was doomed. Attorney Nadia Daqqa from Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual, who submitted the court petition in Sanaa’s name, called her and advised her to start emptying the residence. Sanaa left nothing inside – she moved all her belongings to her family’s house, which is not far away.

The Shalabi house.Credit: Alex Levac

“From that day, July 1, I lived with the expectation that they were liable to come at any moment and demolish the house, because the army did not give us a specific day for the demolition,” she told us this week. “A week later the army came to raze it. Troops and heavy vehicles arrived and surrounded my family’s house.

“The demolition went on from 10:30 P.M. until 6 the next morning,” she continues. “The first detonation didn’t succeed in demolishing the house, and in the wake of that the army planted more powerful explosives and blew it up a second time. I didn’t expect an explosion and destruction like that… They took away from us all the sweet memories from the house where we lived from my first day with the children after my husband left and we were left on our own. The children were very sad. All their memories, the parties they held in the house, the weddings that took place in it – everything has vanished. The demolition of the house affected them psychologically in a very powerful way. Now I am trying to give them meaning in life. I say: Inshallah, we will get used to a new house, the main thing is that we are all healthy and everything is good. That’s what’s important.”

Jessica Montell, executive director of Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual, who accompanied the family through the legal process, said this week: “Punitive house demolition is a relic from the British Mandate period. It’s a disgrace that in 2021 the Supreme Court of Israel is continuing to authorize the collective punishment of a whole family that has done no wrong, for actions committed by a lone individual. This is an untenable policy that should have disappeared from the world long ago.”

The ruins of the Shalabi family's house, this week.Credit: Alex Levac

The house is flattened. On the rubble now, one sees flags of Palestine and photographs of Muntasir Shalabi. Now the estranged husband, still awaiting trial, is a local hero. Occasionally a car of curiosity seekers pulls up to see what the army wrought and to show their children. A makeshift bar blocks the entrance, a wicker chair perched next to it. The Shalabi family’s bathtub appears to be the only thing that remains whole, perched atop a dirt mound.

Walking through the ruins is dangerous. Some of the windows in the neighbors’ house are shattered; stones that were flung into the air by the blast landed in their yard. Repairmen have arrived to deal with the damage to the neighbors’ property. Two young people are looking from the neighbors’ house with a very suspicious gaze.

In the corner of the yard of the house that is gone is purple bougainvillea – dusty, withering, dying, looking ashamed.

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