The house on the outskirts of the affluent town of Turmus Ayya, north of Ramallah, is actually a mansion, some of whose residents live in the United States and come here only for summer vacation. The structure – three stories of glossy marble filled with fancy furniture, crystal chandeliers, glass walls, rounded balconies and a flurry of ornaments – is slated to be demolished by Israel Defense Forces bulldozers within days.
“A large house with a magnificent glass façade,” reads the petition submitted to the High Court of Justice appealing the demolition order. But it’s not the splendor of the building that’s behind the request of the Shalabi family – all of them American citizens – to prevent the army’s heavy machinery from toppling their home. And it’s not because of its splendor that Israel wants to demolish it. Israel wants to raze this house in order to take revenge for an act by the father of the family, Muntasir Shalabi, 44, who also holds U.S. citizenship.
On May 2, Shalabi opened fire at a group of Jews at Tapuah Junction, near Ariel in the West Bank, wounding two and killing Yehuda Guetta, a yeshiva student. Israel apparently wants to placate the victims by demolishing this house, as it always does, and claims that its destruction will serve as a deterrent.
In recent years, Shalabi spent only summer vacations in the stately house, but for his estranged wife, Sanaa, and three of their seven children, it is home. Now they are petitioning the High Court, through Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual and attorneys Leah Tsemel and Nadia Daqqa, in a desperate attempt to prevent the unnecessary and unjust demolition. For now, no decision has been made as to when it will take place.
The family has no connection whatsoever with what Muntasir did. He doesn’t live in or have anything to do with the house, and its demolition, like that of all terrorists’ homes, constitutes collective punishment that is banned under international law and is a crime against natural justice.
An impressive arched, oversize door leads inside. Israeli troops broke the door down when they arrived to measure the interior of the structure ahead of the demolition, a few days after Muntasir was caught. They punctured the walls of the house and also a large mirror in one of the rooms, shattering it. The holes in the walls of the well-kept house are ominous. There’s something satanic about the precision engineering that precedes the act of demolition – all of it carried out in the presence of its occupants.
Sanaa Shalabi, 40, lives here with her daughter Sara, who’s 9, and two teenaged sons, Ahmed and Mohammed. Their four other children live in the United States, where Muntasir also makes his home.
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We heard the complex, telenovela-like family saga this week from Sanaa and her sister, Wajiha, a 24-year-old American who holds a master’s degree in medical sciences and lives in California. She came for a family vacation after not visiting for eight years – and landed straight into the chaos. Three days after her arrival, even before she had overcome the jet lag, Wajiha’s brother-in-law shot the three Israelis. His daughter Sara, contributed to the narrative, speaking American English even though she’s lived in the West Bank all her life.
In the American tradition, our visit starts with a tour of the house. The master bedroom, as they call it, is completely empty and its walls are bare – apparently proof that Muntasir and Sanaa haven’t been sleeping in it for a long time. On the wall of another bedroom is a wedding photo of one of Sanaa’s sisters from America. All of Sanaa and Muntasir’s children were born in California, where he was a salesperson before he moved to Santa Fe and opened a narghile café.
Sanaa was 16 when she married Muntasir. They moved to the United States, where her family was already living. After a decade in Los Angeles, Sanaa decided to return to Turmus Ayya, so that her children would grow up in a Palestinian atmosphere and not lose their national identity. In many cases of families from this village who immigrated to the States, the wife and children return to the West Bank, while the father continues working abroad, coming only on visits. But for each birth Sanaa went to the United States, so all her children would be U.S. citizens.
In 2008, after their luxurious home was built, Muntasir left the village for good. Four of the children joined him, and two of his daughters were married in America. Sanaa continued to live in the Turmus Ayya mansion; her husband came to visit during the summer. Sanaa was last in the United States herself in 2018, for the birth of her grandson.
In time, Sanaa learned that her husband had married three other wives in Muslim marriages (that are not formally recognized in America): 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. According to Sanaa, they knew about one another. Sanaa recounts all of this with a smile on her face, without pain or tears.
Muntasir arrived for his annual visit to Turmus Ayya in March. He stayed in the family home, but in a separate room from Sanaa. Their relationship ended long ago, she says, when she found out about the other wives. Four years ago, she continues, Muntasir started to show signs of mental instability. He became very pious and was diagnosed as schizophrenic by a Ramallah psychiatrist, Dr. Mahmud Sahwan. About two weeks before his terrorist attack, when his situation deteriorated, he was taken again to Sahwan, who prescribed psychiatric drugs, which he took. Muntasir’s daughter Sara says that her father would lock himself into his room for hours and ignored her entreaties. His behavior was also paranoid, they add, and he was occasionally aggressive, although never violent toward family members.
On May 2, he got up before dawn for the meal before the start of the Ramadan fast, then went back to sleep. The month of Ramadan was about to end and Muntasir intended to return to the United States after Eid al-Fitr, the concluding festival. He went to the mosque for midday prayers and remained there until the afternoon service. Returning home at 4:30 P.M., he took Sanaa and Sara to the home of Sanaa’s parents, not far from their own house, in Sanaa’s Hyundai Santa Fe. After dropping them off he continued on his way; they asked him where was going but he didn’t answer them. According to Sanaa, there was nothing unusual about his behavior, he was his usual introverted self. They asked him not to be late for the iftar meal following the fast; Sanaa’s grandfather was going to join them.
Muntasir failed to turn up for the meal; Sanaa and her father phoned him repeatedly but he didn’t answer. Sanaa thought that he might have gone off to the hills alone, where there was no cellphone reception, or that perhaps he was visiting friends and had turned off his phone. They sat down to eat without him. His daughter thought that maybe a wolf had devoured him. The family went to sleep very worried; they hadn’t heard about the shooting attack at Tapuah Junction.
The following day, May 3, they heard that a suspicious car had been found burned in another village. At 3 A.M. dozens of IDF soldiers raided the Shalabis’ home. They locked Sanaa in a room with a dog they had brought with them; its mouth was muzzled but she says she was terrified by it. (The dog scratched her leg, so she went for an anti-rabies shot the next day.) The soldiers questioned the family about Muntasir and carried out a search of the house that continued until first light. Sanaa told them that she had never seen the gun Muntasir had used and that he hadn’t told her anything about his intentions. “If he had said something we would have stopped him,” she tells us now.
Sanaa was taken in for questioning the next day and released after a few hours. Their son Ahmed, 18, was detained for two weeks of interrogations before being released. None of the family could fathom what had driven Muntasir to open fire at the Israelis days before his planned return to his home in Santa Fe, the café and his wife Ingrid.
Muntasir was finally caught on May 6 in the home of a friend in nearby Silwad.
It is taking his family a long time to come to terms with the fact that he actually carried out the attack. They say he didn’t believe in terrorism and always maintained that such acts lead nowhere. Sanaa says that at times she is angry at Muntasir for what he did, and at times she pities him, because she knows he is not well.
Now the family are all fearful of the demolition. Sanaa wonders if she will be given notice before the bulldozers show up. Sara jumps whenever there is a knock on the door.
“This is where I raised my children, this is where we celebrated all the happy events, my daughters left from here to be married. Don’t you have laws? In the United States, accomplices to crime are punished, too – but only the accomplices. Was the house of Baruch Goldstein demolished?” says Sanaa, referring to the American-Israeli extremist who killed 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994. “The house of the murderers of the Dawabsheh family [three of whose members were killed in a firebombing, in 2015]? We didn’t do anything and we didn’t know anything, so why are we being punished?”
Jessica Montell, executive director of the Hamoked NGO, declared this week that Israel’s home-demolition policy is unacceptable, a policy of collective punishment – one on whose legality the Supreme Court has until now refused to deliberate. “In the present case, the injustice is far more blatant, because the accused didn’t live in the house, so the demolition order is a deviation even from the criteria the court has set in terms of proportionality.”
There are 249 clauses in the petition filed by the family and Hamoked to the High Court of Justice, and they all can be distilled into same request: Don’t demolish this house.