[2000 houses demolished since 1967] Destruction of West Bank home sparks debate on Israeli policy after Palestinian attacks

A Palestinian woman stands outside the demolished Shalabi family home (TN)

Rosie Scammell

The National  /  July 20, 2021

Around 2,000 Palestinian homes have been punitively demolished or sealed up by Israeli forces since 1967, a UN report says.

The demolition of a family house in the occupied West Bank this month has blown open the debate on Israel’s policy of destroying the homes of Palestinians linked to attacks.

Fiery explosions ripped through the two-storey house in Turmus Ayya, a village north of Ramallah, before the red-roofed turrets of the house came crashing down on July 8.

On a quiet street opposite a school, the house had been home to Sanaa Shalabi and her three children, all American citizens.

It was also where the children’s father, Muntasser Shalabi, stayed the night before reportedly carrying out a drive-by shooting in the West Bank that killed Israeli Yehuda Guetta and wounded two others.

Mr Shalabi has been charged over the shooting and is set to face an Israeli military court. Meanwhile, the family home was demolished as part of a policy the army says is necessary “to deter potential terrorists from carrying out attacks” against Israelis.

“The demolition of the house was approved in a detailed judgment of the Supreme Court, which ruled that the demolition of the house is legal, proportionate and achieves the purpose of deterrence,” the military said.

The military did not provide evidence to show that the policy serves as a deterrent, when asked by The National.

Around 2,000 Palestinian homes have been punitively demolished or sealed up by Israeli forces since the country’s military took control of the West Bank in 1967, a UN report shows.

The policy has been repeatedly challenged by Israeli rights groups including HaMoked, whose executive director described it as “morally bankrupt”.

“It’s a blatant collective punishment. You’re intentionally targeting innocent people because you think it’s going to deter future terrorists,” said Jessica Montell.

Israeli courts have upheld the law itself numerous times and so HaMoked presents objections specific to each demolition order, such as the unique circumstances of the Shalabi case.

Sanaa Shalabi, who did not respond to an interview request, has been estranged from her husband for years. He had been living in the US and spent a few weeks each year visiting his children.

The rights group also argued that he had been suffering from mental illness and was on antipsychotic drugs at the time of the May 2 attack.

These arguments were rejected by the court. Of around 80 legal challenges filed since 2014, only 10 have been successful in preventing a home demolition, HaMoked says.

The Shalabi family’s American citizenship drew the attention of the US embassy in Jerusalem, which called for “all parties to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions”.

“As we stated numerous times, the home of an entire family should not be demolished for the actions of one individual,” an embassy spokesman said.

US envoy Hady Amr travelled to Israel and the Palestinian territories last week, but the issue was not mentioned in a summary of his visit published by the embassy.

Michael Lynk, UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories, described punitive demolitions as collective punishment which is “absolutely prohibited” under international law.

Without broader global criticism, which would in turn pressure Washington, he saw no end to the policy.

“Virtually the only government that Israel listens to internationally would be the American government,” Mr Lynk told The National.

“[If] America doesn’t decide to pose any costs on the occupation regarding Israel’s practices, then I don’t think we’re going to see any substantive changes.”

Although the current government is a broad coalition which includes Arab and left-wing parties, the alliance led by nationalist Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is unlikely to table policy changes in the West Bank.

“Certainly with respect to the Palestinians, I suspect what we have now is a government that’s going to be Netanyahu with more manners,” said Mr Lynk, referring to the former right-wing leader.

Rosie Scammell – correspondent, Jerusalem