Palestinian mother fights to avoid punitive demolition of her house
TURMUS AYYA, WESTERN BANK: Sanaa Shalaby says she had no idea what her ex-husband was doing until Israeli soldiers raided her home in the occupied West Bank last month.
Now she is fighting a legal battle to stop Israel from demolishing the two-story villa where she lives with her three youngest children. This draws attention to Israel’s policy of punitive house demolitions, which rights groups see as collective punishment.
Israeli security forces arrested her husband, Muntasser Shalaby, and charged him with a May 2 drive-by shootout that killed an Israeli and injured two others in the occupied West Bank. Israel says the demolition of family homes is one of the only ways to deter attackers, who expect to be arrested or killed and who are often glorified by Palestinian factions.
The US State Department has criticized such demolitions, and an internal Israeli military review in the 2000s raised questions about their effectiveness. The case of the Shalaby – who all have American nationality – could revive the debate. Israel’s Supreme Court is expected to make a final decision on the demolition next week.
Sanaa and her husband had been separated for almost a decade. He lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he ran a profitable smokehouse and married three other women in private Muslim ceremonies unrecognized by US authorities.
“It’s allowed in our religion,” Sanaa said. “I didn’t agree.”
He returned to the West Bank in April for what she says is one of her annual visits to see the children. He had also sought treatment for paranoia after being institutionalized in the United States in recent years, according to a statement he gave to his lawyer.
Sanaa said she knew nothing about the attack and had no indication that he was planning anything.
“People commit far worse crimes than this in America and they don’t demolish their homes,” she said. “Whoever committed the crime should be punished, but it is not the family’s fault.”
When the soldiers showed up after the attack, they ransacked the house and briefly detained her 17-year-old son. She said they had a big dog that terrified her and her two youngest children, a 12-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl. The soldiers returned weeks later to map the house to be demolished.
Now Sanaa says her children spend all day in bed and refuse to go to school. “I know my kids and they’ve never been like this,” she said. “My son, Ahmed, has to pass his final exams and he cannot study. He opens his book, reads a few pages and then leaves.
An Israeli official said security agencies believe house demolitions are an effective deterrent. The official declined to comment on the Shalaby case, but said everyone was given advance notice and had the right to challenge the demolitions in court. Someone in Sana’a’s situation would have a “good legal record” if their account was independently verified, the official said.
“There are clear checks and balances,” the official said. “We only use it when we believe it is necessary, and only because we understand it to be an effective deterrent.”
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss security procedures.
HaMoked, an Israeli rights group that has represented dozens of families seeking to end the punitive demolitions and currently represents Sana’a, says such petitions rarely succeed. Out of 83 cases brought since 2014, only 10 demolitions have been avoided, he said. In the other cases, houses were partially or completely demolished, or apartments in multi-storey buildings were permanently cordoned off.
Jessica Montell, executive director of the group, says that from a legal point of view, whether this has a chilling effect is irrelevant.
“You don’t collectively punish innocent people just for being linked to a criminal in the hope that it will deter future criminals. It is an illegal and immoral policy, however effective it may be, ”she said.
The IDF prepared a report on punitive house demolitions in 2004 which led to a moratorium on the practice the following year, according to HaMoked, who received a Power Point presentation of the classified report in 2008 via a court request. .
The presentation raises concerns about the legality of such demolitions and international criticism of them. He also questions their effectiveness, saying the demolitions could even motivate more attacks. These demolitions were mostly halted until 2014, when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in the occupied West Bank.
A campaign by Jewish settlers to evict dozens of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem was one of the main causes of the Gaza war that lasted for 11 days last month, in which airstrikes Israeli women demolished hundreds of homes in militant-ruled territory.
Both forms of displacement evoke bitter memories of what Palestinians call the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” when some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding its creation.
Shalaby said she was in constant contact with the U.S. Embassy, but was told there was nothing she could do about the demolition.
The State Department declined to comment on the case, citing privacy concerns. But he said he was opposed to the punitive demolition of Palestinian homes. “The house of an entire family should not be demolished for the actions of one individual,” he said in a statement.
The Israeli Supreme Court will hear the Sana’a case on June 17.
She hopes she can stay in the house she and her husband built in 2006. She said she sold her bridal jewelry to help finance the construction. She raised her youngest children at home and an eldest daughter got married there last year during a pandemic.
“My daughter got married here around the time of the coronavirus,” she said, pointing to the front yard and smiling at the memory. “It was better than any wedding venue.”