The United States on Thursday condemned Israel’s demolition of the home of a Palestinian-American accused of killing an Israeli student in a May terror attack, saying the building should not have been destroyed.
A spokesman said that the US embassy was “following” reports of the demolition of the home lived in by the reportedly estranged wife of Muntasir Shalabi and their children.
“As we stated numerous times, the home of an entire family should not be demolished for the actions of one individual,” the spokesman said.
“We believe it is critical for all parties to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution, this certainly includes the punitive demolition of Palestinian homes,” the statement said.
An unnamed official in the Prime Minister’s Office said that while Prime Minister Naftali Bennett “respects” the United States, Israel must act in the interest of its citizens.
“The prime minister appreciates and respects the American administration,” the Israeli official said in a statement. “At the same time, he acts solely in accordance with the security considerations of the State of Israel and the protection of Israeli citizens’ lives.”
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The US condemnation came as Bennett is expected to travel to Washington later this month for a first meeting with US President Joe Biden since the two leaders took office this year.
Bennett has said he hopes to strengthen ties between the two nations after tense relations between his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu and the Biden administration. His partner in the coalition government, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has pledged to handle disagreements behind closed doors, as opposed to Netanyahu, who was more willing to publicize his disapproval with the White House.
Israeli security forces early Thursday demolished the Shalabi family home, despite Washington apparently asking for the move to be stopped.
The family of Yehuda Guetta, 19, who was killed allegedly by Shalabi, welcomed the demolition of the house despite the legal challenges mounted to stop it taking place. The court in June ruled unanimously against the petition.
“We congratulate the security forces, the IDF and the Shin Bet, as well as the High Court and the judges who blocked the left-wing organizations that did everything in their power to undermine the IDF’s deterrence,” the family said in a statement. “There is no doubt that the defense establishment and judicial system’s resistance to these attempts strengthens the ability to deter potential terrorists and increases the security of Israeli citizens.”
Home demolitions are a controversial measure that the Israeli security establishment maintains can deter future terror attacks.
The army said that during the demolition “approximately 200 rioters hurled rocks and launched fireworks” at troops, who responded with “riot dispersal means.” There were no reports of injuries.
Shalabi’s wife Sanaa, 40, told AFP that troops arrived at 1 a.m. to place explosives around her home. She said the demolition lasted through the night. “This is our life. What happened to us is normal. We were prepared for it,” she said, calling her husband a “hero.”
She told AP that she and her husband were estranged for several years and that he spent most of his time in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he had married three other women in unofficial Islamic ceremonies.
Shalabi has been charged with killing Guetta at the Tapuah Junction in the northern West Bank on May 2. The shooting attack also injured two other Israeli teenagers, one of them seriously.
He was charged at the Judea Military Court with intentional homicide, three counts of attempted homicide, possession and use of an unlicensed weapon, and obstruction of justice.
The 44-year-old is suspected of driving to the Tapuah Junction and opening fire at a group of Israeli students from a yeshiva in the nearby Itamar settlement. The shooting fatally wounded Guetta, seriously injured a second teenager and lightly wounded a third.
Shalabi was arrested following a three-day manhunt, an hour after Guetta succumbed to his injuries.
Shalabi, a father of seven, is not believed to have any affiliation with Palestinian terror groups, the Shin Bet security service has said.
The demolition came despite a number of legal challenges.
The Hamoked human rights organization filed a petition against the demolition, noting that Shalabi suffered from mental illness, had been prescribed anti-psychotic medications and had spent time in a psychiatric facility in recent years. Mental illness has in the past been used as grounds by the High Court to cancel planned demolitions.
Moreover, Hamoked noted that for 11 months of the year, Shalabi did not live in the Turmus Ayya home, as he is estranged from his wife, and stays in a separate room during an annual one-month visit. During the rest of the year, he resides in the US where he also has citizenship, along with a large percentage of Turmus Ayya residents. Proof of consistent residential ties in the past has been required for Israeli forces to move forward with a home demolition.
Hamoked argued that Shalabi’s estranged wife and children should not lose their home as state prosecutors provided no proof that they had any knowledge of his plan to carry out an attack.
“The man accused of the attack doesn’t live in the house, he lives in the US and he comes once or twice a year,” Hamoked executive director Jessica Montell said Thursday in the wake of the demolition.
Shalabi’s estranged wife Sanaa “was not in any way involved and didn’t know anything about the attack. We thought this should be grounds for not demolishing or just demolishing one room,” Montell added.
For its part, the state prosecution argued that Shalabi still owned the house and had even renovated it recently. As for the family’s claims of the demolition order being collective punishment, prosecutors said the need to provide a deterrent against future attacks was weightier than the need for consideration of the relatives who may have been uninvolved in the attack.
The US, which opposes punitive home demolitions, sent representatives from its embassy to the High Court hearings on the matter, and Israeli sources told Channel 13 that they had passed along their concerns to the Israeli government.
In addition to Shalabi, the rest of his family also holds US citizenship, a fact noted in the Hamoked petition.
Judah Ari Gross and agencies contributed to this report.