Threatened with their village’s destruction, Palestinians in Susiya live in a political and psychological limbo. While working, studying and trying to lead a normal life, the residents are also fighting to stop their home from disappearing.
By Max Schindler
When asked what her family will do if the army demolishes her village, Soraya, 16, hesitates: “We’ll go to Yatta,” she says, gesturing towards the nearby West Bank market town.
“No,” her mother interrupted. “We’ll stay here. Don’t say that.”
It’s a question on the mind of every resident of Susiya, a Palestinian village made up of tarpaulin huts and sheep pens that faces pending demolition, after being razed four times by the Israeli army in the past 30 years.
The embattled, 400-person village has recently attained iconic status in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as both doves and hawks draw lines in the sand over its fate. Supporters of a two-state solution are making a hard-pressed, last-ditch effort to save the village, after years of relentless settlement construction by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Right-leaning Israelis want the Palestinians evicted so they can expand the nearby Jewish settlement, also called Susiya, while Western diplomats drive by weekly in 4-wheelers to the isolated hamlet in the south Hebron Hills, taking case interviews and reporting back to Washington and Berlin about the need for a two-state solution. Other envoys include leftist Israelis and international tour groups who stop by in a show of solidarity.
The groundswell of international attention on Palestinian Susiya is matched by the Israeli government’s spotlight on the Jewish settlement of Susiya. In a symbolic gesture, Israel’s hawkish defense minister Avigdor Liberman chose to visit the settlement of Susiya on the first day of Israel’s school year in 2016. Defense ministers do not typically visit schools, let alone give speeches to them. Liberman hunched in the doorframe of a class and spoke of the rights of settlers to live in the West Bank — making no mention of their Palestinian neighbors.
With the election of Donald Trump, diplomats and journalists who document Israeli human rights violations may be in for a rude awakening. The president-elect’s main Israel adviser, Jason Dov Greenblatt, once lived in a nearby West Bank settlement and served as a combat soldier there. Trump may replace the few left-leaning State Department staffers who once issued an urgent memo asking that John Kerry intervene to save Susiya. Every few weeks, one or two American diplomats would descend from the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem and visit the forsaken village. It is unclear how receptive a gun-toting former settler like Greenblatt will be towards heeding Palestinian human rights claims.
On Wednesday, that became a more pressing question than ever: according to village head Nasser Nawaja, the Israeli government requested to delay making a decision on Susiya’s fate until January 25, 2017 — five days after Trump takes office.
Though Susiya has drawn outsized attention, the situation in the village is far from unique. As part of Israel’s 50-year military occupation, the Oslo Accords divided the occupied West Bank into Areas A, B, and C. Area A is under full Palestinian control and Area B is under Palestinian administrative and Israeli security control; together, they make up 40 percent of the West Bank. Area C, which makes up the remaining 60 percent of the territory, is under direct Israeli military and administrative control. Susiya is one of an estimated 180 Palestinian villages and communities located in Area C.
All Palestinian construction in Area C must be approved by the Israeli authorities. From 2009 to 2013, Palestinians there filed 2,000 building permit requests. Only 44 were approved, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization.
In their claim to building rights, the Palestinians of Susiya cite Ottoman-era title deeds from 1881. While the Israeli army has verified the documents’ authenticity (according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz), the army fails to acknowledge their legal worth.
A few hundred meters away from the ripped, dusty tents sit the red-slated roofs and verdant gardens of Jewish Susiya, founded by a group of right-wing, religious Jews in 1983. Around 1,000 Israelis live in the settlement, and in the last election most voted for Jewish Home, a far-right religious Zionist party. The settlers rarely if ever interact with their Palestinian neighbors, except for the occasional act of vandalism, desecration of an olive grove, or physical assault.
The homes of the settlers are connected to the electrical, water, and sewage grids set up by the Israeli government. They pay a few dollars per cubic meter to get piped water from the public-owned national water carrier while the Palestinians pay five times the price for water tanks from private truckers. Palestinians are entitled to basic services provided by their occupier under international humanitarian law, yet Israel fails to comply.
Relief organizations such as the Red Cross and humanitarian aid from European countries have stepped in to fill the void left by Israel’s failure to provide these services. In the past decade, the German government installed solar panels in the village; other European Union countries contributed slides and ladders for a makeshift playground. Italy donated a shipping container that functions as the de facto town hall. EU diplomatic stickers are plastered on many of the buildings as a plea for consular protection, a warning for soldiers who seek to bulldoze the village.
Despite the political and psychological limbo of living in non-permanent housing, life continues. While living and volunteering in Susiya from May-August 2016, I spent much of the day bantering with the women in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and stewing soup. I would carry huge sacks of fertilizer as the women dumped manure into the taboon oven hearth.
While most of the women never stopped working, the men lounged about for much of the day. They would shepherd the sheep in the early mornings and late afternoons, sometimes helping with the olive harvest or beekeeping. We would sip multiple cups of tea daily.
On most days I taught English to the children. The boys would yell and shout at me, getting bored easily. That left me with a trio of teenage girls wanting to study. They were each entering senior year of high school and preparing for their tawjihi — the high school graduation exams.
We would sit under a gnarled olive tree, gossiping and joking. Soraya, an ambitious 16-year-old, is the best student in the village. She spoke of wanting to study at the local Polytechnic University in Hebron to become a journalist.
Soraya’s mother, Iman, liked to attend the lessons too, even if she was afraid of speaking. During one class we practiced asking each other our age in English. Iman refused, acting suspicious. “Why do you want to know my age? What for? Are you going to talk to the army about me?”
Iman’s husband, Mahsem would tell me little-by-little about his family. “My grandfather, Mahmoud Jemol, he was killed by settlers,” Mahsem confided in me toward the end of my stay, pointing in the distance toward the army pillbox that now sits on the site of his grandfather’s olive field. As Mahsem speaks, Iman interrupts with a shrug. “What can we do, one of us will next be dead,” she said with a deep chuckle. “Let’s have some tea.”
Not every villager has felt the brunt of physical assault, but all feel the constant threat of Jewish settler and army violence. Fifteen years ago, the army attempted to prevent the villagers from using the water well, in an attempt to force them off the land. With the aquifer, an army bulldozer lifted pieces of a rusting car into the wells, permanently poisoning the water source. In the afternoons, a dozen of the teenage boys and I would go swimming in the well beneath the village. The boys mainly would joke with me about being Jewish. As we’d descend into the well, they’d snatch the ladder away. “Jew, Jew, Jew,” they’d chant, half-jokingly as they splashed water in my face.
Most of Susiya’s residents know no Jews aside from soldiers or settlers. Weekly, a half-dozen left-wing Jewish activists would visit the village. They would banter and sip on tea with a few of the male village heads. But the rest of the villagers kept their distance from the “foreign” ajnabi visitors. Villagers puzzledly asked me why I would “flip” sides. Some even accused me of being an agent in the mukhabarat, the secret police, or the Mossad.
As the lone Jew during the month-long Ramadan fast, many of the heavier and sweatier tasks fell on my shoulders. In late afternoon, the men would sleep as I shepherded the sheep grazing over the sun-scorched, barren Judean Hills. Then we would break the fast together, one feast after the next, waiting for news about the demolition.
After multiple stays on the demolition, Israel’s High Court convened on August 1, 2016 to discuss Susiya’s fate. Representing the village were attorneys from Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) and B’Tselem, while officials from Israel’s Defense Ministry stood across the aisle. A dozen village elders sat in the front row, decked in white linen shirts. Most speak no Hebrew and asked around for ad-hoc translation.
In the court petition, the RHR attorneys requested that Israel’s military recognize the legality of Palestinian structures built without a permit, given their Ottoman-era title deed to the land. Yet from the initial courtroom conversation, it seemed unclear whether the justices had even read the petition.
Chief Justice Miriam Naor began the hearing with a confession.
“I don’t understand the petitioners. I don’t understand the state. I don’t understand anything,” Naor said, as courtroom spectators guffawed at her admission after years of legal wrangling.
“The state’s position is not clear. I have difficulty with the fact that the state comes to court with one file after another and says ‘we haven’t decided,’” Naor continued.
Naor shook her head. Despite criticizing both the petitioners and the state, Naor rejected the appeal and said that the decision over Susiya’s fate rested with Defense Minister Liberman.
When the RHR attorney tried to clarify that the demolition orders were still operable, Naor interrupted.
“Don’t ask me [stupid] kitbag questions,” Naor said, referring to the iconic olive green duffel bag Israeli soldiers carry about. It’s a reference to the joke about a new conscript asking if they need to bring their kitbag on a long run, and unwittingly condemning everyone to carrying their own 50-pound pack.
I lived with Nasser Nawaja’s family for four months, eating with his relatives on the bare concrete and sleeping each night on mats alongside his two sons. Nasser is the head of the village and a field researcher for B’Tselem. Along with a few dozen other staffers, he videotapes, records and documents army and settler brutality in the West Bank.
As a local staffer for the human rights group, Nasser functions like a hotline. His job entails not just fighting the impending destruction of his village, but responding to all kinds of violence throughout the south Hebron Hills at all hours of the day.
An army bulldozer is driving towards a family home in the nearby wadi (valley), a relative would telephone. Soldiers are detaining a friend at the checkpoint, we’d hear. A settler brandished his gun and is now threatening locals, we’d see on Facebook.
After each update, Nasser would holler and we’d jump into his beaten-up, duct-taped Toyota Camry, holding a camera and wi-fi stick in case we needed to submit a report to B’Tselem or to a journalist. Nasser has a Rolodex of human rights activists and diplomats campaigning on the village’s behalf. Yet despite their heartfelt appeals, the Israeli government plans for demolition move forward.
Azzam, 55, a resident of Susiya, spent 23 years working as an electrician for Israeli utility companies inside the Green Line, until the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. With suicide bombings and an Israeli army siege on Palestinian towns, Azzam could no longer obtain a work permit. He lost his job, and soon after back pain left him struggling to bend over and grasp a handful of foodstuffs for his small flock of sheep. He has tried to be a shepherd ever since.
“I want to work on my land that they took,” says Azzam, gesturing south toward the Jewish settlement. He keeps his arm outstretched, jabbing at the horizon until he gets tired.
“Susiya has been destroyed by the Israeli army four times. It wouldn’t surprise me if they did it again. With the past four demolitions, we slept outside under the trees. That was in the winter.”
When asked what he will do if the bulldozers return, he pauses.
“Look, I was born in Susiya,” he said. “My childhood was in Susiya. I became a man in Susiya. And I’ll never leave Susiya.”
Max Schindler is a journalist based in Israel/Palestine. He has reported for i24news, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and the Christian Science Monitor.
A previous version of this article appeared in the College Hill Independent.