On July 12, the residents of the Palestinian village of Khirbet Susiya, located in the Mount Hebron area of the West Bank, had a meeting with Gen. Yoav (“Polly”) Mordechai, the commander of the Israeli military's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories unit. It was only then that they discovered that at the beginning of August, the Civil Administration, which administers civilian activity in the West Bank on behalf of the Israeli government, plans to demolish half of the structures in the village.
If this happens, the curtain will fall on the legal battle they have been waging against the state for more than 20 years, ever since they were expelled from the caves where they had previously lived and which were designated a national park. After their expulsion, they set up several temporary structures on farmland they cultivated while they were living in the caves. According to the state, these structures are illegal. Israel plans to relocate the residents of Khirbet Susiya to Area A in the environs of the village of Yatta. Khirbet Susiya is located in Area C. Under the 1993 Oslo Accord, Area C is under full Israeli control, while Area A is under full Palestinian civil and security control.
Some 350 people currently live in Khirbet Susiya, half of whom are under 18. Located nearby is the Jewish settlement of Susiya that was established in 1983. Some of the residents of the Palestinian village who used to live there had given up because of the harsh conditions and unending legal battles. Instead, they moved to the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
“One day, in 1986, we were notified that we had to leave our village and go somewhere else. We were never given the opportunity to protest and no alternative location was offered. I was a child back then and I remember the trauma,” Salah Nawajeh, a resident of Khirbet Susiya, told Al-Monitor. “We were given a couple of days. Then the military showed up, put up fences and we were barred from going in. This was our land, our life, our homes. We were told that that was an archaeological site and that from that moment on it would be run by the settlers. But we came [to the cave village] because we were banished from our first natural territory.”
Salah’s father, Muhammad Nawajeh, told Al-Monitor, “We used to live in the area of Tel Arad [in the eastern part of the Negev Desert]. We had been there all our lives, since the times of the Ottomans and the British. We stayed there even after [Israel’s 1948 War of Independence]. In 1952 we were banished for the first time and then we built our village in Susiya. We dug caves and water wells. In 1986 we were expelled from there, too. Now we are being banished for the third time. I’m already 70. I’m old and tired. I was born before Israel was founded on this land, and this is where I want to die. All I can remember from the Jews is banishments.”
The residents of Khirbet Susiya claim that for years their requests for construction permits were denied. Two years ago, they submitted to the Civil Administration a zoning blueprint they had prepared with the hope that the living structures they had built would be legalized. However, the Civil Administration rejected the plan, arguing that it did not meet the basic standards of living. With the help of the organization Rabbis for Human Rights, the residents filed an appeal with the Supreme Court against the rejection of the blueprint. Concurrently, they requested that the demolition orders be stayed pending the court hearing. In May of this year, Justice Noam Solberg turned down their petition. In the wake of the ruling, the residents have been looking for a new avenue for their struggle: international pressure.
In fact, already in 1986, in a bid to dissuade Israel from uprooting them from their land, the residents of Khirbet Susiya turned to the US ambassador to Israel, Thomas Pickering, asking that he intervene on their behalf. Pickering, they say, pledged to assist them, but two weeks later the area where they had been living was fenced off with barbwire. Now they have approached the US Embassy once again, asking that it pressure Israel not to demolish the village. It appears that their efforts have not been unsuccessful.
“An assistant and an attache from the embassy came to see us,” Salah said. “We explained to them about our legal battles against the State of Israel for the past 20 years and how everything works here in Susiya, with pressure brought to bear by the settlers. I told [the Americans] that in 1986 the ambassador promised that we would not be banished, but he didn’t keep his word. That’s why I asked that they not let us down again. Our fate, our lives are in their hands. If the Americans don’t exert pressure on the Israeli government, we, the residents of the village who have been living here for centuries, will be expelled again. This will be a blot on everyone’s reputation for generations to come.”
Recently, the Civil Administration has started promoting the demolition of the structures, submitting to representatives of the residents a list of the structures slated for demolition. As noted, the residents of Khirbet Susiya claim that the Civil Administration is being pressured by the settlers and that they heard things in this vein during their meeting with the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. In response to this allegation, the Civil Administration says that Mordechai, on his own initiative, invited representatives from the village and their attorneys to find alternative solutions in keeping with planning considerations.
Presently, the residents of Khirbet Susiya refuse to accept the proposed solutions, claiming that the land has been theirs for many generations.
“We turned to whoever we could,” Salah said. ‘We used the Americans and the Europeans and even the Palestinian Authority. If the houses are demolished, we will turn to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. If Israel talks about coexistence and peace, it’s time to show it and not act because of pressure from the settlers. They have brought calamity on us ever since they arrived here and took over our lands. It was only a week ago that they uprooted four old olive trees, and they keep stopping us from working our land. That’s the reality of things and this is what we’re fighting against.”
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