WASHINGTON -- Nasser Nawajah was 4 years old the first time Israeli forces expelled him from his home in Susiya, a village in the southern part of the West Bank. In the 29 years since, Israeli forces have destroyed Nawajah's home -- and those of his neighbors -- countless times. Now, they’re threatening to do it again.
The Palestinian village of Susiya currently consists of over 300 people and over 100 structures -- the latter of which are subject to demolition by the Israeli government because they were all erected without proper building permits.
Susiya is located in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank that was placed under Israeli control in 1995 as part of the Oslo Accords. Under that treaty, part of the land was eventually supposed to be transferred to Palestinian control as one element of a two-state solution. But no such final peace agreement exists. Some Israelis now argue that Israel should annex Area C outright. The Israeli settlement population in Area C continues to grow, and the Israeli government maintains policies that make it extremely difficult for Palestinians to legally build homes there.
Over the past several years, Rabbis for Human Rights, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit, has represented the Palestinians of Susiya in the battle to gain legal legitimacy for their tents, animal shelters, water cisterns, latrines, clinics and schools in Susiya. The Israeli High Court of Justice is scheduled to hear argument in that battle on Aug. 3. Until recently, residents had hoped the looming court case would protect their homes from Israeli bulldozers.
They were recently told this is not true.
On June 12, representatives from the Israeli government came to Susiya to tell the Palestinians that the government was not restricted by the impending court hearing and that residents should be prepared for demolitions to begin after Ramadan, which ended on Friday.
“We thought maybe a couple of buildings,” said Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the president of Rabbis for Human Rights. Several days later, Israeli authorities delivered a list of approximately 40 structures targeted for demolition. “When we got the list, it’s half the village! They’re destroying half the village before the hearing comes to the court,” he said.
Since the June 12 announcement, Palestinians have been organizing protests, mobilizing international support -- and waiting to see what becomes of their homes.
“The way things stand, in the next few days, the bulldozers could show up any morning,” said Sarit Michaeli, the spokeswoman for the human rights group B’Tselem, which has been closely tracking the developments in Susiya. “The community is obviously living under a lot of stress.”
The official Israeli reason for the demolitions is that the Palestinian structures -- which are mostly tents and shabbily constructed shacks -- were built on agricultural land without a permit from the Israeli Civil Administration, the body that controls Area C.
According to Israeli data, Palestinians living in Area C submitted 3,750 applications for building permits between 2000 and 2012. Just 5.6 percent of those applications -- a total of 211 -- were approved. Bimkom, an Israeli-based nonprofit group of architects and planners, recently accessed more current data, which are not yet public, and found that only one permit was approved in 2014. The number of people requesting such permits has declined steadily over the years as Palestinians lose faith in the process.
“No one is denying that there’s a reality of unplanned construction in the Palestinian communities in Area C,” said Michaeli. “But that, of course, is because there is actually no way for them to get permits to construct lawfully. The authorities created this problem by establishing a discriminatory and restrictive planning regime -- and then complain that Palestinians violated the planning law and demolish their homes,” she said.
Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, an architect with Bimkom, referred to the process as a “silent transfer.”
“Israel is not moving Palestinians to Areas A and B -- but it’s not giving them any [other] option except a life of struggle in Area C,” he said.
Some of Israel’s leading hardliners -- including Naftali Bennett, the head of Israel’s pro-settlements Jewish Home party -- have proposed that Israeli annex Area C, forcing the estimated 300,000 Palestinians who live there to either accept permanent Israeli rule or move elsewhere. Meanwhile, Israeli settlement in Susiya continues to grow and Israelis in the area overwhelmingly vote for politicians like Bennett.
“We know there are voices in the current government talking about annexing Area C, getting as much land as possible, do everything we can to drive the Palestinians off of the land and into Area A and B,” said Ascherman. “That’s the plan. They want to redraw the map.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stayed silent on Susiya, and more broadly, he's been quiet on the issue of settlements. But support from the pro-settlement community has been a critical element in his effort to stay in power. The day before the most recent elections in March, Netanyahu promised not to allow the creation of a Palestinian state if he were re-elected. He walked back his comments after the election (and after a stern rebuke from the White House), but he still relied on Bennett’s support in cobbling together a coalition government.
The current situation in Susiya is the culmination of decades of efforts by the Israeli government to expel Palestinians from the village, invariably followed by the determined efforts of the Palestinians to rebuild their homes on their ancestral land.
“Our houses are tents, we cannot build a normal house, and the conditions are very bad,” Nawajah told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. Still, he will not consider moving elsewhere. “Nobody is thinking about that. This is not a solution -- the Palestinians developed Susiya,” he said.
The Palestinian village in Susiya dates back to the 1830s. The first major challenge to its existence came in 1986, three years after the creation of the Israeli settlement in Susiya. The Israeli government discovered remnants of an ancient synagogue, declared the area an archaeological site, and forced the Palestinians out of their cave dwellings. Nawajah was born in one of those caves, but he is not permitted to visit the archeological site today.
Israeli authorities destroyed homes in Susiya again in 2001 after two Palestinians killed Israeli settler Yair Har Sinai.
In the years that followed, the Palestinian residents dealt with what B’Tselem once described as “an impossible reality.” The group wrote: “On the one hand, they had to erect homes and structures for their livestock after the military destroyed their previous ones; on the other hand, the Civil Administration refused to prepare a master plan for the village that would enable its residents to build homes legally and connect to the water and power grids, and rejected residents' applications for building permits.”
In 2012, Rabbis for Human Rights helped draft a plan for the villagers to submit to the Israeli Civil Administration in an effort to pave the way for Palestinians to legally construct homes in Susiya. The plan was rejected the following year. Rabbis for Human Rights appealed to the Israeli High Court of Justice to overrule the government’s rejection of the plan -- and requested that the court grant a temporary freeze on demolitions in Susiya while the court considered the case. Justice Noam Sohlberg, a settler himself, rejected the freeze in May 2015. The court is still scheduled to consider the case on Aug. 3, but in the meantime, there are no restrictions on home demolitions.
For a place with a population of just a few hundred, the Palestinian village of Susiya has drawn considerable international attention. Dorothy Shea, the U.S. State Department’s acting consul general in Jerusalem, visited Susiya last week in solidarity with the Palestinians.
That same day, State Department spokesman John Kirby urged the Israelis to halt the planned destructions. “Demolition of this Palestinian village, or of parts of it, and evictions of Palestinians from their homes would be harmful and provocative,” he told reporters in Washington. “We are concerned that the demolition of this village may worsen the atmosphere for a peaceful resolution and would set a damaging standard for displacement and land confiscation, particularly given settlement-related activity in the area,” he added.
On Friday, 11 Democratic members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to take further action to prevent the demolitions. A petition echoing this request to Kerry, circulated by the American nonprofit Jewish Voice for Peace, now has over 25,000 signatures.
Israeli authorities "are quite aware that this will be uncomfortable for Israel,” Michaeli, the B’Tselem spokeswoman, told HuffPost, noting the outpouring of support for the Palestinians in Susiya.
Ascherman, of Rabbis for Human Rights, put it more directly. “Frankly, international concern is the only thing keeping Susiya standing,” he said Tuesday.
Although local activists welcome the outside support, Michaeli worries that words without actions could ultimately be counterproductive. If after all these high-profile warnings, the Israeli government moves forward with the demolitions and the international community merely condemns the act, she said, “It’s a signal to Israel that it can continue to do these demolitions in Area C without any real consequences.”
“The most important thing is that if you’re talking about the two-state solution, with Israel side by side Palestine, Area C is the future land for a Palestinian state. There’s no other land available for housing, for agriculture, for industry, to re-house refugees -- there’s just no other way,” Michaeli said.