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Last week Israeli military forces delivered demolition orders to the residents of Susiya, a small village in the South Hebron Hills. The villagers were told that they have illegally erected over fifty buildings without the permission of the Israeli Defense Forces.
The demolition order came a few short days after Regavim, a right-wing NGO dominated by Israeli settlers, filed a petition in Israel’s High Court, requesting that a building freeze be imposed on Susiya.
The village is situated, much to the dismay of its inhabitants, falls in Area C of the West Bank, the land which was designated for full Israeli administration after the Oslo Accords. It is nearly against the fence of a particularly hostile Israeli settlement, which is also named Susiya. Yatta, a much larger Palestinian village, is less than a kilometer, though there are several Israeli military outposts on the path there.
Allotted only three days to appeal, it appears that Susiya will be destroyed. The village’s legal representative intends to take the matter to Israel’s High Court.
The “illegal buildings” they have erected, in actuality, are tents which were hastily constructed from cinderblocks and rain tarps. For, this will be the sixth—not the first—time that Susiya will be demolished by the IDF. The village—which consists of Bedouins, cave-dwellers, and Palestinians who were displaced from the Negev Desert in the 1948 war—was razed in 1985, 1991, 1997, and twice in 2001.
Each time Susiya is destroyed, the neighboring settlement further usurps the land that legally belongs to its Palestinian owners. The villagers refuse to leave, and each time the village is crumbled, they resurrect it.
The villagers have been regular targets of attacks from the settlers next door. Their water wells have been poisoned on several occasions. Their sheep, on which they depend for butter and milk as their sole source of income, have frequently been slaughtered by their zealous neighbors. Settler attacks are generally treated with legal impunity, and this is to say nothing of the Israeli military’s repeated destruction of Susiya’s caves, in which Susiya’s residents have historically lived.
When I visited the village last fall, Nasser Nawajeh, a resident of Susiya and longtime activist, spoke of one occasion in which the IDF used a bulldozer to collapse his family’s water well. Under Israeli martial law, Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank are not allowed to dig deeper than three feet without a permit. After the well was destroyed, he recalled, they stuffed mangled car parts into its base in order to discourage them from rebuilding it for fear of rust poisoning.
In recent years, international activists and left-wing Israeli NGOs have helped draw attention to Susiya’s abysmal situation. Breaking the Silence, an organization of former IDF soldiers who have decided to speak out against the occupation, brings a regular tour of internationals to meet with the Nawajeh family in Susiya. Rabbis for Human Rights has also tried to raise awareness inside Israel of the struggle that Susiya faces at the hands of military occupation and continued settlement expansion.
Nonetheless, many international efforts to aid the residents of Susiya have been shortsighted and concerned more with the appearance of having helped, rather than fixing the roots of the problems. Little has been done, for instance, to help the villagers obtain water for their sheep. The Nawajeh family, because their wells are repeatedly destroyed, are expected to buy water from Yatta, which costs three times the price of water inside Israel, not including transportation fees.
The plight of Susiya is indicative of the larger dialectic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli officials will continue to accuse the Palestinians of being unprepared for peace negotiations, while its military and settlement enterprise employ the force of arms to wrangle the West Bank from its native inhabitants. Western governments and the international community will continue to portray the situation in an absurd light: a fragile democracy attempting to quell restive “terrorists.”
However, Susiya’s struggle is of another stripe. The villagers, possessing none of the violent and fanatical traits of the settlers that so often attack them, are committed to living on their land. None of the colonial arguments to the contrary will persuade them otherwise.
Susiya, though facing another impeding annihilation, refuses to be the next casualty of Israel’s suffocating 45-year military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“We’ve been kicked displaced and kicked off our land five times,” Nasser Nawajeh told me. “We’re not leaving again.”
Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance writer living and traveling on both sides of the Green Line in Israel and the Palestinian territories. He is a weekly Israel-Palestine correspondent for Bikya Masr and writes regular dispatches on his blog, www.patrickostrickland.com. He is a graduate student of Middle Eastern Studies.