Hundreds protested demolition orders in Susya village on 22 June.(Ryan Rodrick Beiler)
On 22 June, more than 500 Palestinian, Israeli and international activists came together in the Palestinian herding community of Susya, in the West Bank’s South Hebron Hills, to protest a recent Israeli high court ruling for the demolition of the village and the ongoing Israeli attacks on Palestinian land rights in the West Bank.
The activists, arriving by organized buses from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and independently from all over the region, met with the residents of Susya and attempted to march towards the location of the original Susya, which was demolished in 1986 and is now an archaeological park.
They were confronted by Israeli soldiers, who fired stun grenades into and around the crowds of people, while several rounds of tear gas were simultaneously released.
Six days later, Israeli officials — accompanied by soldiers — handed out demolition orders to the entire West Bank village. These orders referred to demolition decisions stretching back to 1995.
Settlers petition high court to wipe out village
The decision by the high court was in response to a petition filed by the Zionist organization Regavim, which called on the Israeli Civil Administration — the body overseeing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank — to accelerate the demolition process for Susya and other Palestinian villages. The residents of Susya are being represented in the case by lawyers from Rabbis for Human Rights.
Regavim was founded in 2006 and describes itself as a social movement working “to promote a Jewish Zionist agenda for the state of Israel … [and] to prevent foreign elements from taking over the Jewish People’s territorial resources.” To that end, they have participated in more than twenty legal cases targeting Palestinian building rights in the occupied West Bank, the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and the Naqab (Negev) desert.
The Regavim website invites English-speaking visitors to watch a video whose narrator warns viewers, in a voice similar to one in a Hollywood film trailer, that “a non-Jewish territorial contiguity is being created, endangering Israel’s future and very existence.” This is accompanied by a visual backdrop of Israel, with the splintered areas of Palestinian population centers — in Gaza, the West Bank, the Naqab and the Galilee — represented in blood red.
Yariv Mohar, a representative of Rabbis for Human Rights, explained to The Electronic Intifada that the group approaches the case with appreciation to the larger, comprehensive discrimination faced by the Palestinian residents of Susya and elsewhere in Area C (an area comprising 60 percent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control).
“We try to stress that the military rule of the Israeli Civil [Administration] in Area C is fundamentally discriminatory to Palestinians, and that this extreme case stems from the foundation of racist planning policies enforced by Israel,” Mohar said.
It’s immediately apparent that the arguments of the petition submitted by Regavim take not only a different tone than that of Rabbis for Human Rights, but a distorted understanding of Israeli settlements and native Palestinians in the West Bank. Regavim’s petition to the high court also represents a growing strategy among Zionist organizations to influence the judicial process.
In an argument explaining the demolition tactics of the Civil Administration that effectively illuminates Regavim’s philosophy, Article 47 of Regavim’s petition complained that “despite clear instructions from the government to focus on security-related demolitions, the Civil Administration avoids destroying such structures, and instead focuses on destroying cisterns, sheds, chicken coops, livestock pens and agricultural fields — in order to present a statistical balance with destruction in the Jewish [settler] sector” (“Settler front-group presses government to accelerate demolition frenzy, tripping itself up in the process,” The Villagers Group, 17 March 2012).
While the petition treats the Palestinian residents of Susya as illegal infiltrators of settler land, it does not acknowledge that Susya existed prior to the founding of Israel in 1948. Nor that many of the residents arrived as refugees who were expelled from an area in modern-day Israel — now called Arad — during the Nakba, the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestine in the late 1940s.
Article 48 of Regavim’s petition explicitly outlines the discrimination faced by Palestinian’s applying for building permits, in an attempt to urge the Civil Administration to destroy Palestinian structures at a faster rate:
“It should be noted that from a separate FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request by the plaintiff about construction permits awarded in the Palestinian sector it turned out that in 2008, 74 such permits were issued, in 2009 six permits, and in 2010 only 7 permits were approved for the entire Palestinian sector of ‘Area C.’ It is well-known that every year, thousands of structures are built in that sector … the message internalized by the Palestinian public is that there is no need to apply for permits.”
Precedent for Palestinian communities in Area C
The oucome of the legal case will reverberate far beyond Susya village.
“At first blush, it may seem that this is ‘only’ about the threat to demolish the entire village of Susya, the homes of these simple cave dwellers of the South Hebron Hills,” wrote Arik Ascherman, who is leading the Rabbis for Human Rights legal team, in an online public appeal. “However, the truth is that the results will affect the fate of hundreds of Palestinian homes throughout the occupied territories, perhaps thousands. The outcome may well have an effect on our major appeal to return planning authority for Palestinian communities in Area C to Palestinian hands.
“I have wanted to explode on the occasions that I have sat in the courtroom and heard Regavim pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes with misleading statistics and claims of reverse discrimination against settlers,” Ascherman added (“Please support Palestinian residents of Susya vs. Regavim and the Israeli government,” 4 June 2012).
Constant danger of demolition
The threat of property destruction is not one experienced by Susya village alone.
Fareed Aamar works as an administrator in Yatta, an area of more than 2,000 square kilometers at the very south of the West Bank where Susya is located. From his office in local government under the Palestinian Authority, he is placed in a difficult position of oversight in an area that largely falls under Area C.
“Whenever we try to apply for a permit to build a school or a clinic, it is rejected,” said Aamar. “Whenever we try to build one, it is destroyed by Israel.”
Bimkom, an Israeli organization working on planning issues in the West Bank, reported that, from 2000-2008, about 95 percent of Palestinian requests for building permits in Area C were rejected (“The Prohibited Zone: Israeli planning policy in the Palestinian villages in Area C,” 2008 [PDF]).
If the several previous Israeli demolitions in Susya were not enough reminder of what little authority he has to protect his community, the lack of respect he is paid by Israeli forces is a violent and frequent lesson in who exercises control of Palestinian life in Area C.
“It doesn’t matter who you are — farmer, mayor, activist, or a child in school,” Aamar added. “The soldiers come with their guns, and they tell you what will be. I work in government, but at the point of a gun, what can anyone do?”
“You cannot plan for tomorrow”
While the residents of Susya were handed the demolition orders last month, Aamar explained how the sense of unknown contributes to the already constant lack of security and normalcy for Palestinians in Susya.
“You can never know when they will come, only that they eventually will,” he said. “You cannot plan for tomorrow, or the next day, when Israeli forces could destroy your family’s home at any time. Every day now is like this.”
The immediate threat of demolition is only a part of the insecurity and racial inequality that are a constant reality for residents of Susya. Susya is located near the Israeli settlements of Carmel, Maon, Beit Yatir and a settlement also called Susya. Acts of violence and destruction from settlers against Palestinians are a frequent part of life.
“When settlers attack Palestinians here, there are often [Israeli] soldiers there watching,” Aamar added. “And when the settlers have roads and areas that only Jews can travel, it’s impossible to know when or where this will happen.”
He described the destruction of Palestinian crops and olive trees, and settlers routinely throwing rocks at Palestinian children walking to school. He said that many residents believe settlers are poisoning their water sources, killing animals and sickening local residents. This belief is made only more threatening by the utter lack of public services and basic facilities available to many residents of the village.
“The water pipes of Israel’s Mekorot water company pass several meters away from our village — they bring water to illegal outposts around us but we can’t get water from them,” Susya resident Nasser Nawajah wrote last month (“Palestinian from Area C on a life in constant need of rebuilding,” +972, 14 June 2012).
“We don’t have access to the water that flows in those pipes, even though this is our water, water that Israel pumps from the West Bank,” he added.
Not only are Palestinians denied access to the infrastructure enjoyed by Israeli settlements, whatever they build themselves is subject to demolition.
Last year set a new record of displacement as a total of 622 Palestinian structures were demolished by Israel, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Of these, 222 — or 36 percent — were family homes, while the remainder were livelihood-related (including water storage and agricultural facilities), resulting in the displacement of 1,094 people, almost double the number for 2010.
Since 1967, ICAHD reports, Israel has demolished more than 26,000 Palestinian homes in the West Bank and Gaza (“The Judaization of Palestine: 2011 displacement trends,” 12 January 2012).
Who is violent?
After the protests on 22 June, Yariv Mohar of Rabbis for Human Rights told The Electronic Intifada that “it was really powerful to see such a variety of people out with us. It was a huge success, not just in terms of the great turnout, but also that it was entirely peaceful in the face of the typical [Israeli army] stun grenades and tear gas. It made it very clear-cut — who is violent and who is not.”
The case of Susya highlights the ways awareness and resistance campaigns operate, particularly in light of the complex relationship between Palestinian, Israeli and international organizations and solidarity groups working to protect Palestinian land rights. “It’s really important to focus on coordination. That means communication and cooperation at all times,” said Mohar.
He described how, as a Jewish-Israeli organization, Rabbis for Human Rights comes under particular pressure from Israel’s far-right for drawing a connection between the Israeli policies and the spiritual and moral lessons of Judaism. “We talk about the Bible, and the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. But we do not see this as an excuse for domination. That really seems to get some people mad.”
Hearing date in four months
Meanwhile, the residents of Susya will continue to be at the mercy of the high court’s decisions as the judicial process winds on.
In a decision described by Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights as “unexpected,” the high court judges ruled on 12 June to merge the different cases pertaining to Susya, and to set a further hearing date in four months.
The court is also scheduled to hear a petition from Rabbis for Human Rights later this month aimed at giving the Palestinian residents of Susya and Area C the authority to plan the development of their own communities. And activists are planning a follow-up protest in Susya this Friday, 6 July.
Yariv Mohar stressed that what’s at stake is worth the effort of legal battles, dangerous protests, the coordinating across different communities of activists.
“The civil resistance movement is the most inspiring force in the region right now,” he said. “It’s an incredible confluence of forces coming together for equal rights in a nonviolent way.”
Ryan Brownell is based in Nazareth; he can be followed on Twitter @ryanbmn.