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The story of Susiya: When occupation becomes routine

The village in the hills of south Hebron encapsulates the injustices and callousness of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

The story of the ramshackle Palestinian village of Susiya, in the hills of south Hebron, encapsulates the injustices and callousness of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Nearly 50 years from its onset, the occupation imbedded a routine in which the rights of Palestinians are subject to the arbitrary whims of the Israeli government and its security forces, both of which serve the Jewish settlers living there.

Through the power of decrees, bureaucracy, the legal system and sheer military force a system aimed at facilitating the needs of Israel and the settlers was created, at the expense of the rights and wellbeing of the nearly two and half million local Arab population. The request last week by the Defense Ministry, to postpone the demolition by three months of this tent hamlet, is evidence as to the potential impact international pressure might have.

The struggle over Susiya is not new for its 350 residents, mainly shepherds and farmers, who have lived on the site since the mid-19th century – originally living in caves – and in possession of legal evidence of their rights to the land there.

Three decades ago the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) demolished the village of Khirbet Susiya for the first time and expelled its residents on the grounds that it was located on an ancient Jewish archeological site. Left with no other choice, Susya’s villagers moved to nearby fields which they had farmed for many decades.

Historically, it is the site of the remains of a 5th-8th century A.D. synagogue, which was converted into a mosque over a thousand years ago. Since their first expulsion, the villagers of Susya attempted to return and rebuild their village only to face resistance from the Israeli Civil Administration and the security forces. While internationally there is no recognition of the legality of any Israeli activities in the West Bank, for all means and purposes Israel has absolute control over the area.

Consequently, the people of Susiya, as in many other parts of the West Bank, are facing a catch-22 situation. Any attempt to rebuild their community on the Susiya site is illegal unless the Israeli Civil Administration permits it. However, any effort on their behalf to reach a negotiated agreement to resettle is rejected by the Israeli authorities, and consequently renders their residency there illegal. In their customary arbitrary manner, the Israeli authorities insist that the Susya residents will resettle in the nearby village of Yatta.

Susiya is not an isolated case, though the ill treatment of a population who lives in dilapidated structures and tents without any consideration of their historical ties, legal rights and harsh conditions is uniquely appalling

Yossi Mekelberg

Plans galore

Five different plans were proposed to the licensing subcommittee of the Civil Administration’s Supreme Planning Council by the residents of Susiya – all of them were rejected. In an act of sheer hypocrisy, as was described by the Israeli Haaretz journalist Amira Hass, the committee justified their decision by stating that it was reached out of consideration for the “… sake of the rights of Palestinian children and the expansion of their horizons, and for the sake of the rights of Palestinian women and their salvation from lives of poverty…”

Moving to the village of Yatta will provide them, according to the highly politically motivated Israeli bureaucrats, access to a superior and necessary infrastructure. This line of argumentation would have been somewhat more convincing had it been applied to the illegal Jewish outposts, including the one very close to Susya.

Next to the Palestinian village of Susiya, a Jewish settlement with an identical name was established in 1983, with no more than a thousand inhabitants, but possessing a rather impressive education system and other facilities. If the good of the Palestinians of Susiya is of concern to the government, why wouldn’t they invest in their infrastructure the same way as they’ve done with the nearby small Jewish settlement?

One might therefore strongly suspect that the Israeli Civil Administration has ulterior motives and applies double standards, which seems to follow settlers’ wishes rather than the law. In fact the petition to the High Court to demolish Palestinian Susya was initiated by a right-wing pro-settler group that still leads this campaign.

Strangely enough, though the organization claims on its website to have the legality of the use of land at its heart, it has never petitioned against the more than a hundred Jewish outposts in the West Bank that are regarded even by Israeli law as illegal, though still receive much support and assistance from members of the Israeli government.

Uniquely appalling

Susya is not an isolated case, though the ill treatment of a population who lives in dilapidated structures and tents without any consideration of their historical ties, legal rights and harsh conditions is uniquely appalling. Moreover, these people have lived there since the Ottoman times and pose a threat to no one.

Thus their plight has widely attracted international condemnation, including from Israel’s closest ally the United States and also the European Union. John Kirby, State Department spokesperson, strongly urged the Israeli authorities to, “…refrain from carrying out any demolitions in the village.” He reiterated the Obama administration’s position that “…Demolition of this Palestinian village or of parts of it, and evictions of Palestinians from their homes would be harmful and provocative.”

The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem reported that in the first ten days of this month Israeli authorities in the West Bank demolished twenty homes and thirteen other structures, leaving more than fifty people, half of them minors, homeless. It brings the total number of Palestinian homes destroyed from the beginning of the year to 188. The customary reason given, as in the case of Susya, is that these structures are built without building permission.

However, in area C, which under the Oslo agreement Israel has full control over security, planning and construction, the likelihood of being granted building permission by the Israeli authorities is very slim.

In the past the Israel’s High Court for Justice proved to be almost the last bastion, among the three branches of government, in defending human rights in Israel and to a more limited extent of Palestinians’ rights under Israeli occupation. The judges’ decision to order the demolition of the village of Susya might be in accordance with Israeli law, but it is far from representing justice.

It seems that if there is a ray of hope for the villagers of Susiya it rests with the international community, not Israel’s sense of justice or its justice system.
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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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