SUSYA, West Bank — Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday ending the holy month of Ramadan, was a bittersweet festival for the Nawaj’ah clan in the hamlet of Susya, south of Hebron.
Last week, a high-ranking delegation of Israeli officers from the Civil Administration arrived at the community of 340, asking residents to remove their illegally constructed homes or face demolition following the end of the holiday Sunday. A list of nearly 40 demolition orders promptly arrived, encompassing about half the settlement, including a local clinic and school.
“People are happy during the holiday, but we’re not happy,” said Mahmoud Nawaj’ah, 35. “Instead of celebrating we’re worried about the looming threat.”
Nawaj’ah was born in Khirbet Susya, where his clan resided in caves and makeshift shacks atop an ancient Jewish settlement dating back to the ninth century BCE. In 1986, when he was six, the area was fenced off by Israel and declared a national park. Its Palestinian residents were dispersed across the West Bank, but the Nawaj’ahs moved to agricultural lands they owned a few hundred yards uphill.
Throughout the nineties, the IDF carried out small-scale demolitions in Susya, claiming all residential structures on the agricultural land were built illegally. But in July 2001, the entire village was destroyed a day after the murder of Yair Har Sinai, a shepherd from the nearby Jewish settlement of Susya. The village was promptly restored but today, 14 years later, the Nawaj’ahs fear another forced deportation.
Last week, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Yoav Mordechai, tried to convince the Nawaj’ahs to accept residential land outside the nearby city of Yatta, while continuing to own their agricultural land in Susya. But citing numerous precedents of land takeovers by settlers in the area, residents of Susya are refusing to budge.
“If they demolish again, we’ll sit here under the trees,” said Widad Nawaj’ah, 40, who sells locally crafted embroidery. “We will not leave our land.”
A spokesperson for COGAT told The Times of Israel in a written message Sunday that the Israeli officers initiated the meeting with Susya’s residents last week “in order to dialogue regarding the Supreme Court decisions and to examine alternative solutions for residents, in accordance with planning considerations.”
Despite its minuscule size — or perhaps because of it — Susya has become a focal point of international interest. On June 7, a delegation of all European Union heads of missions to the Palestinian Authority visited Susya, accompanied by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. A month earlier, Supreme Court Justice Noam Sohlberg refused to issue an injunction requested by Rabbis for Human Rights, a Jerusalem-based organization. The group had submitted a master plan for Susya and asked that it be reviewed by the court before the village’s houses are leveled.
Little wonder the Europeans have rushed to Susya’s aid. Practically the entire hamlet is being sustained by EU funding. The solar panels generating its electricity were donated by the German foreign ministry; the clinic and water purifying systems were donated by Italy, and the master plan which the Israeli court is to debate on August 3 was funded by the UK. Significantly, 22 of the 37 buildings scheduled for demolition are EU-funded.
“I hope that every European country which donated something to Susya: a tent, a water filter, will send someone to defend the property it donated,” said Azzam Nawaja’ah, a 55-year-old electrician.
Judging by the public statements emanating from London and Washington, DC, Nawaj’ah’s wish seems to be materializing.
“The British Government’s position against displacement of communities in Area C is clear,” wrote the British Consulate-General in Jerusalem last month following a Ramadan iftar meal in Susya, attended by Consul-General Alastair McPhail. “Demolitions of property and the evictions of entire communities from their villages cause great suffering to ordinary Palestinians and are harmful to the peace process. They are, in all but the most limited circumstances, contrary to international humanitarian law.”
On July 17, US State Department spokesman John Kirby “strongly urged” Israel to refrain from destroying the condemned structures in Susya.
“Demolition of this Palestinian village or of parts of it, and evictions of Palestinians from their homes would be harmful and provocative,” Kirby said. “Such actions have an impact beyond those individuals and families who are evicted. 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.”
Clearly, for the US and Europe, Susya is viewed as a microcosm of Area C, the portion of the West Bank administered fully by Israel and encompassing 60 percent of the territory.
According to Rabbi Arik Ascherman, co-founder and director of special projects at Rabbis for Human Rights, thousands of demolition orders are pending execution in Palestinian communities under Israeli administrative control across the West Bank.
“If these demolitions go forward, there are likely to be many more Susyas,” he told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
Ascherman’s organization first became involved with Palestinians living in the South Hebron Hills in 1999, when some 700 residents were removed from their homes located on land declared by the IDF as fire zones.
“In Susya, it’s so patently obvious that we’re beating up on defenseless people,” he said, attempting to explain the heightened global interest in the tiny village. “This is a case of expelling people for political motivations; putting political goals before people’s lives.”