Palestinians bring plight of threatened village to US

Senator Dianne Feinstein meets with families from Susya, speaks out against planned demolitions by IDF

A tent in the village of Susya, July 19, 2015 (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
A tent in the village of Susya, July 19, 2015 (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Six Palestinians came to Washington to secure support against Israeli plans to raze their tiny West Bank village of Susya, and at the last minute found assistance from US Senator Dianne Feinstein.

The hamlet, which has already been torn down before and mainly consists of tents and makeshift structures for homes, is among a number of communities threatened with demolition by the Israeli army.

For Susya’s proponents, who see it as a symbol of the occupation in the West Bank, any gesture or public recognition, no matter how small, by an elected member of the US Congress is a boost they can use as leverage in pressuring Israel’s authorities.

The State Department warned this summer that demolition of the village would be “harmful and provocative.” Since then the army has been deliberating the issue, and a deadline has been set for October 13.

In an attempt to win over powerful potential backers in Congress, many of whom are supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, members of two Palestinian families arrived September 19 in the US capital. They leave Thursday.

“We are here to ask you to support us. It’s enough. We are very tired,” Fatma Nawajaa, a Susya resident, told a US Senate briefing Monday that consisted of 15 Senate staffers.

She came with her four-year-old son, a nephew, and a couple and their child from the nearby Um Al Kheir village. The trip was arranged and funded by the American non-governmental organization Rebuilding Alliance.

US Senator Dianne Feinstein (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)
US Senator Dianne Feinstein (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)

The villagers also traveled to New York, where they met journalists at a major daily newspaper.

“Keep the families together,” implored Aysar Nawajaa, the 14-year-old nephew.

Some 300 people live in Susya, located in the hills near Hebron. They live mainly on farmland, and their community has had no running water or electricity since they were expelled 30 years ago from the village’s original location when there were about 25 families living at the site.

The Defense Ministry unit that oversees civilian Israeli activities in the territories has declared that Susya does not have the appropriate permit. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in May that the Civil Administration, the military governing authority in the West Bank, had the right to demolish Palestinian homes in Susya because they had been built without permission.

The town’s residents argue that they had no choice but to build illegally because the Civil Administration rarely grants permits to Palestinians in the West Bank’s Area C, a zone officially controlled by the Israel Defense Forces as per the 1993 Oslo peace accords

Congressional influence

As the villagers’ US journey wound down, the influential California Senate Democrat Feinstein heard the Susyans’ call, and posted six messages Friday on Twitter: “Israel should not destroy these Palestinians’ homes. It will only inflame an already difficult situation,” she wrote.

Feinstein met with Fatma and her group, providing them access to a grand meeting room Monday for their Senate briefing. The lawmaker, who is the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, wrote to Netanyahu about the village in July.

It was the group’s only meeting with a member of Congress. But the Rebuilding Alliance said the NGO helped secure contacts with various other lawmakers’ offices.

Simple phone calls from senators and congressmen to the State Department or Israeli diplomats in Washington could have a major impact, especially with the approach of Netanyahu’s visit to Washington in November.

“The Israeli embassy has three floors devoted for responding to members of Congress,” said Donna Baranski-Walker, executive director of Rebuilding Alliance. “It’s not us as individual citizens that will get a response, but our members of Congress, the people who represent us, will certainly get a response.”

According to its website, Rebuilding Alliance is “a coalition of people and groups around the world dedicated to helping war-torn neighborhoods rebuild and promoting policy change to make them safe” that partners “Israeli and Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations to help Palestinian communities rebuild.”

To date, 12 other Democrats have pressed Secretary of State John Kerry to act urgently on the issue.

JTA contributed to this report.

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