A Land of Thorns and Stone
Reporting and photography © 2015 by Patricia Cordell
On a map, the tiny village of Susiya sits close to the southern edge of the West Bank, in the Occupied Palestine Territories. Online, it shows up on satellite images as paved suburban streets lined with neat little buildings, including a grocery store, parking lot and swimming pool. This image is not correct. Google Maps is mistaken.
In fact, Khirbet (meaning small village) Susiya is a ragtag assortment of tents, tarps and abandoned vehicles on barren hardscrabble. Blown sand and baked earth fill in the dents and cracks of the stone hillside where families have anchored their tents.
Sadly, Susiya's name has been misappropriated by an illegal Israeli settlement built at the edge of historic Susiya's agricultural lands as part of the Israeli government's strategy for ethnic and geographic cleansing of Palestinian culture. Today the villagers are terrified the Israeli military wlll attack in the middle of the night, with bulldozers and buses, dragging them from their homes in their sleep and demolishing their village for the fourth time.
The original Khirbet Susiya is at least 100 years old, showing up on maps from 1917. A Wikipedia entry contends Susiya has been here at least since 1830. There is evidence the village was established before the Ottoman Empire and it may have been earlier, but Western-style documentation doesn't exist, according to Sarit Nichaeli, spokesperson for "B'Tselem - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories," a group of prominent academics, attorneys, journalists, and Knesset members.
In 1982, in an internal report, attorney Plia Albeck, head of the Civil Division in the Israel State Attorney's office, recognized that the residents of Susiya own the land on which the village was built, according to geographer David Grossman in his book Expansion and Desertion: The Arab Village and Its Offshoots in Ottoman Palestine [in Hebrew].
Grossman wrote that some 25 Palestinian families were still living in underground caves in the village in 1986. Years before earth-house architecture gained popularity in Western culture, the indigenous people had made their homes by enlarging caves in the hardpan desert floor, taking advantage of the natural cooling insulation of rock.
Twice since 1986 the villagers have been expelled from their homes by the Israeli government. The first time, in 1986, they were forced from their underground homes because archeologists had found remnants of ancient buildings, believed to be a mosque built upon an early synagogue, within the village.
It's unclear why the villagers had to move, and yet, Israel expropriated their land, adding some of it to the jurisdiction of the illegal Israeli settlement. The dislocated villagers moved nearby on their own privately owned farmland and began again.
In 1991, Israeli military expelled the villagers from their homes a second time without legal warrant nor explanation and now an illegal outpost, housing Israeli settler families, occupies Susiya's second site, their farmland as we
Ten years later, the Israel military attempted an oppressive practice for which the Israeli government is known: When any Palestinian commits a crime, all Palestinians can be assessed a "penalty." It's referred to in Israel and Palestine as "collective punishment." In occupied Palestine, the Israeli government indiscriminately punishes any Arab by demolishing their home and/or dragging them to incarceration. In 2001, as revenge for the murder of a settler by Palestinians who were not from Susiya, Israeli military and settlers raided the village in a form of revenge attack, forcing the villagers out for a short time. The settlers pulled down tents and filled in the caves with sand.
This time, however, a petition to the Israel Supreme Court allowed the villagers to return, and they began once again to rebuild their lives and homes.
Int May 2015, the Israeli Military announced yet another plan to demolish the Palestinian village. This time the US State Department, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the UN have issued statements saying they would consider further mistreatment of Susiya a provocation.
US State Department spokesperson John Kirby said the White House was “closely following developments in the Village of Susiya in the West Bank”. Kirby added that the State Department, “strongly urge[s] the Israeli authorities to refrain from carrying out any demolitions in the village…Demolition of this Palestinian village or of parts of it, and evictions of Palestinians from their homes would be harmful and provocative.”
Kirby said. “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.”
In July, Robert Piper, UN Humanitarian Coordinator of the occupied territory said: “The destruction of private property in an occupied territory is prohibited under international humanitarian law. I call on the Israeli authorities to suspend all demolitions of Palestinian structures in Area C and to provide its residents with a planning and permit regime that allows them to meet their needs."
Since then, activists have organized tours of the village and chartered buses from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for demonstrations aimed at generating more media support for the village. Yaniv Mazor, a member of Ta'ayush, an Arab and Jewish political group formed to protest mass detentions of Palestinians, estimates 500 or more activists marched last Friday, along the road running through Susiya, banging drums, carrying signs and shouting slogans against Israeli occupation of Palestine territory. Christian ministers from Europe, rabbis from Israel, former members of the Israeli military and good-hearted volunteers from around the world representing a plethora of acronyms, converged on the tiny enclave, trying once more to focus international attention upon Israel's criminal mistreatment of the village.
Khirbet Susiya, has grown naturally over the years, just like the rest of the West Bank. A core population of about 250 residents, or 30 families, increases to 340 residents seasonally, according to B'Tselem's Nichaeli, who believes the village would grow still larger with the adequate planning and infrastructure. Israel's government impedes growth in a number of ways, such as rejecting the village's building master plan, denying building permits for homes, and greatly reduced support services. According to Ali Hadid, an activist from Hebron attending a rally against the village's demolition, Israel spends five times the money for support services for illegal settlements than what they spend on (legal) Palestinian villages. Water must be imported, at a cost five times the cost charged to Israelis.
The afternoon of the demonstration, there is no water and no relief from a sun so intense that light reflected from the white bedrock underfoot is painful to our eyes immediately. A strong, constant wind stings with grit, and flaps the tents' tarps that are weighed down with old tires and bags of sand. It's so hot and dry, that after downing three entire litres of water and four hours of walking, there's no need to pee.
In their current relocation, which is further away from the first two sites and the settlers, villagers are barely scraping by with few assets. Shepherds tend small flocks foraging on sparce, brown weeds. A handful of geese, a few scrawny chickens, and honey from beekeeping support their families. On either side of the raised highway at the top of the village, small stands of olive trees grace ancient stone terraces.
Down the road at the archaeological site, an impressive, modern gated enclosure surrounds an elegant building, and a garden with trellises, while a large shelter protects the ruins. Across the road from this enclosure, a large matching building houses settler families at the illegal outpost. However, no funds were spent to relocate the Palestinian farmers and their families.
At the end of the day in the dusk, the afternoon's harsh, reflected light turns into a softly glowing golden pool surrounding every object and bouncing back upward to the midnight blue sky. It's an uncanny and extremely beautiful experience. The hectic day has grown quiet. Puppies frolic and yap while children's laughter echos among the few standing buildings from the one adequate structure in the village, a modern playground.
Overnight, settlement teens will be caught on Susiya land in very early morning hours. Villagers become very upset because vandalism and harrassment of the Palestinians by Israeli settlers continue to be a problem. The recent arson murder of an 18-month-old toddler in the West Bank has focused world attention on the extremist settlers, who often terrorize their Palestinian neighbors.
The illegal Israreli settlement, luxurious by comparison to the Palestinian shelters, peeps down at Susiya from a nearby hilltop. The villagers assume the settlement is watching and waiting for them to fail, for them to leave behind the land that has been in their families for generations.
Reporting and photography © 2015 by Patricia Cordell