Israel, Don’t Level My Village

SUSIYA, West Bank — IN 1948, as Israeli forces closed in on his village of Qaryatayn, my grandfather carried my father in his arms to Susiya, about five miles north, in the South Hebron Hills area.

“We will go back home soon,” my grandfather told my father.

They did not. Qaryatayn was destroyed, along with about 400 other Palestinian villages that were razed between 1948 and the mid-1950s. My family rebuilt their lives in Susiya, across the 1949 armistice line in the West Bank.

In 1986, my family was expelled from our home once again — not because of war, but because the occupying Israeli authorities decided to create an archaeological and tourist site around the remains of an ancient synagogue in Susiya. (A structure next to the abandoned temple was used as a mosque from about the 10th century.) This time, it was my father who took me in his arms as the soldiers drew near.

“We will return soon,” he said.

We did not. Without compensation, we were forced to rebuild Susiya nearby on what was left of our agricultural lands.

Photo

 A Palestinian child in the village of Susiya on the West Bank.
Credit Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times                                                                                        

If, in the coming weeks, the Israeli government carries out demolition orders served on some 340 residents of Susiya, I will be forced to take my children in my arms as our home is destroyed and the village razed once again. I do not know if I will have the heart to tell them that we will soon go home; history has taught me that it may be a very long time until we are able to return.

In 2012, the Civil Administration branch of Israel’s Defense Ministry issued demolition orders against more than 50 structures in Susiya, including living quarters, a clinic, shop and solar panels. The reason given in these orders was that our village was built without permits from the Israeli military authorities.

The new Susiya was built on Palestinian villagers’ private agricultural land, but that is no safeguard. In practice, it is virtually impossible for a Palestinian living in what is known as Area C — the 60 percent of the West Bank under both civil and security control of the Israeli military — to receive a building permit. According to Bimkom, an Israeli nonprofit focused on planning rights, more than 98 percent of Palestinian requests for building permits in Area C from 2010 to 2014 were rejected.

The threat has now become immediate. Following the initial distribution of demolition orders, there was a political and legal campaign spearheaded by the residents of Susiya that had support from Palestinian, Israeli and international activists and rights groups. The village was not demolished, our case returned to the courts and the pressure let up.

But this past May, a few months after the re-election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Supreme Court justice Noam Sohlberg, who himself lives in an Israeli settlement that is considered illegal under international law, caved in to pressure from right-wing and settler organizations and ruled in the High Court that the Israeli military could go ahead with demolitions in the village — despite the fact that the higher-ranking Supreme Court had scheduled a hearing for our case on Aug. 3.

Earlier this month, I learned from lawyers working against the demolition of Susiya that representatives of the Israeli military had stated their intent to demolish parts of our village before the Aug. 3 hearing. Since the May ruling, we in Susiya have been grateful for an outpouring of support and solidarity. Last week, the State Department’s spokesman, John Kirby, made a strong statement on the issue.

“We’re closely following developments in the village of Susiya, in the West Bank,” he said, “and we strongly urge the Israeli authorities to refrain from carrying out any demolitions in the village. Demolition of this Palestinian village or parts of it, and evictions of Palestinians from their homes, would be harmful and provocative.”

That was a step in the right direction, but we need more than mere declarations now. If the Israeli government demolishes all or part of Susiya once again, it will be for no other reason than that we are Palestinians who refused to leave, despite immense pressure and great hardships of daily life under occupation.

The situation in Susiya is only one of many such situations in Area C of the West Bank. Several villages near ours have pending demolition orders as well. If Susiya is destroyed and its residents expelled, it will serve as a precedent for further demolitions and expulsions through the South Hebron Hills and Area C of the West Bank. This must not be allowed to happen.

This story is not a story of Jews against Muslims, or even a story of Israelis against Palestinians. We’re grateful for the many messages of support our village has received from Jewish communities around the world, and the groups and activists working by our side include many Israelis. This is simply a story of justice and equality against dispossession and oppression.

Crazy Country
Saturday, July 25, 2015
A traffic jam in the middle of the desert

The rendezvous was scheduled for 11:30 am, outside the Arlozorov Street Railway Station in Tel Aviv. I arrived at 11:35. “Three buses have already been filled, but don’t worry – the fourth bus will soon arrive” said the organizers’ representative. “There will be a place for anyone who wants to go to the protest in Susiya.”

It is long since there was such a wide response to a call for a demonstration in the wild West Bank. Among the passengers could be seen quite a few long-time activists who had however not been seen in recent years. Why did the case of Susiya evoke so much attention, in Israel and throughout the world? (Circulating on the bus was the current New York Times op-ed page, featuring a moving personal story of a Susiya resident). This tiny threatened village is in every way worthy of support and solidarity – but in the past, quite a few instances of no less outrageous injustice have been perpetrated and met a virtually complete indifference and silence. One can never know in advance which particular case will become the focus and symbol of a struggle.
Little more than an hour’s drive separates the vast metropolitan Tel Aviv from the godforsaken hamlet of Susiya in the middle of the desert. First the travel is along congested intercity highways – then, through back roads which become ever more narrow and in bad repair, the further one continues to the east and south. Somewhere, without noticing, the Green Line is crossed into the territory where there is not even a semblance of democracy, where the landscape is predominantly brown rather than green – apart from the occasional green patch of a settlement, which had the privilege of being connected to the Israeli water system.

At the end of the trip, the narrow road forks, and the sign to the right side says “Susiya” – but nevertheless, we turned to the left. The sign erected by the military authorities refers to the other Susiya – the Israeli settlement Susiya, which claims to be the continuation of a Jewish village of the same name which existed on this location during the Roman and Byzantine period. “Come and see Susiya – an ancient Jewish town” says the sign on the road we had not taken.

The Jews who lived here 1,500 years ago had lived in caves. In the Twentieth Century, Palestinians had been living in these same caves, until in 1986 the army came to expel them and turn the caves into an archeological site managed by the settlers. The Palestinians had to move to miserable shacks erected on what was left of their land. Is it possible that they actually were the descendants of those who resided in those caves in the Fifth Century? At the beginning of the Zionist Movement David Ben Gurion brought up that at least some of the Arabs in this country are descendants of Jews who lived here in the past, and who at some time were converted to Islam and started speaking Arabic. In 1918 Ben Gurion even published an entire book on this subject, in cooperation with the future President of Israel Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, including detailed historical documentation to support this theory. But before long it became clear that, even if some of the Palestinians’ ancestors had been Jewish, at present they have no interest whatsoever in being Jewish or promoting the Zionist Project. So, Ben-Gurion and his colleagues lost interest in further promoting this issue.
In the direction of Palestinian Susiya there was no road sign. For the Israeli authorities, it simply does not exist. “The competent military authorities take the position that there had never existed an Arab village named Susiya” stated on the Knesset floor Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, of the Jewish Home Party. “Palestinian structures were built without permits on that location, and were demolished during the 1995-2001 period. Illegal construction continued, against which demolition orders were issued. In May 2015 the Supreme Court rejected a petition by the Palestinians for an interim injunction against the demolition of these structures.”

There are no road signs, but it is not difficult to find Palestinian Susiya, with the Palestinian flag painted on rocks along the road. Four buses arrived from Tel Aviv and three from Jerusalem, plus quite a few private cars, and a minor traffic jam was created in the middle of the desert. “Pay attention, it is now the hottest hour of the day, it’s one of the hottest places in the country, and there is almost no shade” warns the young woman in charge of my bus. “Please be sure, all of you, to cover your heads and take water with you. For those who have not brought it with them, we provide bottled water”. On a low ridge above the bus could already be seen a human stream winding its way towards the rally.

The concrete cover of a rainwater collection cistern has become a makeshift podium, with several loudspeakers and a Palestinian flag flying. When the group from our bus arrived, the speeches were already under way, in a mixture of Arabic, English and Hebrew. “67 years after the Palestinian Nakba, it is still going on! They want to expel the residents of Susiya from their land! Are we going to let them do it?” cried former Palestinian Minister Mustafa Barghouti, eliciting a loud chorus of “No! No!”. “After the Apartheid regime in South Africa fell, Nelson Mandela said that the fight is not over, the next part is the Palestinian struggle. We are here, we are struggling. We will go on struggling until Palestine is free!” (Chanting in Arabic and English “Free Palestine! Free Palestine! Free, free Palestine! ”

Susiya resident Nasser Nawaj’ah, a leader activist of the struggle, spoke in Hebrew to those who came from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: “Welcome to Susiya, all of you, welcome to Susiya, the fighting Susiya which will not give in! Our struggle is already going on for decades. In 1982, they erected the settlement of Susiya on our land. In 1986, they expelled us from the caves and turned them into an archaeological site of the settlers, then we moved to the farmland, all what was left to us. In 2001, they destroyed everything and drove us away, but we came back and set up our village again. You are most welcome here, we are grateful for the solidarity and support of all those who have come here. You are the other face of Israel, the face which is different from what we see of the soldiers and settlers who come to us every day. You give us hope, the hope that we can still live together, Palestinians as Israel’s neighbors in peace.”

He was followed by Professor Yigal Bronner, who teaches history of India at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a prominent activist of the Ta’ayush Movement, which is active already for many years in support of the residents of the South Hebron Hills. “We are here in Susiya. What is Susiya? Not much. Some cisterns which the army had not filled with dirt, a few sheep which the settlers have not yet stolen, some olive trees that have not yet been cut down. What is Susiya? Susiya is 350 people who hold on to the land, clinging and clinging and holding on and not giving up, because it’s their home. Quite simply, this is their home. Opposite us is the other Susiya. The Susiya which is armed and surrounded by a fence, which is connected to to water and electricity and sewage and has representatives in all the corridors of power, and it wants to grab what little is left of this Susiya where we stand. Susiya against Susiya, this is the whole story. The Palestinian Susiya has no soldiers and no police and no representatives in the Knesset and in fact it does not have the vote. But it has us. We are here to stand with Susiya and we will not leave. We will do everything we can to be here and prevent the destruction. And if does take place, we will be here the next morning to rebuild, together with the residents. Susiya is not alone! “(Chanting of “Susiya, Sussiya do not despair, we will end the occupation yet!” in Hebrew and “Yaskut al Ikhitlal”, “Down with the Occupation” in Arabic.
“It is very important that you all came here, it is important to continue the struggle. There will be here another demonstration next Saturday, and on August 3 at 9:00 am there will be the hearing on the appeal of Susiya at the Supreme Court. It is very important to be there! Susiya is not alone! Susiya is not alone!”

After the speeches – the march to the edge of the ridge. “For anyone who feels badly affected by the heat and sun, there is a tent with shade and plenty of water. Don’t get hurt unnecessarily. And now – forward!”

Together with the Palestinians, locals and those who especially came, we all moved ahead to the rhythmic beating of the “Drummers Against the Occupation”, and the heat did not seem to reduce their energy and enthusiasm. Above the crowd were waving the placards of “Combatants for Peace”, one of the demonstration’s organizers, with the caption ”There is Another Way” in Hebrew, Arabic and English.  “Though shalt not rob thy fellow” read the big sign carried by Rabbi Arik Asherman, who already for many years did not miss any demonstration, “Rabbis for Human Rights” being another of the protest initiators. Other Biblical slogans: “Have we become the like of Sodom, did we assume the face of Gomorrah?”, “Save the poor his robber, protect the miserable from the heartless despoiler” “Zion shall be built on Justice”, “Each shall sit in content under his vine and his fig tree.”

A five years old Palestinian girl held upside down a large sign in Hebrew reading “No more land grab!”. One of the Israelis drew the attention of a woman in traditional Palestinian dress, apparently the grandmother. The granddaughter, laughing, turned the sign in correct direction before the press photographers arrived at this part of the march parade. Near was walking a strapping young man wearing a T-shirt of the FC St. Pauli soccer club of Hamburg, Germany, whose fans are known for their fight against racism, and next was a woman whose shirt proclaimed “Stop the Pinkwashing!”, protesting the cynical use made of LGBT people by the government international PR apparatus (“Hasbara”). The text on the bag of a veteran Jerusalem activist referred to the elctions earlier this year: “We did not succeed in throwing Netanyahu out, which is very harsh and painful, but at least let him keep his paws off Susiya!”

At the end of the march, dozens lifted with great effort a 30-metre long sign reading: “Susiya is Palestinian, and Palestinian it will remain!”. When the buses on the way back passed the official sign about “The ancient Jewish town” we could see it at the top of the ridge above the road.

seeking peace with justice for all of our Middle Eastern neighbors ________________________________________ chairs: Linda Bergh – lindagarybergh@gmail.com _________________________________ Leah Mae Carlisle – leahtomc@verizon.net __________________________ Karen Peterson – dpeterson1@stny.rr.com