West Bank village anxiously awaits demolition
Palestinian activists say pressure from Israeli settlers is behind government plans to demolish their village.
Khirbet Susiya, occupied West Bank – As Palestinians in the West Bank celebrated the Eid al-Fitr holiday, the end of Ramadan was marred for residents of Khirbet Susiya by fears that demolition orders would be carried out on their homes.
In May, Israel’s High Court of Justice lifted a freeze on demolition orders issued against homes in the Palestinian village of Khirbet Susiya, located in the south Hebron Hills.
Rights group B’Tselem warned that, due to settler pressure, Israeli authorities had decided to undertake the demolition of these homes even before the High Court hears a petition by residents scheduled for August 3.
At the hearing, Palestinian residents hope to appeal the rejection of a previous master plan they had drafted, including a proposal for the construction of permanent structures in the village.
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The plan was among multiple stifled attempts by Palestinians in the village to obtain permission for legal construction projects in the area. Now, residents face not only these impediments to building, but also the potential demolition of their pre-existing homes.
“It could happen any day now,” said Ola Nawajaa, 30, a resident of Khirbet Susiya whose home is one of the 32 structures slated for demolition. “We really don’t sleep well. The other day my youngest child, Jihane, who is five, came to me and told me that our home will be destroyed. She’d heard adults talking, and understood.”
Ola’s daily routine now includes taking care of the Palestinian, Israeli and international activists who have been taking turns staying in the village since May, as the campaign against the planned demolition gathers momentum and international attention.
Last week, the US state department said that demolishing the village “may worsen the atmosphere for a peaceful resolution and would set a damaging standard for displacement and land confiscation”.
On Monday, European Union ministers echoed this line, asking that the Israeli government refrain from carrying out the demolitions, and calling for a “fundamental change” to Israeli policy in the occupied Palestinian territories.
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Khirbet Susiya has existed since the 19th century, but its Palestinian residents have been locked in a legal battle over the land since 1986.
When archaeologists found the ruins of a synagogue there, Palestinians were expelled, their land was expropriated and the site was turned into an archaeological park run by Israeli settlers.
Today, the roughly 300 remaining Palestinian residents, originally from the village, have relocated to their nearby agricultural lands about one kilometre away. The caves they used to call homes are now part of the archaeological park.
Residents now live in shacks and tents, not connected to running water or an electricity grid – in stark contrast with the nearby Israeli settlement, whose red roofs and lush vegetation stand out in the middle of the arid Hebron Hills.
Both the Palestinian village and the Israeli settlement of Khirbet Susiya are located in what the Oslo Accords designated as Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control.
From 2006 until the end of June 2015, according to B’Tselem figures, Israel demolished at least 876 Palestinian homes in the West Bank, leaving more than 4,000 people homeless, half of them children.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), nearly 500 Palestinian structures – both homes and non-residential – were demolished in Area C last year, displacing 969 people.
They are applying the laws of planning and building in a discriminatory, manipulative way.
In February 2012, a right-wing Israeli organisation called Regavim, which monitors what it calls illegal construction in Area C, filed a petition in conjunction with the Israeli settlement in Khirbet Susiya, demanding that authorities implement the demolition orders issued to the Palestinian village.
“We don’t push for the demolition. We push for the enforcement of the law,” Ari Briggs, director of international relations at Regavim, told Al Jazeera. “It’s the government that makes the law, and it’s the court who makes decisions based on that law.”
Yet rights groups are condemning the prospect of demolition, claiming that it represents a larger issue for residents of Area C that goes beyond the law.
“You can’t look at this purely within a legalistic perspective,” Sarit Michaeli, a spokesperson for B’Tselem, told Al Jazeera. “The Civil Administration is within its authority to demolish, but that’s not the issue.
“The issue is that they are applying the laws of planning and building in a discriminatory, manipulative way, in order to achieve the government’s policy of expanding settlements and restricting Palestinian existence in Area C,” he added.
Nasser Nawajaa, a Khirbet Susiya resident, activist and unofficial spokesperson for the village, said the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) – a unit of Israel’s Ministry of Defence that administers civilian matters in the occupied West Bank – is giving in to settler pressure.
“They told us themselves they are under a lot of pressure from Regavim, and that this is why they are pushed to demolish,” said Nasser, who was at the meeting that took place between the villagers and COGAT on July 12. “They are trying to put pressure on us to negotiate.”
A COGAT spokesperson told Al Jazeera in a statement that the meeting was held “to discuss the High Court’s decisions and examine alternative solutions”.
Obtaining permission to build legally in Area C is nearly impossible for Palestinians. The Israeli authorities rejected five master plans submitted by residents of Khirbet Susiya.
As a result, permanent structures were never allowed, and the village was damaged or destroyed seven times, residents say.
According to B’Tselem, the COGAT body responsible for planning and construction in Area C has to date rejected or avoided approving master plans for more than 90 percent of Palestinian villages located entirely in Area C.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International recently denounced Israel’s planning system in the West Bank as discriminatory.
“The formal denial of participation in planning for an entire population, coupled with the establishment of a parallel planning system for Israeli settlements that explicitly discriminates in favour of another population whose very presence living in the territory in question violates international law, is unique globally,” its statement read.
Every morning as the sun rises, Azzam Nawajaa – a member of the same extended family as Nasser and Ola Nawajaa – takes his sheep to graze in the narrow strip of land Israeli authorities have allocated to Palestinian shepherds around the village.
Only the day before, another Palestinian shepherd had been attacked by settlers in the South Hebron area, one of many documented cases of abuse that mar life in the region.
But that is not what worries Azzam now. Gazing absently into the distance, he said he is most concerned about his family and his tent, which – its frail wooden frame aside – looks like a cared-for home, with a small flower garden built with car tyres at the entrance.
“We always worry about our men, our children,” said Ola. “But Susiya is brave; its women are brave. Once, when Israeli forces arrested Nasser [Nawajaa], all the women went and sat at the military tower nearby. We told them we wouldn’t move until his release.
“We will wait for the demolitions and they will come,” declared Ola. “We won’t leave this place.”