Palestinian tent village fears Israeli bulldozers

Demolition threat hangs over West Bank village of Khirbet Susiya as Israel threatens to demolish part of the village amid an international outcry.

Khirbet Susiya resident Mahmoud Nawaja and his one-year-old son Ahmed in front of their tent which faces the imminent threat of demolition after a senior policymaker for the occupied territories announced on July 12 that half the village will be demolished after the Eid Al Fitr holidays. Angela Godfrey-Goldstein for The National
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KHIRBET SUSIYA, WEST BANK // Mahmoud Nawaja’s canvas tent in the West Bank community of Khirbet Susiya will be no match for the army bulldozers if Israel makes good on its immediate threat to demolish half of the village.

The plight of Khirbet Susiya, where all 250 to 350 residents live in tents, has come to symbolise the struggle of Palestinians trying to stay on their land.

The twenty eight foreign ministers of the European Union issued a call on Monday for Israel to “halt plans for the forced transfer of population and demolition of Palestinian housing’’ in Khirbet Susiya and Abu Nwar, an Arab community near Jerusalem that is also threatened with forced displacement.

Meanwhile, United States state department spokesman John Kirby said last Thursday that “demolition of this village or parts of it and evictions of Palestinians from their homes would be harmful and provocative”.

Mahmoud has been dreading the bulldozers since the villagers were told at a July 12 meeting with Israel’s senior policymaker for the occupied territories, Major General Yoav Mordechai, that demolitions would be carried out after the Eid Al Fitr holiday, which ended on Sunday.

“I think the demolition could be in the middle of the night, it could be tomorrow. All the time I think of it. Where will I go? I have no other place,” he said despondently.

His tent has no furnishings other than mattresses, rugs and a television — typical of the homes of Khirbet Susiya’s residents who struggle to get by on subsistence farming.

“Some of the children here understand what is going on and some don’t,” said the father of seven, aged between one-and-a-half and 12, as one of his sons poured out weak coffee for visitors.

The threat of demolitions has been in the air since a high court decision in May dismissed a petition on behalf of the villagers by the dovish Israeli group, Rabbis for Human Rights, aimed at freezing them.

All of the eighty structures in the village have demolition orders pending against them.

However, three days after the villagers’ meeting with Gen Mordechai, Israeli army officers provided residents with a map of 37 structures to be demolished imminently, including tent homes, animal sheds, a clinic and outhouses.

The official reason for the demolitions is that the tents and other structures were built without permits, but residents, backed by the United Nations, say it is virtually impossible to get such permission and so they are forced to build illegally.

Nasser Nawaja, Mahmoud’s brother, said that their father became a refugee when Israel was created in 1948, while his mother was born in Khirbet Susiya.

In 1986, their entire family was expelled from the original site of the village to make way for an Israeli archaeological park run by settlers who had established the Jewish settlement of Susiya three years earlier. This Jewish settlement was established 1.5 kilometres from the original site of Khirbet Susiya.

The Palestinians reestablished their village hundreds of metres away from the archaeological site, whose centrepiece is the remains of an ancient synagogue, but were barred from erecting permanent structures.

They were expelled again in 2001 immediately after the killing of a settler by a Palestinian from a nearby village, but Israel’s high court ordered that they be allowed to return weeks later.

“They pushed my husband out in 1948, they expelled us in 1986. Where do they want us to go?” said Nasser’s mother, Zoharia, 67. “I was here before the settlers.”

This time, however, Israel may have reason to think twice about the demolitions because of strong American and European opposition.

The threat of demolition in Khirbet Susiya “has gained such notoriety and recognition around the world because it is so patently obvious that we are just beating up on defenceless people”, said Arik Ascherman, director rabbi of Rabbis for Human Rights.

Although Palestinians have nominal self-rule in parts of the West Bank, the majority of it – known as area C, which includes Khirbet Susiya – remains under full Israeli military control.

The Palestinians and their backers view area C as the future hinterland of their independent state but Israel sees it as an area where its settlements should continue to expand. While Jewish settlements continue to grow in area C, hundreds of homes of Palestinians are demolished there each year due to the near impossibility of gaining permits to legally build.

"Any plans for forced transfer of the population in Abu Nwar, Susiya and other areas are not acceptable to the European Union," Shadi Othman, press officer for the European Union based in Jerusalem told The National.

“We call on the Israeli authorities to cancel plans for forced transfer and demolitions,” he said, adding that “[planned] demolitions in Susiya are counterproductive for the viability of the two state solution and call into question Israel’s commitment to the two state solution”.

The demolition statement made by Gen Mordechai at the July 12 meeting, which his office would not confirm or deny, comes as Israel’s high court is due to hear an appeal on August 3 on behalf of the Khirbet Susiya villagers against a decision by military authorities to reject a master plan that would have legalised their village.

The Rabbis for Human Rights petition that was dismissed by the high court in May had called for the demolitions to be frozen until after this appeal had been heard.

Those who attended the July 12 meeting say that Gen Mordechai urged them to begin negotiations on moving to another place, but that he declined to specify where that place would be. He reportedly told them that they could keep farming at Khirbet Susiya but would have to live elsewhere.

They say they told him they needed to stay on their land to protect it from encroachment by Israeli settlers.

Ari Briggs, the spokesman for Regavim, an Israeli right-wing organisation that has mounted the legal pressure to destroy Khirbet Susiya, said its residents are “squatters” who arrived only in recent years and that “for upholding the rule of law, the government has every right to demolish”.

“In any liberal democracy when people sit illegally in an area like this, there is no way any court would give them approval,” he said. The land the Palestinians want to stay on is “not suitable” for recognition as a village because it lies between the archaeological site and the settlement of Susiya and there is therefore no room for it to grow, he added.

Khirbet Susiya residents fear that if they are evicted from their land, it will be given by the government to Jewish settlers, whose leaders make no secret of their hopes that this will happen.

“It will make me happy if Jews are able to build in any empty area in Judea and Samaria,” the biblical names for the West Bank, said Yochai Damri, a local settler leader.