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How a Palestinian Hamlet of 340 Drew Global Attention

Shepherding livestock in the West Bank village of Susiya. Residents have been displaced three times in the last 30 years and are faced with ejection once again.
By DIAA HADID
July 23, 2015

SUSIYA, West Bank — Yousef Nawajaa strode between the tents bedecked with Palestinian flags, scattered through parched orchards and rocky hills, shouting delightedly to a man nearby: “Hey, did you hear? John Kerry spoke about Susiya!”

“Kerry!” the man exclaimed, with a look that said, “No way.”

Mr. Nawajaa, 38, was mistaken, but not by much, in his observation about how outsized the cause of his tiny village has grown. It was not Secretary of State John Kerry but John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, who urged Israel recently not to raze Susiya.

How did a hamlet of 340 Palestinians in a dusty corner of the southern West Bank find its way onto the global stage? Residents point to a chain of events that began two decades ago with visits from sympathetic foreign visitors and that has now made Susiya a symbol for pro-Palestinian activists of how Israel has sought to maintain control over large parts of the occupied West Bank.

Map | Susia, West Bank

“We could not have imagined all this,” Mr. Nawajaa said, as two of his 12 children argued over a toy helicopter. “The Israelis used to destroy our village, and we slept in the wild, in the rain, and nobody knew anything about us.”

The trouble is that Susiya’s residents always seem to be in Israel’s way. The village has been displaced three times in the last 30 years, and residents are faced with ejection once again. Unless the Israeli Supreme Court orders defense officials to reverse themselves and accept a master plan for the village, Susiya will soon be demolished.

The court’s ruling is due on Aug. 3, but residents fear that the bulldozers will not wait that long. They say officials have visited them to warn that parts of the village may be demolished sooner. The villagers’ lawyer, Qamar Mashriki-Assad of Rabbis for Human Rights, said she was shown a map and a list of buildings slated to go.

Susiya’s residents now live on a stretch of land between an Israeli archaeological site and a Jewish settlement with a very similar name, Susya. They were pushed out of their homes in 1986 to make way for the archaeological dig, which uncovered a fourth-century synagogue with a mosaic floor inscribed in Hebrew.

They were uprooted again, in 1990, for unclear reasons, and then again in 2001 as collective punishment over the shooting death of a Jewish settler. With nowhere else to go, they landed in their orchards and pastureland, improvising homes out of tarpaulin tents and concrete.

Their land lies in what is known as Area C, a part of the West Bank directly overseen by Israeli agencies rather than by the Palestinian Authority. It is very difficult for Palestinians to get permission to build in much of Area C, to the point that Israel has attracted international criticism.

Israeli officials say it is a matter of law and planning. A military spokesman said in a written response to questions that what is now Susiya “was built illegally, and adjacent to an archaeological site.” Israeli officials met with residents “to discuss” the Supreme Court’s decisions “and examine alternative solutions in accordance with the planning considerations,” the spokesman said.

Palestinians say one proposal is to relocate them to an area on the outskirts of Yatta, a town about a mile away. But Susiya’s residents worry that if they leave their orchards and pastures, their land will be seized by the neighboring Jewish settlers. The United Nations has said that Susiya’s residents already lack access to some two-thirds of their farmland — about 500 acres — because it lies inside or near the Jewish settlement.

The Susiya residents say they are being pressed to leave precisely because the settlers want to extend their community to reach the archaeological site, with its tangible evidence that Jews were here 1,700 years ago.

“We are like a fish bone in their throats,” Sarah Nawajaa, 70, said of the settlers. (Many of the village’s residents are members of the Nawajaa tribe and use that surname.) “We won’t leave, because if we do, they will come and build homes,” she said.

Ari Briggs of Regavim, an Israeli organization that wants the Palestinians to relocate, said Susiya’s residents would be better off moving somewhere with room for growth. He questioned their motives for wanting to stay put.

“If they are looking for areas, where, you know, to establish a village, why would anyone choose there, unless they have their own agenda to put it right between the archaeological park and the Jewish community?” Mr. Briggs said.

Residents were left in fear by the first displacement in 1986, and they sought a foreign presence in the area in the 1990s in the hope that it would help protect them from settler violence and from being uprooted again. The first group came from an organization called the Christian Peacemaker Teams; other foreigners arrived after the Palestinian intifada began in 2000, including a German volunteer who helped Susiya obtain solar power. European aid groups helped build a school and clinic, residents said.

The hamlet first made international news in 2008 when a resident used a donated video camera to record masked men beating her husband, Ismail Nawajaa. Sympathetic Israelis have made short films about Susiya. A blog and a Facebook page have been set up.

Residents have “managed to place Susiya on the international agenda, in ways that other villages have not managed to do,” said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem, the Israeli rights group that donated the video camera.

Years of advocacy appeared to pay off when Susiya’s residents began warning early this month that their village was under threat. Israeli activists flocked to the area, a European Union delegation visited the village and so did American consular officials. Then Mr. Kirby, the State Department spokesman, raised the issue of Susiya on July 16.

Susiya’s demolition “would set a damaging standard for displacement and land confiscation, particularly given settlement-related activity in the area,” Mr. Kirby said. “We urge Israeli authorities to work with the residents of the village to finalize a plan for the village that addresses the residents’ humanitarian needs.”

On Monday, the European Union called on Israel to allow Palestinians to build in Area C and to “halt plans for forced transfer of population and demolition of Palestinian housing and infrastructure” in Susiya.

Activists have taken up residence in and around Susiya in solidarity with the villagers. Two Canadian women, Lenora Yarkie and Patricia Mercer, sat on a recent day in the shade of a tent draped with Palestinian and European Union flags, and said that they were there to act as outside witnesses to whatever happens. “If Susiya goes, then there’ll be no protection for the other villages,” Ms. Mercer said. “It has come to symbolize all that is wrong here.”

An Israeli activist kissed the cheeks of a 5-year-old, Jenan Nawajaa, who was playing outside her family’s tent. The girl’s mother, Islam Nawajaa, who is pregnant, said she had not slept well for days, worrying about being uprooted. She had a plan, she said: If the Israeli authorities come to raze her home, she will send her children to a neighbor and then build another tent under the cover of night.

Ms. Nawajaa said she was glad Washington was aware of Susiya. “John Kerry can buy me another washing machine and fridge if they destroy mine,” she said with a laugh. “But if they let us live here in peace, with our children, in safety, that’s the most important thing.”