“The gates of Heaven are never locked to the prayers of the oppressed.”
The Talmud quotes this saying in the name of Ima Shalom, whose name means “peace mother.” I thought of Ima Shalom’s words a few days ago when I visited Susya.
Susya is a tiny Arab village–more a shanty-town than a village–sandwiched between two Jewish settlements at the southern edge of the West Bank. It has been repeatedly demolished by the Israeli army since its creation in the 1980's. It is about to be demolished again, by court order, because it is sited on agricultural land and its residents have not been granted permission to build.
The Arabs whose shacks are being demolished have documents attesting title to their land. Ironically, they also hold title to the site of one of the Jewish villages, a few hundred yards away. Indeed they lived there until the early 1980’s. But they were ordered to leave by the military government after archaeological remains were found. So they camped on their fields nearby.
Because it stands on agricultural land, today’s Arab Susya is to be demolished. It lacks building permits. But there seems to be no barrier to the provision of building permits for the expansion of Jewish Susya nearby—located around the same archaeological treasures where the Arabs were forbidden to live–not to mention the provision in Jewish Susya of running water, electricity, access roads, sewerage, 24-hour protection from attack and education.
These facilities do not exist in Arab Susya, a few hundred meters away, where water is purchased by the litre from a nearby town and driven in; sewerage and electricity are lacking; the children walk across the desert to school under guard, to protect them from harassment by the settlers; and the residents are subject to violence and attack from the Jews who live nearby, without protection or recourse to the law.
Susiya stands in "Area C," which covers 60% of the West Bank. Area C is controlled by Jewish civil administration and is home to more than 150,000 Palestinians. These Palestinians find that building permits are almost impossible to obtain: between 2000 and 2007, only 91 in total were issued to them, an average of fewer than 13 per year. In 1972, when Israel’s policy was different, 95% of Palestinian building applications were approved and approximately 1,200 permits were issued.
So, today, nearly every Palestinian construction site is "illegal" and is subject to demolition while the Jewish settlement programme proceeds apace, fuelled by a ready supply of building permits and funds. By controlling Area C through its civil administration, Israel obtains all the benefits of annexation without incurring any obligation to grant its Arab residents legal and political rights. Water, electricity, land, public services and votes are all reserved for Jews.
Slow strangulation of the Arab community by restricting public services, banning construction and then demolishing illegal houses is a less public and less brutal policy than the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia that horrified Europeans in the 1980s. But its object—to force one nation away from the land in order to make space for another—is exactly the same.
Supporters of Israel are working hard to fight our enemies' claim that Israel is "an apartheid state" bent on “ethnic cleansing.” It is difficult to combat this slander when, in villages like Susya all over the West Bank, two different peoples live side by side with different rights under the law, different political rights and different access to communal land and public services. If the bulldozers are allowed to destroy Susya, it will become even harder.
This week, as we approach the 9th of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem, we should not forget the words of Ima Shalom, the “peace mother.” “The gates of Heaven are never locked to the prayers of the oppressed.” The rabbis never attributed the destruction of our national home two thousand years ago to Roman power or evil but, instead, to our own internal failures, to “needless hatred,” in the words of the Talmud. Today, do we wish to create more “needless hatred”?
And this weekend, on the day before the fast 9th of Av, the rabbis ordain our reading of the famous words of the prophet Isaiah; “Jerusalem will be redeemed by righteousness; those who return will be redeemed by justice.” Without righteousness and justice, can we expect to live for long in our land?
CORRECTION: This piece has been edited due to a mistaken date.