Susiya: A Human Rights Calamity

Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP / Getty Images

In 2004, Ha’aretz ran the following story: "Last week, the High Court of Justice postponed for four months the state's request to destroy the structures and tents in Susiya, a village of caves in the southern part of the Hebron Hills.”

Eight years later, the fight is still going on. (UPDATE: It's even in the news today.) Susiya's residents have been forcibly evicted four times, and the village is right now under another demolition order. Since this war of attrition began in 1986, the 60 original families are now down to half of their original number. Why has so much attention been given to this tiny, miserable village and its scrubby little patch of land? Because it is a domino in an Israeli effort to take over Palestinian villages in the south Hebron Hills.

On the side of the Palestinians of Susiya are Rabbis for Human Rights, Ta’ayush, and much of the dwindling progressive left of Israel. Deployed against them are the resources of the settler movement and of the official state of Israel. At stake is Israel’s ability to annex “the entire area of the southern Hebron Hills from Arad to Kiryat Arba, including the settlements in that area,” according to Rabbi Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights.

The legal proceedings are a morass, even for Israel. In June, Israel’s high court ordered the residents to halt any new "construction," and the military issued orders to demolish their tents. One side argues that the Palestinians did not have permits to pitch their tents; the other side argues that due to a series of official actions, the Palestinians have been left homeless and had no alternatives to the tents. There have been numerous protests, one drawing nearly a thousand demonstrators. The IDF has used tear gas and stink bombs. So far, neither side shows any sign of giving up. "If we lose Susiya, there are at least 14 more communities in the south Hebron Hills that are likely to fall on one governmental pretext or another," said Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence. "It is a concerted effort to drive Palestinians of the south Hebron Hills out of Area C," he said, referring to the part of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control.

As I walked around Susiya last week and visited settlers and Palestinians throughout the West Bank, I realized that we Americans, with our focus on settlers and settlements, are missing the forest for the trees. The settler movement—with the complicity of the state—is gobbling up more and more land even though there aren’t enough Jews who want to live on it.

Area C—which comprises 60% of the West Bank, all of the Jewish settlers, and about 150,000 Palestinians—has had relatively low population growth: Apart from explosive growth in two ultra-Orthodox settlements that hug the green line, and not counting East Jerusalem, the Jewish population increase since 2007 has only numbered 26,000 according to Hagit Ofran of Peace Now.

Settlers blame the plodding pace of growth on the 2010 “freeze” and say there is pent up demand that is slowed by too much bureaucracy. Others like Shaul disagree, claiming that "apart from the ultra-Orthodox, forty-five years of settlement have produced a mere 250,000 Jewish settlers in Area C. The movement has not been a success.”

The Susiya techniques are from the Israeli toolbox, according to Peace Now:

Over the years, Israel has used a number of legal and bureaucratic procedures in order to appropriate West Bank lands, with the primary objective of establishing settlements and providing land reserves for them. Using primarily these five methods: seizure for military purposes; declaration of state lands; seizure of absentee property; confiscation for public needs; and initial registration, Israel has managed to take over about 50% of the lands in the West Bank, barring the local Palestinian public from using them.

The press is on to this. As recounted in a short piece in the Economist last week:

Agricultural land [in the West Bank] is periodically taken by Jewish settlers whose illegal seizures are retroactively approved by the government, land values are undermined because of the overhanging threat of expropriation by Israel, and on and on through all the savage indignities and economic violence of a 50-year-long occupation by people whose ultimate goal is to force you off as much of the territory as possible.

The wretchedness of the life in Susiya, as in other Palestinians villages in the south Hebron Hills, is a human rights calamity. As I witnessed it close up, and as the non-Jews who were with me asked, “How can Jews do this?” I felt shame—but also pride in the activists who are trying to set things right.

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