It is a warm summer day in late July 2015 as my Palestinian hosts and I drive through the West Bank. We are in Hebron, driving south toward the outskirts of the city. As we make our way out of town, we are met by a stunningly unique landscape.
To our right, there are evenly distributed white hills, ornamented with beautiful green orchards and olive trees; to our left, we see vast plantations where farmers till their agriculture and Bedouins herd their livestock. It is a calm and delightful paradise.
Only a few minutes later, the peaceful scene comes to an abrupt and disturbing halt, as a tall, gray, glaring military watchtower appears in the near distance. Our driver turns down the music playing in the car.
“An IDF watchtower,” he says. There are Israeli soldiers sitting inside.
Soon, we see the lines of symmetrical and congruent houses. “Settlements,” our driver says, pointing to the structures.
The watchtower was created in order to guard the settlements, which were built in violation of international law.
We drive several miles further, going uphill to reach our destination. After passing through the rugged landscape, we enter a barely noticeable village, which initially appears to be a collection of large tents scattered along the land. Under the blazing sun, young children scamper about, swinging in the playground and chasing rabbits through the shriveled orchards. A middle-aged shepherd carefully tends to his flock. A group of elderly men gather under one of the tents to socialize and drink coffee, while seated on carpets with their backs against hardened pillows.
As we enter the village, graffiti on a large stone reads “Wellcome [sic] to Susiya.”
We exit the car and are greeted by Nasser Nawaja, the man who is to be our host for the day. He walks us to the guest tent, where he serves us coffee. After a few minutes of laughter and conversation, Nasser begins recounting Susiya’s story.
He tells us about how a small village on the South Hebron Hills came to embody themes of perseverance in the face of loss, hope in the face of despair, and resilience in the face of adversity.
Life in Area C
Susiya is a small hamlet in the West Bank housing approximately 350 Palestinians, many of whom are shepherds or farmers depending on agriculture and livestock for survival. In mid-2015, Susiya made international headlines after the Israeli High Court of Justice refused to freeze orders calling for its demolition. Since then, political bodies, human rights organizations, activists, and people from all walks of life have called on the Israeli government to halt its plans to demolish the village.
“This is the third time our homes will be destroyed,” Nasser tells us with a distressed look on his face.
The sobering reality of where we are finally hits us.
Under the Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into three parts, otherwise known as Areas A, B, and C. Area A is under Palestinian control, in both civil and security aspects. Area B is split, with Palestinians governing its civil components and Israel controlling all security matters.
In Area C, which spans 60 percent of the West Bank, the largest of the three areas, Israel governs all aspects of life, from zoning laws to construction permits. This is where Susiya falls.
According to the Israeli government, Susiya’s structures are illegal because they were built without Israel’s permission. Critics argue, however, that the Israeli government rarely – if ever – grants building permits to Palestinians in Area C. According to a September 2014 report published by Bimkom, an Israeli rights organization focused on spatial planning and housing policies, Israel denies 98 percent of Palestinian requests for building permits. Without the ability to legally build homes on their own private land, Palestinians living in Area C face one of two choices: to either build illegally and risk demolition, or leave their homes and move to Area A or B.
Compounding this constant threat of displacement and dispossession, Susiya’s residents face harsh living conditions, as described in a June 2015 factsheet from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
There are no pipes providing water directly to the village. This means residents must depend either on rain water collected in wells, or on tanked water, with each tank costing 1,000 shekels and only able to hold 2 cubic meters of water, according to Israeli media outlet +972. The water is then rationed to residents after being purchased at exorbitant rates from Israel. The community depends on donated solar panels for both heat and light, as few electricity sources exist.
Next to Susiya is an Israeli settlement, which bears the same name as the Palestinian village. It was built illegally in 1983, one year after Nasser was born. The harsh living conditions facing Susiya’s residents are made even worse by perpetual intimidation and harassment from the Israelis living in this settlement.
In June 2008, a resident of Susiya recorded Israeli settlers violently attacking one of her family members with clubs. During our visit, Nasser shared his own experience with settler violence: “A settler harms our crops by deliberately bringing his sheep here and feeding them, destroying our source of livelihood.”
A Looming Demolition Order
Nasser is an activist, human rights advocate, and Susiya’s local representative to foreigners and the media. His older brother, Jehad, is a councilman in the village. Like all of Susiya’s residents, Nasser fears for the future of his village, whose fate now hinges on the Israeli army’s implementation of demolition orders.
Nasser walks us to the opposite corner of the village where we see a signpost in Hebrew with an arrow pointing toward a Jewish archeological site. “That’s where I was born,” says Nasser, pointing to an area where his parents lived before they were forcibly expelled from their home. “I can never go back there. I’m not allowed. Imagine that you were not allowed to go back to where you were born.”
That was where Susiya used to be, before its residents were expelled by the Israeli military in 1986. The village was rebuilt in the location where it now stands. Nasser was four-years-old at the time. Today, Susiya lies between the settlement on one side and the archaeological site on the other.
After a settler was murdered in 2001, Susiya’s inhabitants were expelled again, in what they say was a form of collective punishment. Nasser described the fallout for Israeli media outlet, +972: “It was only after 10 days and an interim decision by the Israeli High Court that we were able to return to our homes.”
As we walk through the village, Nasser points to one of the tents, which features a printout with statements from U.S. government and E.U. officials.
One of these statements is from a press briefing on July 16, 2015, where U.S. State Department spokesman, John Kirby, responded to reports that Israel may demolish part of Susiya:
We’re closely following developments in the village of Susiya in the West Bank, and we strongly urge the Israeli authorities to refrain from carrying out any demolitions in the village. Demolition of this Palestinian village or of parts of it, and evictions of Palestinians from their homes would be harmful and provocative.
He went on to say:
Such actions have an impact beyond those individuals and families who are evicted. We are concerned that the demolition of this village may worsen the atmosphere for a peaceful resolution and would set a damaging standard for displacement and land confiscation, particularly given settlement-related activity in the area.
Another statement found on the tent is dated only a few days later, and comes from the Council of the European Union. In this press release, the council called on Israeli authorities “to halt plans for forced transfer of population and demolition of Palestinian housing and infrastructure in the Susiya and Abu Nwar communities.”
An Unjustifiable Land Grab
The archaeological site where Susiya was previously located is also situated near several Jewish religious sites. Should Susiya somehow remain standing, it is likely Israel will invoke religion as a justification for any future demolition efforts. But, as critics have argued, while Israeli often uses religion to justify its settlement activities, it is not the real reason behind its expansion efforts, particularly in Area C.
Writing in The Huffington Post, Alon Ben-Meir, a senior fellow at the Center of Global Affairs at New York University, argued that “[t]he real reason [for settlement growth] is that Netanyahu is leading a coalition government which is committed to preventing the Palestinians from building anywhere in Area C, which represents 61 percent of the West Bank, and is openly seeking its outright annexation.”
In a very personal editorial published in The New York Times, Nasser made clear that the situation facing Susiya is not a struggle between religions, but rather a matter of fundamental justice and human rights.“This story is not a story of Jews against Muslims, or even a story of Israelis against Palestinians . . . this is simply a story of justice and equality against dispossession and oppression,” he said.
Helping Susiya’s Residents
As our tour comes to an end, Nasser introduces us to his brother, Jehad.
On the walls of Jehad’s trailer-office, statements of solidarity from the governments of Belgium and Italy, along with several other European nations, are hanging. As Jehad tells us more about the struggles Susiya has endured, he shows us a journal filled with signed and dated statements from hundreds of individuals, organizations, and political institutions expressing support for the village. He says he believes immense international pressure on the Israeli government is one of the main reasons Susiya is still standing.
I ask Jehad how someone from the United States can stand in solidarity with the village. He says raising awareness at the grassroots level is important, but also emphasizes the need to reach out to elected officials. As he describes the advocacy work he and his colleagues have done, a look of anxiety covers his face. It is the look of a man who has seen too much but must, for the sake of his people, remain hopeful.
We leave Jehad’s trailer and head to our host family’s tent for the rest of the night, all while pondering the sacrifices and challenges made by the two brothers in service of their village.
A State Crackdown on Activists
On the night of January 20, 2016, Israeli soldiers reportedly arrested Nasser and two left-wing Israeli activists, Ezra Nawi, who was detained at Ben Gurion Airport, and Guy Butavia. +972 reported that the three men were arrested in connection with a “sting operation” conducted by a mysterious Israeli right-wing group, “Ad Kan,” whose operations are viewed by the Israeli left as part of an ongoing right-wing campaign to criminalize critics of the Israeli occupation, whoever they may be.
According to Israeli officials, Nawi was arrested on allegations of being an accessory to manslaughter, contact with a foreign agent, transporting an individual in Israel without a permit, and conspiracy to commit a crime, among other charges. Butavia was arrested on similar grounds. Nasser was arrested but not charged with any crime.
Ezra Nawi has a record of working for the protection and advancement of Palestinian rights in the West Bank. Members of Ad Kan managed to secretly record him bragging about reporting an Arab resident of Israel to the Palestinian Authority for trying to sell his land in the West Bank to Israeli settlers. In the video, Nawi was shown speaking to Nasser, who suggested ways he could report the individual. For Israeli police, this was sufficient to constitute a crime worthy of arrest.
Despite facing serious charges, Nawi and Butavia were not subject to the sort of draconian legal processes Nasser experienced, during his detention. After his arrest, Nasser was prohibited from having any contact with his attorney. In violation of international law, police transferred Nasser outside the West Bank to a court in Jerusalem, where an Israeli judge ruled he had no jurisdiction over Nasser and ordered his unconditional release. Instead of releasing Nasser, however, Israeli police transferred him to a military court in the West Bank.
According to B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, Nasser’s attorney filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus to the Israeli Supreme Court, along with another petition to the lower court calling for the police, who acted in contempt of its orders, to be held accountable. The lower court ruled against the latter petition.
In response to the other petition, the Supreme Court ruled that Nasser should remain in custody only until Sunday, January 24. Nasser was released that day, despite the prosecution’s request that his detainment be extended.
According to Haaretz, Nasser’s attorney described the entire procedure against her client as “much ado about nothing.” She added that there was no evidence showing the Palestinian Authority had done any harm to Palestinians selling land to Israeli settlers; indeed, the land dealer implicated in this case was alive and well and living with his children in Israel.
Nasser’s ordeal speaks to the constant challenges and obstacles Palestinian activists face in opposing a powerful state that systematically abuses its power. In addition to fighting against various social and economic handicaps, Palestinian activists are confronted with a legal system that disadvantages them by design.
The Struggle Continues
During my short stay in Susiya, I meet two young, cheerful, and affectionate children from my host family: Mohammad, 7, and Hala, 6. Their father, Abu Mohammad, never once shows any signs of hopelessness. The smile on his face speaks to the indefatigable resilience characterizing all of Susiya’s residents.
While we prepare to depart from the village, I recall Nasser’s perseverance, Jehad’s hope, Mohammad and Hala’s innocence, and Abu Mohammad’s resilience. Through them, the struggle for Susiya will continue.
As we bid farewell to all those who welcomed and hosted us, we part ways, smiling. “Please come back soon,” says Abu Mohammad, waving as we leave his home. We wave back confidently, and reply “Inshallah [God willing] we will.”