Life among the ruins
The Palestinian village of Sussia has been demolished numerous times in the past four decades, with bulldozers poised to flatten the site again this week. Locals vow to rebuild on the land they own.
A few days after it became clear that it was necessary to evacuate the Ulpana buildings in the Beit El settlement, the High Court of Justice heard a petition from the rightist organization Regavim against a Palestinian "illegal outpost.
The court acted immediately. It issued demolition orders for dozens of structures in the West Bank village of Sussia, which is itself a replacement encampment and refuge for residents who were expelled, about 25 years ago, from their original village and resettled on private land that they own. Here, buildings will not be carefully dismantled and here there will be no offers of alternative housing, compensation or construction of hundreds of new homes in exchange.
A broiling sun beat down this week on the hilly desert landscape of the southern Hebron Hills. The residents lay in their tents and their shacks. There is no electricity, apart from that generated from the solar installation donated by the German government. There is no running water - just the water in the remnants of the cisterns that Israel has not yet demolished and the water they transport here from Yatta at NIS 35 per cubic meter. They have never heard of air conditioners here, nor fans. The pipe carrying water to the nearby Israeli settlement runs through their fields, which they cannot use. Nearly all the ancient caves where once it was possible to find shelter from the heat have been destroyed by Israel. Into one of them, for example, Civil Administration soldiers threw the junked remains of an old Subaru in order to block it. They blocked the others - as well as the wells and latrines - with dirt and rocks.
Opposite are the verdant vineyards planted by the people of the Jewish settlement of Sussia, some of which is on lands expropriated from their neighbors by the state, and some on lands taken over during the course of the years. Jewish Sussia has electricity and water. The tiled roofs of the homes there are red. From time to time, settlers emerge from Jewish Sussia to physically harm their neighbors and their property.
We went down to the last remaining cave not to have been destroyed by the bulldozers, seeking refuge from the heat. It now serves as a site for hospitality and also as a small shop for handicrafts made by the village women. Every traditional dress, bag or lampshade bears the name of the woman who made it. A bag was made by Zahariya, a picture embroidered by Rabiha, a lampshade is Iman's they will receive the money for any items sold.
Nasser Nawajah, the village's unofficial spokesman, accompanies us to the cave, his arm in a cast. He was injured in an accident on his tractor and his injury became worse after he was attacked near Mitzpeh Yair, while still injured, by a sickle-wielding settler who smashed his video camera. Photos of that attack are kept at the offices of Breaking the Silence, which has taken this village - along with the other villages in the area - under its wing. One of the organization's founders, Yehuda Shaul, is accompanying us here.
Nawajah is already well versed in the history of his village's tribulations. On the eve of Yom Kippur in 2001, we were here after the village was demolished not for the first time and not for the last. Nasser was born here in a cave, 29 years ago. When he turned 3, his village was demolished for the first time and its inhabitants were expelled. On the ruins of the village, Israel set up an archaeological site where a number of settlers are now living and their carpentry shop is located, all illegally.
A childhood memory, as told to Nasser by his father and grandfather. "They said to them: 'It is forbidden for anyone to live in this village.' They put up an iron fence and destroyed the houses that were made of stone, straw and earth. They also destroyed the sheep pen and expelled all the inhabitants of Sussia, about 500 people. Grandfather after grandfather, generation after generation lived there. A month after the decision that no civilian was allowed to live there, they allowed a number of settler families from Sussia to live there. To this day they are still living there."
Filmmaker Yoav Gross, of B'Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for
Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, recently documented the attempts by Nasser's elderly father, Muhammad, to visit the archaeological site among the ruins of his village. The site is supposedly open to the general public, but in reality only Jews can go there. In the end, the old villager is expelled in disgrace from the site that had been his home. Now Muhammad lies on the floor of the cave, snoring as he takes his afternoon nap.
Perhaps he too will soon be expelled from here.
When Sussia was first demolished, the village was fragmented in all directions and became 11 tiny communities that planted their tents and shacks on their lands in the area. Over the years, settlers have killed two of the expelled inhabitants of Palestinian Sussia, some of their fields have been set on fire, burning rags have been thrown into their caves and some of the inhabitants of the village have fled from here.
In 1991, five years after the destruction of their village, "the story with the
Administration," as Nasser calls it, began. "Every year there is demolition," he says. "They demolish and we build."
At first it was claimed that the villagers were forbidden to live here for security reasons. In 1997, the residents submitted applications for permits to build on their lands. The only response they received came a few months later when the Civil Administration people came, loaded them onto trucks together with their livestock and dumped them at the Tzif Junction, about 20 kilometers from here. The people quickly came back and rebuilt their village.
When the second intifada broke out in 2000, they were cut off and unable to get to the town of Yatta, the source of their provisions and daily needs, where they purchased food for themselves and their animals, as well as water and medicine. Every tractor that tried to break the siege had its four wheels shot out by soldiers. One night in 2001, settler Yair Har-Sinai was murdered by an inhabitant of Yatta. At first light their village was demolished once again, without orders, without warning and without even the possibility of rescuing at least some of their possessions. Nasser relates that many of the Sussia settlers participated in the destruction.
The "Nawajah community," one of the 11 communities of Sussia refugees, once again had to relocate its tiny encampment to a site a kilometer and a half away, in order to placate the settlers. From time to time they tried to return to their fields and cultivate them, but the Israel Defense Forces prevented them from doing so. Anyone caught in his own field was tied to a post at the nearby IDF camp for many hours before eventually being released to his home.
After a few days in their new location, they were awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of bulldozers. Their new village was demolished as well.
They fled to Yatta and embarked on a legal fight, with the help of attorney Shlomo Lecker. The High Court of Justice ultimately recognized their ownership of the land and allowed them to return to it. That was just before the Yom Kippur of 2001, when I visited them. The next day the IDF demolished the tent camp set up for them by the International Red Cross. The state gave up on the "security considerations" against them living on their land, and the court granted them an extension to apply for building permits.
The state argued that they were cut off from water and electricity, and therefore the place was unfit for human habitation. Another time, they claimed the residences were too close to the livestock pens and were therefore a danger to their health.
"We kept submitting new applications and they would dig up new stories," says Nasser. When the Palestinians despaired of succor from the High Court of Justice, along came the Regavim petition against the Palestinian "outpost," filed this February. The petitioners detailed terrorist and criminal acts, and explained their request with security arguments, totally ignoring the violence suffered by the residents and the innumerable illegal Jewish outposts in the area.
Last week, High Court of Justice Ruling 1556/12 ordered the implementation of the demolition orders within three days. Rabbis for Human Rights attorney
Kamar Mishraki-Asad managed to obtain a stay of demolition until the end of this week. "But this is our land. We have old people who were born here and who are older than the State of Israel. How can this be an illegal outpost?" asks Nasser in his picturesque Hebrew.
"You have the opportunity to object," state the orders distributed here at the end of last week. "If you have a complaint, you are required to transmit it to the secretariat of the Central Supervisory Unit within three days of the delivery of this message."
Nasser says these orders affect 58 structures, which are slated for demolition any day. In this case, it is a matter of the fate of 30 people - 22 of them children - who are living in this compound. But similar orders against approximately another 30 families have already been issued. For example, similar orders have been issued in Bir al-Eid - between Lucifer Farm and Mitzpeh Yair, both of them illegal settlements - where another Sussia community is living.
What will happen? "Whatever happens will happen," Nasser says. "The Sussia [regional] council does not want Palestinians in the area, and the court and the Civil Administration are acting under pressure from the settlers."
And if they demolish the village?
"We will rebuild. It's easy to say 'We will rebuild,' but it's hard. I believe it is our right to live on our land."
A phone call from London. A British organization wants to come to the aid of the village. Nasser serves apricots from the village's orchard. "Eat, it's apricots from here. From here, and there is no poison." He hastens to correct himself. "I mean, it hasn't been sprayed."