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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. By then, the residents must obtain building permits for their animal pens, toilet structures and covered caves. None of the residents believes that the Civil Administration will alter its policy and approve the structures. It's clear to them that in another four months, the legal battle will resume.

Fifteen families, or approximately 250 people, have been living for decades in the village of caves located between the community of Susiya and ancient Susiya. It's hard to see the village there - hundreds of meters separate the families; each has a large cave, a sheep and goat pen, a tent for sleeping and entertaining , a concrete-walled toilet structure and a few other facilities. Around eight water cisterns are spread across the area. This primitive infrastructure has been at the heart of a legal battle between the state and the residents for three years.

Before the intifada, some residents earned a living by working in Israel, but now they are dependent on sheep, olives and non-irrigated plants. Against this backdrop, the fight with the settlers over land and water is intensifying.

"Six months ago, I herded my sheep on the other side of the road, next to the cisterns," says Nasser Nawaja, a young resident of the village who serves as the residents' unofficial spokesman. "Suddenly a settler approached me and told me: `Let's make a border.' I said it's not necessary, but I agreed not to go beyond the electricity pylons next to the Farm [Susiya Farm, an illegal outpost set up in ancient Susiya - N.H.]. An hour later he came back and told me there's a new border, that now I'm allowed to go only as far as the cisterns. Two days later, they came again and told me that I can't cross the road and approach the cisterns and the olives." Since then, the cave dwellers have not dared cross the road, for fear of a beating from the settlers.

Several weeks ago, the last cisterns dried up and the residents needed water. "Every day I tried to talk to the army, but it didn't help; the settlers are the real commanders here," says Nawaja. Last Tuesday, a day before the High Court of Justice hearing, activists from Rabbis for Human Rights and other human rights organizations arrived to escort the residents to cisterns that were further away. Only with the help of Israelis, who coordinated their arrival with the army, did the residents succeed in reaching the cisterns.

"I don't plan to argue with them about the Tabu (the Land Registry) and ownership deeds," says one settler from Susiya Farm. "My Tabu is the Bible. They're our enemies and they're sitting on land that isn't theirs and they have to be thrown off. There's no such a thing as an Arab fellah who only wants to tend to his little garden, they've been murdering us for over 120 years."

The main topic of conversation for village residents and visitors is the cruelty of the settlers. Hamdi Hamdan relates that she was hit after she tried to shoo away sheep brought in by a Jewish shepherd to graze in the family vineyard. Yusuf Akel was bitten on the hand when settlers set two dogs on him. His dog was bitten to death: "They told me that this time it's the dog, and next time it would be me." The Najawa family's tomato field was totally ruined after a flock of sheep belonging to the settlers grazed there for hours. "We called the police, they came and photographed the scene and left; they didn't do anything," say family members. Village residents say one family has already abandoned the place because of the hardships. "But we have no other place. Where would we go?" says one resident.

Even the razing is illegal

The bitter fight for control of the area's lands has led to greater sophistication in settler abuse and Palestinian protection. "They have rifles and we have the camera. That's our only weapon," says Nawaja. Luckily for the residents, the area has become a symbol of the struggle between settlers and Palestinians and has attracted considerable media attention. The ongoing contacts with Rabbis for Human Rights and with the human rights organization Ta'ayush helps the residents cope with the problems of contending with the army and the settlers. "When Arik (Ascherman, the director of Rabbis for Human Rights) talks to the army, it helps; when I talk, no takes notice of me," says Nawaja.

The turning point in the lives of the Susiya cave dwellers was the murder of Yair Har Sinai, a settler, and the ensuing events. In June 2001, Har Sinai was murdered while grazing his sheep in the area. A few hours after the murder, settlers began, with army reinforcements, to raze the village and harm its residents. "They destroyed everything, didn't leave a thing," says Nawaja. The soldiers, with the aid of a bulldozer, razed all the buildings, sealed up the caves and cisterns and kicked the residents out. "The also destroyed cars. They crushed one car and tossed it into a cistern," relates Nawaja. The car still lies at the bottom of the destroyed cistern. Visitors are invited to have a look inside.

After they were thrown out, the residents submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice asking to rebuild their homes. The IDF and the state admitted that the soldiers' actions were illegal - "a local initiative not approved by the upper echelons," the army said at the time.

The High Court issued an injunction barring any further razing and rebuilding.

The state and the residents were entangled in a legal morass: the state admitted that the land is owned by the residents, but argued that the structures were built illegally, without building permits, although in the same breath admitting that the soldiers' razing of structures was illegal. But reconstruction violates the High Court's injunction, argues the state. The tangle grows with the handful of illegal settler outposts that have popped up not far from the village, some on private Palestinian land. All have been connected to the water and electricity infrastructure. Demolition orders have been issued for the outposts but have not been carried out due to considerations of the political echelons, the State Prosecutor's Office argued in the High Court of Justice.

The justices postponed the state's request for four months and asked the residents to try to obtain building permits for existing structures.

"You have to understand that we are talking about a destroyed tent, a crushed hut, a primitive stone structure and a concrete toilet facility. To what extreme is it possible to be absurd, to be wicked and to ignore basic human rights and say that this population must live like animals and is prohibited from building toilet facilities?" asked the residents' representative at the hearing, Attorney Shlomo Lacker.

Human rights activists say the real goal underlying the state's enormous efforts to get rid of the cave dwellers is annexation of the area by having the route of the separation fence include the settlements in the area.

"We never understood the state's stubbornness about evacuating these miserable villages," says Rabbi Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights. "After all it sparked harsh criticism around the world as well as in Israel and caused damage to the state. But when you realize that only a few thousand cave dwellers [referring to the entire region and not just Susiya - N.H.] are interfering with the state's effort to annex the entire area of the southern Hebron Hills from Arad to Kiryat Arba, including the settlements in that area, you also understand the state's motivation to get rid of them."