Palestinian Sussia
The old van, on the tow truck. Photo by Miki Kratsman
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We're talking about a clunker - the skeleton of an old van, a Peugeot J5, without any wheels, without an engine. It cost NIS 800 at the junkyard in the village of Yatta. The residents of Palestinian Sussia, a handful of elderly farmers and shepherds, thought they might find refuge in it from the wind and the rain.

Last Sunday, Taleb Jabur's son loaded the rattletrap onto a tow truck from Yatta and brought it to his parents' home, a ramshackle tarpaulin tent secured by wooden stakes, which was erected in place of the tent that the bulldozers of the Civil Administration plowed under the week before. As soon as the tow truck carrying the van reached the tent, in an encampment located between the settlement of Sussia and the site of ancient Susiya (we'll get to the latter later ), an armored military jeep and a white Mitsubishi SUV appeared out of nowhere. It was carrying Civil Administration forces under the command of Maj. Nabil Tafash, whom everyone in the area calls "Captain Nabil," even though he is already a major.

For our part, we arrived late in the morning at the encampment, a collection of International Red Cross tents erected in place of the demolished dwellings, and near the water wells which had also been destroyed. Nabil sat in the SUV next to a young man in civilian clothes, with fashionable sunglasses perched on his shaved head; in the jeep sat the soldiers who had been designated for the security detail. The farmers were pleading while their wives wept.

The land is private property that belongs to the farmers. About this, evidently, there is no dispute. But living on it is prohibited. The tents therefore constituted "illegal construction" - as did the presence of the junky old van. There is no possibility of obtaining building permits.

 

It is pretty now in the south Hebron Hills. The squills are still in bloom, as are the almond trees. The meadows are full of grass and hay, some covered in fine spiderwebs that look like a bed of dew on the green carpets. There are white flowers in crevices, well-tended olive groves, their soil a dark brown. A farmer turns over his land with an ancient plow harnessed to his mule. These would be magnificent expanses if they were not on disputed land; indeed, they are among the most beautiful parts of the country. Even the red-tiled roofs on the houses of the settlement of Sussia blend in with this glorious biblical landscape.

Captain Nabil stood his ground: The van must go. Ezra Nawi, a plumber from Jerusalem who belongs to the Ta'ayush Jewish-Arab activist group and rarely leaves this area, did everything he could to stop this. Meanwhile, a photographer from Britain who came here to do a project about the landscapes of Palestine, documented the incident with his sophisticated camera, and two volunteers from the International Solidarity Movement, who came here from faraway Wisconsin, were fuming with anger. But the van was finally put back on the tow truck that brought it, and the truck headed back to Yatta.

On the way, Nabil's forces ordered the tow-truck driver to change course: straight for the Etzion base, where the truck and its cargo were impounded for entering a closed area. In another 30 days the old van might be returned.

Meanwhile, back in the encampment, Nawi made a heated telephone call to the lawyer for the Rabbis for Human Rights organization, asking how to rescue the van and the tow truck.

Rasmiya Jabur, whose husband Taleb is a farmer, wept copiously at the entrance to her tent. Her guests were served steaming tea steeped over a fire of kindling sticks. Nawi leaned on his stylized cane and said he hoped the water from the tea was not from the well that was blocked up with dirt last week by the Civil Administration. It is undrinkable now, he says.

Suddenly the residents discovered that one of the van's seats was left behind. Someone had stealthily removed it, and now an old farmer couple was reveling in it.

Sussia is on private land. About a year ago its owners - members of the Jabur clan, residents of Yatta - returned to it. They had had enough of living in the crowded village and, seeking to protect their land, they pitched tents on it for themselves and their sheep and goats. Nawi says that the settlers do not want to have to look at a "transit camp." The Messiah will come, he says, before the Palestinians get building permits.

On Saturday the white tents of the Red Cross were set up, with the help of volunteers from Ta'ayush. The Civil Administration arrived at once, but in view of the large presence of neighbors and volunteers, both local and international, they did not succeed this time to destroy them again. The indefatigable Nawi says that the Palestinians have lost their fear.

A line of armed soldiers filed through the valley, an officer at its head, crossing the olive and almond groves and another Palestinian tent encampment, this one belonging to the Nawaja clan from across the road. The pair of Wisconsin volunteers wished to return to the village of Tawana: It was time for them to escort children home from school.

Isa Jabur, 73, and his wife Zohara, 68, have two sons living in America, they have no idea where. They haven't seen them in seven years; sometimes they call. As their little grandson, 5-year-old Mahmoud, scurries back and forth between them, the couple rushes to whip out the confirmation of title to their land (called tabu, in Hebrew ) though no one asked them to do so. Every farmer here walks around with the laminated tabu certificate in his pocket, along with a note containing Ezra Nawi's telephone number, just in case. Another couple was standing nearby: Omar Jabur, 53, and his wife Safiya, 52, who also had their grandson with them. A few roosters clucked about and a sheepdog found shelter beneath a ruined tent. A can of tomato paste made by the Hasharon canned goods plant in Karkur and bearing a "kosher" label rolled around in the debris.

By comparison to the dwellings here, Taleb and Rasmiya Jabur's abode was unusually elaborate: Their tent was covered in plastic sheeting. But still there was no water, no electricity and no protection against the elements.

My cell phone rang: A television producer from Channel 2 asked me if I was watching the current season of "Big Brother." I looked at a shattered television set sprawled amid the garbage.

 

A spokesman for the coordinator of government activities in the Territories, told Haaretz: "The activity referred to involves routine law enforcement that is carried out with respect to both Palestinians and Israelis, with an emphasis on preventing an expansion of illegal construction - among other places in the area of the illegal outpost in ancient Susiya."

We walked over to see this Jewish heritage site, where development and expansion work is being carried out by Palestinian laborers from Yatta and Beit Safafa. A sign read: "We apologize for the temporary inconvenience. Completion of work: May 2011." Inside the compound, alongside the antiquities, stood three wooden huts with an old Israeli Renault car parked out front.

So the rattletrap was removed but the homes in the illegal outpost of ancient Susiya are still standing.

"This Jewish town reached its high point in the 7th and 8th centuries C.E., under Muslim rule," a colorful brochure proclaims. Admission is NIS 16, including entry to the synagogue with its ancient mosaic floor.

A field trip of boys from Susan's House, a program for troubled teens in Jerusalem, with a police escort, arrived at the site directly from the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron. "The meat is glatt kosher," promised Avital Goel, the thick-bearded ultra-Orthodox man who runs the program.

Cold cuts and industrially made hummus on disposable plates for our travelers, a learned explanation about the synagogue, from the 4th century, C.E. - but not a word about what is happening right now, a stone's throw away.