Susya, the Next Outrage in the Israeli-Palestinian Dance of Build-and-destroy

How did this tiny Palestinian village facing demolition become a household name in European capitals and in Washington?

Ilene Prusher

Remember Susya? You may have forgotten about it, because while it was all the rage last week and the week before, other outrages over the past few days have pushed it aside: a Palestinian baby in the West Bank being burned to death while he slept, an Israeli schoolgirl being fatally stabbed while she walked in a Gay Pride parade in broad daylight.

But remaining unsolved, Susya could still be the next outrage waiting in the wings. The controversy pits 350 Palestinians who live on this dusty hilltop in the South Hebron Hills, in a smattering of tents and shacks, against the Civil Administration, an arm of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which could uproot the entire village of 80 structures any day following a decision by the Supreme Court in May.

Today, August 3, might well have been that day, as there had been a final Supreme Court hearing set to decide whether the IDF can go ahead and carry out the deed. But given the situation in the West Bank, quite literally a tinderbox following the attack on a Palestinian family in Duma on Friday morning, the Civil Administration is in negotiations with representatives of the village and the two sides have agreed to postpone the court date another week, until August 11.

There is a whole panoply of local and international players involved in the fate of an extended family of goat-herders who have been uprooted three times in nearly three decades, most notably in 1986 when they were forced out of their homes to make way for a large archeological dig. Trying to force the hand of the Civil Administration is an organization called Regavim, which has been petitioning the Supreme Court to uproot the village on the basis of their claim that the homes have been illegally built in Area C, the part of the West Bank that remains under full Israeli military and civilian control.

Regavim describes itself as being dedicated to “the return of the rule of law to all areas and aspects of the land and its preservation.” In plainer language, their raison d’etre is to try to force the state to speed up and increase the execution of home demolition orders and forced relocations of non-Jews, be they of Palestinians in the West Bank or Bedouin in the Negev. Regavim says that they’re equal-opportunity tattle-tale, noting that they watch illegal Jewish building through their aerial photography just as well as Arab building. But Jews, says Ari Briggs, the director Regavim, will usually take down an illegal structure as soon as they’re caught.

“More than any other NGO, Regavim is pushing the Civil Administration or the Court to come to a decision, but in most cases, the Civil Administration approves the building,” says Briggs. In short, he says the Civil Administration drags its feet when it comes to implementing demolition orders, and gives out extensions ad infinitum.

“When Regavim sues the Civil Administration, they have to come up with an answer,” Briggs says before offering two reporters a tour of the ruins, which includes a synagogue – later used as a mosque – indicating the area was inhabited by Jews sometime between the 5th and 8th centuries. 

“We’re doing this because we believe there’s a systemic problem here. In 100 percent of cases where Arabs ask for them to stay the demolition order, the Civil Administration simply agrees.”

That is not how it looks to Palestinians, who not only know that demolitions are more than just a threat, but who often have no chance to build legally and have no say in planning the communities in which they live. In Susya’s case, the Palestinian residents submitted a master plan for the village in 2013 to the Civil Administration’s Supreme Planning Council. Their plan was rejected on the grounds that it failed to meet planning criteria.

Sources close to the negotiations say the Civil Administration wants to offer the people of Khirbat Susya land on the outskirts of the large nearby village of Yatta. But for the Palestinians who live here, that simply means abdicating their land to settlers, and they’re not having it.

“We’ll die here before we’ll leave our land,” says Wedad Nawajeh, a young woman in the village.

Ilene Prusher

If a compromise is not reached soon, Susya will likely be uprooted while nearby, a Jewish settlement by the same name, established in 1983, will stay put as the world’s cameras roll.

This Israeli-Palestinian dance of build-and-destroy has become so well-rehearsed that few in the international community seem prepared to believe that there is a legitimate carriage of justice and due process at work here. On July 15, U.S. State Department Spokesman John Kirby said that the Obama administration was “closely following developments in the village of Susya,” adding, “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.”

A week earlier, envoys from all 28 European Union member states' Jerusalem consulates visited Susya en masse and demanded that Israel not implement the eviction orders. Never in recent memory have so many senior Europeans diplomats made such a concerted effort to stop the uprooting of Palestinians and to call into question this mysterious merry-go-round of court orders and home demolitions.

That’s one diplomat for every 12 Palestinians here, many of them children who play in the baking sun on carousels and swings donated, like the village’s solar panels and water tanks, by the different European countries and NGOs. Why Susya? How exactly did this ramshackle village that might have been one of the most insignificant little blips on the map of the Middle East become a household name in European capitals and in Washington?

For one, the controversy over Susya is not new, and many Israeli groups – including Israeli groups such as Rabbis for Human Rights and B'Tselem – have taken up their cause. But perhaps Susya is so compelling because it is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict writ large – and small. It's emblematic of everything that is wrong with the way things are run in the West Bank, a symbol of why the status quo that successive governments seem so glad to sustain is not really sustainable, and why without a complete overhaul or a more comprehensive solution – all of which looks unlikely given the current climate – there are more Susyas waiting to explode.

In the case of Khirbet Susya, there is even an acknowledgement in the IDF that the land in question is privately owned Palestinian land, based an internal investigation by the State Attorney’s Office dating back to 1982. As reported in Haaretz on July 26, an internal document on this matter demonstrates Palestinian land ownership in Ottoman documents dating back to 1881. That much pokes holes in one of the key reasons the Civil Administration rejected the village’s proposed master plan: It said sufficient ownership documents had not been submitted.

‘A greater city of Susya on my land’

Mohammed Nawajeh, the family patriarch of Susya, is checking on his fig trees. He planted them, he says, almost 30 years ago. At 70, he is a father of nine and a grandfather of 40. One of his more articulate sons, Nasser, is the voice of the village – and is spending the day meeting with Palestinian Authority officials and the Civil Administration. But the elder Nawajeh is concerned it will all be for naught: He thinks that Israeli government is determined to destroy Khirbet Susya because it is situated between the Jewish settlement of Susya and the archeological site.

“They want to make a greater city of Susya on my land,” Nawajeh explains over a small glass of coffee back in his home as his wife sits on the floor stitching a piece of embroidery for the handicrafts they sell. “But we’re not going anywhere. If the Israelis destroy my house, I’ll just build a new house a few meters away.”

Uprooting and demolishing an entire Palestinian village is probably the last thing the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs right now. No amount of clamor from right-wing groups arguing that the people here are actually from nearby Yatta or that they are adding new illegal buildings each year will mitigate the devastating images of Palestinians being uprooted against their will. Of course, a more Machiavellian mind could argue that after demolishing two illegally buildings in the settlement of Beit El last week and the ensuing uproar, Netanyahu would do well to show to his settler constituents that his government is also taking a hard line against illegal building in Arab villages. But he already moved to mollify their anger by announcing the immediate construction of 300 housing units in Beit El, bowing to pressure from MKs in Likud and Habayit Hayehudi.

And so this dance of build-and-destroy continues. Instead of addressing what’s sick in system, a Band-Aid will be sought and, if enough political will exists, possibly found –setting the stage for the next disaster.