The joking and banter of the five women sitting on low rocks, which nature had conveniently arranged in a circle, made the West Bank village of Susya seem like a carefree place. Amid twilight hues, Palestinian children laughed and scrambled between a slide and a geese pen. A few almond trees in blossom perfected the fleeting impression. But the illusion was shattered almost instantly.
On Sunday, Iman Nawaja, 38, was busy moving piles of clothes out of her home. Her “home” is sheets of cloth and tarpaulin stretched on a few iron arches. The rocks are the living room.
Three days earlier, on February 1, the High Court of Justice gave the go-ahead to demolish the arched structure, because it had been built without a permit, after an interim order had already been issued forbidding the state from demolishing structures in the village.
Nawaja wanted to save the clothes of her family-of-seven first. She arranged the mattresses and blankets in the structure’s southern corner. Their turn to be saved will come later. The nearby storeroom will also be torn down, the justices had ruled. The kitchen – an ancient, sheet-covered structure – is not on the Civil Administration’s current demolition list.
The villagers cannot count the times the Israeli bulldozers have demolished structures, caves, water cisterns and agricultural terraces. Despite that, they always returned to the site. It’s also hard to remember all the High Court sessions that were held in their case. The Palestinians want an approved master plan for their village. The Civil Administration wants them to live near Yatta, an urban community south of Hebron. It’s good for the women, the administration officials wrote once.
In the past, a media and diplomatic turmoil would occur over each court session. This time it didn’t, and the residents are waiting for the destruction by themselves – a routine also worth documenting.
The argument that lawyer Quamar Mishirqi made, that the structures are on the residents’ private land, was lost at court. But there’s also an upside – justices Esther Hayut, Uzi Vogelman and Daphne Barak-Erez allowed the state to demolish at this stage only seven of the 20 structures on its list.
Supreme Court President Hayut summed up the state’s stance: “The respondents [to the lawyer’s request for an injunction] claimed every building without a permit must be demolished, even if it consists of repairing weather damages, changing an existing structure or expanding it. As for the humanitarian needs, the respondents said even those cannot justify illegal building.”
The clinic, for example, is for humanitarian needs. Hayut wrote: “While there’s no dispute this structure was illegally set up, it is understandable that a clinic is a vital need to village life, and demolishing it could cause great damage to the plaintiffs and the entire village. Also, in view of the progress in the possibility of legalizing the village, it is not unreasonable that the clinic’s status will also be legalized, given the critical need for it.”
Hayut didn’t agree to demolishing structures that had been repaired after a snowstorm, or a structure whose cloth sheet had merely changed its shape, without any alteration to the skeleton structure. “I don’t accept the respondents’ claim that every repair of a structure damaged by weather is new construction that must be demolished. Each case must be examined separately,” she wrote.
However, Hayut did not accept Mishirqi’s arguments that for humanitarian reasons the state should not demolish the homes of Iman and her husband Abed al-Mohsan Nawaja. One of their sons suffers from a kidney disease. Abed himself, about 40, has recently undergone surgery three times to remove a brain tumor. His wife must provide for the family while he recovers in an apartment in Yatta.
In June 1991, Abed’s father, Mohammad, 55, was murdered on the hill separating the two villages [as well as the Palestinian Susya, there is also a settlement called Sussia]. The Jewish one, on the east, is being built up and has been expanding since 1983. The Palestinian one consists of improvised scattered structures that are constantly targeted for demolition. Davar newspaper reported at the time that Mohammad had been shot in the midst of a quarrel with a settler on a horse, who demanded the shepherds leave the area. They refused, he shot at the sheep and the shepherds hit him on the head. Then he shot Mohammad.
Haaretz reported two days after the incident that a suspect named Baruch Yelin – a resident of Sussia – was arrested. According to the police, there were grounds to charge Yelin with murder. He was in custody for a month and released on bail, after the murder charge was downgraded to manslaughter.
In April 1993, Chief Inspector Yoni Zioni told B’Tselem the case was passed to the state prosecutor and closed for lack of evidence.
Jihad Nawaja, a neighbor and relative, remembers that June 1991 day as if it were yesterday. It was a Friday, and he and Mohammad had driven a tractor delivering straw to Yatta, for storage. They prayed and returned together. Jihad hadn’t even turned the tractor’s ignition off when they heard shots.
“I saw the settler shooting the sheep, like a cowboy in a Western,” he says. He thinks about 10 of the sheep were already killed. The shepherds crowded together to protect the rest of the herd. Jihad didn’t mention or didn’t remember anyone hitting the settler on the head.
Mohammed Nawaja was far from the other shepherds and started walking toward the settler to make him stop killing the sheep. And then the settler shot him from a short range.
Jihad recalled all of this on Sunday, while Iman was putting clothes into sacks. They were all waiting for the bulldozers to arrive at any moment. The moment has stretched into a whole week, so far. “Certain uncertainty,” said an activist in the Villages Group – Israelis who have been accompanying the villagers’ struggle to live on their land for years.
In the 1980s, Israel banished them from the ancient cave village in which their families had lived at least from the beginning of the 19th century. That was the first expulsion, carried out in several rounds, with the intention of turning the area into a national park with an archaeological site in it.
“Today we have to pay to enter the village,” said Samiha, 23, referring to the national park. “Everyone has to pay 21 shekels [about $6]. And we can only enter by coordinating in advance.”
What about me?
“You’re Jewish – you don’t need to coordinate, but you’ll pay 21 shekels.”
Remembering the facts is important. After they were all exiled from the village in 1986, they settled on their farming land around it, in caves and improvised structures. In July 2001, the army removed them again, after a resident of the Sussia settlement, Yair Har Sinai, was murdered by a Palestinian.
The soldiers destroyed the property, blocked the water cisterns and destroyed caves. The High Court, responding to a petition filed by lawyer Shlomo Lecker, banned the continued demolition in an interim injunction, but did not permit structures being rebuilt to replace those that had been flattened. Since then, every added structure is “illegal.”
Iman Nawaja had a hard time answering why she went to all the trouble. Why not move permanently to Yatta and be done with it? “Where will we grow our sheep?” she asked in amazement. “This is our land. Should we abandon it so the Jews take it away from us?”