THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Holding Ground

Defending a home in Palestine

by Max Schindler

published November 18, 2016


 

When asked what her family will do if the army demolishes the village, Soraya, 16, hesitates: “We’ll go to Yatta,” she says, gesturing towards the nearby West Bank market town.

“No,” her mother interrupted. “We’ll stay here. Don’t say that.”

It’s a question on the mind of every resident of Susiya, a Palestinian village of tarpaulin huts and sheep pens that faces a pending demolition order for Dec. 12th, after being razed four previous times by the Israeli army in the past 30 years.

The embattled 400-person village has attained iconic status in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as doves and hawks draw lines in the sand over its fate. Supporters of a two-state solution are making a hard-pressed, last stand effort after years of relentless settlement construction supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Right-leaning Israelis want the Palestinians evicted so they can expand the nearby Jewish settlement, also called Susiya; Western diplomats drive by weekly in 4-wheelers to the isolated hamlet in the South Hebron Hills, taking case interviews and reporting back to Washington and Berlin about the plight of a negotiated peace. Other envoys include leftist Israeli and international tour groups, who stop by in a show of solidarity with the village.

The groundswell of international attention on Palestinian Susiya is matched by the Israeli government’s spotlight on the Jewish settlement of Susiya. In a symbolic gesture, Israel’s hawkish defense minister Avigdor Liberman chose to visit the settlement of Susiya on the first day of Israel’s school year in 2016. Defense ministers do not typically visit schools, let alone give speeches inside them. Liberman hunched in the doorframe of a class and spoke of the rights of settlers to live in the West Bank­—making no mention of their non-citizen Palestinian neighbors. 

With Trump's election, the work of diplomats and human rights advocates may become even more difficult. The president-elect’s main Israel adviser, Jason Dov Greenblatt, once lived in a nearby West Bank settlement and served as a combat soldier there. Trump will likely replace the few left-leaning American State Department staffers who have offered a sympathetic ear and called on John Kerry to intervene to "save Susiya". The hopes of a gun-toting former settler like Greenblatt heeding Palestinian human rights claims is slim.

 

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Though Susiya has drawn outsized attention, the situation in the village is far from unique. As part of Israel’s 50-year military occupation, the Oslo Accords divided the occupied West Bank into Areas A, B, and C. While Areas A and B (making up 40 percent of the West Bank) are under the autonomy of the Palestinian Authority, Area C (making up 60 percent of the territory) is under direct Israeli control. Susiya is one of an estimated 180 villages and communities located in Area C.

In Area C of the West Bank, all Palestinian building must be approved by the Israeli authorities. From 2009 to 2013, Area C Palestinians filed 2,000 building permit requests. Only 44 were approved according to B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization.

In their claim to building rights, the Palestinians of Susiya cite Ottoman-era title deeds from 1881. While the Israeli army has verified the documents’ authenticity (according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz), the army fails to acknowledge their legal value.

 

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A few hundred meters away from the ripped, dusty tents of century-old Palestinian Susiya, sits the red-slated roofs and verdant gardens of the Israeli Susiya. A group of right-wing, religious Jews founded the settlement of Susiya in 1983. Around 1,000 Israelis live in the settlement, and in the last election most voted for the far-right, religious Zionist party. The settlers rarely if ever interact with their Palestinian neighbors, except for the occasional act of vandalism, desecration of an olive grove, or physical assault.

The homes of the settlers are connected to the electrical, water, and sewage grid set up by the Israeli government. The settlers pay a few dollars per cubic meter to get piped water from the public-owned national water carrier while the Palestinian dwellers pay 5 times the price for water tanks from a private company. Palestinians are entitled to basic services provided by their occupier under international humanitarian law, yet Israel fails to comply. 

Relief organizations such as the Red Cross and humanitarian aid from European countries have stepped in to fill the void left by Israel’s failure to provide these services. In the past decade, the German government installed solar panels in the village. Other European Union countries contributed slides and ladders for a makeshift playground. Italy donated a shipping container that functions as the de facto town hall. EU diplomatic stickers are plastered on many of the buildings as a plea for consular protection, a warning for soldiers who seek to bulldoze the village.

Despite the political and psychological limbo of living in non-permanent housing, life continues. While living and volunteering in Susiya from May-August 2016, I spent much of the day bantering with the women in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and stewing soup. I would carry huge sacks of fertilizer as the women dumped manure into the taboon oven hearth.

While most of the women never stopped working, the men lounged about for much of the day. They would shepherd the sheep in the early mornings and late afternoons, sometimes helping with the olive harvest or beekeeping. We would sip multiple cups of tea daily.

Most families were large, ranging from 6-8 children. The kids would run about the place, poking fun at visitors and villagers alike. The tents granted little in the way of privacy, allowing relatives and neighbors to stop by for a chat at all hours of the day and night.

 

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On most days, I taught English to the children. The boys would yell and shout at me, getting bored easily. That left me with a trio of teenage girls wanting to study. They were each entering senior year of high school and preparing for their tawjihi—the high school graduation exams.

We’d sit under a gnarled olive tree, gossiping and joking. Soraya, a dark-skinned, ambitious 16-year-old, is the best student in the village. She talked of wanting to study at the local Polytechnic University in Hebron to become a journalist.

Soraya’s mother, Iman, liked to attend the lessons, too, even if she was afraid of speaking. One class, we practiced asking each other our ages in English. Iman refused, acting suspicious. “Why do you want to know my age? What for? Are you going to talk to the army about me?”

Iman’s husband, Mahsem would tell me little-by-little about his family. “My grandfather, Mahmoud Jemol, he was killed by settlers,” Mahsem confided in me towards the end of my stay, pointing in the distance towards the army pillbox that now sits on the site of his grandfather’s olive field. As Mahsem talked about the killing, Iman interrupted with a shrug. “What can we do, one of us will next be dead,” she said with a deep chuckle. “Let’s have some tea.”

Not every villager has felt the brunt of physical assault but all feel the constant threat of Jewish settler and army violence on their way of life. Fifteen years ago, the army attempted to prevent the villagers from using the water well, in an attempt to force them off the land. An army bulldozer lifted pieces of a rusting car into the wells, permanently poisoning the water source. 

Most of the Susiya residents knew no Jews aside from soldiers or settlers. Weekly, a half-dozen left-wing Jewish activists would visit the village. They would banter and sip on tea with a few of the male village heads. But the rest of the villagers kept their distance from the “foreign” ajnabi visitors. Villagers puzzledly asked me why I would “flip” sides. Some even accused me of being an agent in the mukhabarat, the secret police, or the Mossad, Israel’s CIA.

As the lone Jew during the month-long Ramadan fast, many of the heavier and sweatier tasks fell on my shoulders. In late afternoon, the men would sleep as I’d shepherd the sheep grazing over the sun-scorched, barren Judean Hills. Then we’d break the fast together, one feast after the next, waiting for the news about the demolition.

 

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After multiple stays on the demolition, Israel’s High Court convened on August 1st 2016 to discuss Susiya’s fate. Representing the village were attorneys from Rabbis for Human Rights and B’tselem, while defense ministry officials stood across the aisle. A dozen of the Susiya village elders sat in the front-row, decked in white linen shirts. Most speak no Hebrew and they asked around for ad-hoc translation.

In the court petition, the villagers' attorneys requested that Israel’s military recognize the legality of Palestinian structures built without a permit, given their Ottoman-era title deed to the land. Yet from the initial courtroom conversation, it seemed unclear whether the justices read the attorneys' petition.

The court’s chief justice, Miriam Naor, began the hearing with a confession.

“I don't understand the petitioners. I don't understand the state. I don't understand anything,” Naor said, as courtroom spectators guffawed at her admission after years of legal wrangling.

“The state's position is not clear. I have difficulty with the fact that the state comes to court with one file after another and says we haven't decided,” Naor continued.

Naor shook her head. Despite criticizing both the petitioners and the state, Naor rejected the appeal and said that the decision over Susiya’s fate rested with defense minister Liberman.

When the RHR attorney tried to clarify whether the demolition orders were still in effect, Naor interrupted.

"Don't ask me [stupid] kitbag questions,” Naor said, a Hebrew slang term referring to the iconic olive green duffel bag Israeli soldiers carry. In basic training, when an army officer orders a conscript to, let's say, run around a tree 30 times, one unassuming new soldier will always ask, "shall we bring our kitbag?" Now everyone must lug the 50-pound packs on their backs.

 

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For four months this summer, I lived with Nasser Nawaja’s family, eating with his relatives on the threadbare concrete and sleeping each night on mats alongside his two sons. Nasser is the head of the village and he works for B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization which fights the military occupation. The group employs a few dozen staffers to videotape, record and document army and settler brutality in the West Bank.

As a local staffer for the HR group, Nasser’s job functions like a 311 line. Nasser’s job entails not just fighting the impending destruction of Susiya, but responding to violence throughout the South Hebron Hills. All hours of the day and night, Nasser got calls and texts from friends and colleagues.

An army bulldozer is driving towards a family home in the nearby wadi (valley), a relative would telephone. Soldiers are detaining a friend at the checkpoint, we’d hear. A settler brandished his gun and is now threatening locals, we’d see on Facebook.

After each update, Nasser would holler and we’d jump into his beaten-up, duct-taped Toyota Camry, holding a camera and Wi-Fi stick in case we needed to submit a human rights report to B’tselem or to a journalist willing to show the world what was happening. Nasser has a Rolodex of human rights activists and diplomats campaigning on the village’s behalf. Despite their heartfelt appeals, the Israeli government plans for demolition continue forward.

 

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Azzam, 55, a resident of Susiya who used to work in Israel, spent twenty-three years working as an electrician for Israeli utility companies until the Second Intifada in the early-2000s. With suicide bombings across Israeli cities and an Israeli army siege on Palestinian towns, Azzam could no longer get a work permit. He lost his job and has worked as a shepherd in Susiya ever since. 

“I want to work on my lands that they took,” said Azzam, gesturing south towards the Jewish settlement. He keeps his arm outstretched, jabbing at the horizon until he gets tired.

“Four times, Susiya has been destroyed by the Israeli army. It wouldn’t surprise me if they did it again. With the past four demolitions, we slept outside under the trees. We did that during the Winter,” he said. 

When asked as to what he will do if the bulldozers return, Azzam paused.

“Look, I was born in Susiya,” he said. “My childhood was in Susiya. I became a man in Susiya. And I’ll never leave Susiya.”

 

MAX SCHINDLER B’16.5 brings his kitbag wherever he goes