Khirbet Susiya: The Palestinian village backed by Britain that Israel plans to tear down

Israel says buildings were constructed illegally, but residents claim it is so difficult to secure permits they are forced to do so

At first glance, the metal and wooden-framed tents that make up the Palestinian village of Khirbet Susiya in the southern West Bank would seem easy enough for the Israeli army to demolish.

But an Israeli government plan to send in army bulldozers, perhaps as early as Monday, to clear what it claims is an illegal settlement, has run into an unexpected obstacle: support for those who live there from the US, UK and EU. As a result the official decision, long sought by nearby Israeli settlers, to raze the village has set up a confrontation this week that will reverberate far beyond the rocky hillside that is home to 340 people.

It was on 12 July that Israel’s senior policymaker for the occupied territories, Major General Yoav Mordechai, met villagers to announce that demolitions, which have been in the air since a high court decision in May, would be carried out after the Moslem al-Fitr holiday that ended on Sunday, participants said.

While all of the village’s 80 buildings have demolition orders pending against them, Maj-Gen Mordechai’s staffers provided a map of 37 to be demolished imminently, including homes, animal sheds, a clinic and outhouses. The official reason for the demolitions is that they were built without permits, but residents, backed by the international community, say it is so difficult to secure such permission that they are forced to build illegally.

The mood in Khirbet Susiya is grim. Welcoming visitors with watery coffee inside his sparse tent of carpets and mattresses, farmer Mahmoud Nawaja was distraught. “The demolition could be in the middle of the night, it could be tomorrow,” he said. “All the time I think of it. Where will I go? I have no other place. Some of the children understand what is going on and some don’t.”

Nasser Nawaja, who comes from the same extended family, said his father was a refugee from Israel’s creation in 1948 while his mother was born in Khirbet Susiya. In 1986, the entire family was expelled from the original site of the village to make way for an Israeli archeological park, run by settlers who had established the rival Jewish settlement of Susiya three years earlier, he said. The Palestinians reestablished their own village on their own agricultural land a few hundred yards away, but were expelled again in 2001 after the killing of a settler.

That was not carried out by villagers and Israel’s high court ordered that they be allowed to return. Now they do not want to move again. “My father was expelled from his home in 1948, I was expelled from where I was born in 1986. I don’t want to see this happen to my children,” said Nasser Nawaja.

If that does not happen, it will be because of fears that Israel’s already fragile international standing will be seriously harmed by demolitions. A US State department spokesman has said that any demolition or evictions would be “harmful and provocative”. Britain has all but adopted the village, paying for the legal work that the dovish Israeli NGO, Rabbis for Human Rights, carries out on its behalf. The UK has also funded a master plan, submitted to Israeli authorities in the vain hope they would then legalise the villagers’ presence. The consul-general in Jerusalem, Alastair McPhail, recently visited the village to show solidarity. “Demolitions of property and the evictions of entire communities from their villages cause great suffering to ordinary Palestinians and are harmful to the peace process,” he said, adding: “They are in all but the most limited circumstances contrary to international humanitarian law”.

The demolition statement of imminent intent, which Maj-Gen Mordechai’s office did not confirm or deny, was especially jarring because on Aug 3 Israel’s high court is due to hear an appeal on behalf of the villagers against a decision by military authorities to reject the British-funded master plan. Maj-Gen Mordechai’s office did not respond to questions from the Independent as to why demolitions were necessary.

But settlers from Susiya and its environs term the Palestinians “invaders” and have clamoured for their expulsion, while a right wing organisation, Regavim, has mounted the legal campaign to have Khirbet Susiya torn down.

In the eyes of critics of Israeli policy, Khirbet Susiya has become a symbol of how Israel deprives Palestinians of their land and resources in the West Bank, damaging prospects that they will ever have a viable independent state. Although Palestinians have nominal self rule in parts of the West Bank, the majority of it, known as Area C, including Khirbet Susiya, remains under full Israeli military control. The Palestinians and their backers view Area C as the vital future hinterland of their independent state. But Israel sees it as an area where its settlements and hold should continue to expand.

Participants in the meeting say Mordechai declined to specify where they should move to, telling them they could continue to farm at Khirbet Susiya but must live elsewhere They say they told him they need to stay on their land to protect it from encroachment by Israeli settlers.

Susiya residents fear that their land will be given to settlers, whose leaders make no secret of their hopes for that. “It will make me happy if Jews are able to build in any empty area in Judea and Samaria,” the biblical names for the West Bank, said Yochai Damri, a local settler leader. In Mr Damri’s view, Judea and Samaria are the heartland of an ancient homeland to which the Jews have returned and where the Palestinians are invaders. The fact that an ancient synagogue was found during the archeological digs in Susiya is proof of this, he believes. He claims that the Khirbet Susiya villagers have no tie to the area and infiltrated it over the last 15 years. “These are criminals who invaded an area that doesn’t belong to them,” he says.

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