The Village Council of Susiya in the Israeli-occupied West Bank has now written an open letter pleading for the international community to exert pressure to stop the demolition, which is now thought to be just days away.
The villagers say the demolition of 20 buildings, one fifth of the village, will “violate the fundamental human rights” of 100 people, half of them children, and leave them “exposed to freezing rain and harsh winds.”
Claiming the plan to demolish Susiya is part of a wider “extensive campaign of [Israeli] demolitions in the West Bank”, the villagers’ letter concludes: “The Israeli government has repeatedly violated its obligations to us as protected persons living under occupation.
“It will be a war crime if the Israeli government forcefully displaces our village.”
The Israeli authorities have long viewed Susiya as an illegal encampment but the demolition order, announced by the Israeli State Attorney’s Office on 22 November, has also been condemned by a group of US Senators including Bernie Sanders, and by EU diplomats.
On 24 November the EU Representative and the EU Heads of Mission in Jerusalem and Ramallah issued a joint statement citing Israel’s humanitarian legal obligations as “an occupying power” and demanding the demolition be halted.
Declaring themselves “deeply concerned” about the Susiya demolition plan, the diplomats said: “The EU calls upon the Israeli authorities to halt demolitions of Palestinian houses and property, in accordance with its obligations as an occupying power under international humanitarian law, and to cease the policy of settlement construction and expansion, of designating land for exclusive Israeli use and of denying Palestinian development.”
Susiya is located in the South Hebron Hills within Area C of the West Bank, where all civil and security affairs are run by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) through its Civil Administration, as set out in the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
It has been a source of growing tension since 1986 when the site of the original village was declared a national park because of its archaeological heritage, which included an ancient synagogue that was later converted into a mosque.
Supporters of the villagers say at that point they were expelled from their original homes and took to living on their adjacent agricultural lands.
Throughout the Nineties, the IDF carried out small-scale demolitions of homes at the new site of Susiya, claiming they had been built illegally.
In July 2001, according to The Times of Israel, the entire village was destroyed a day after the murder of Yair Har Sinai, a shepherd from the nearby Jewish settlement, which is also called Susiya.
The Palestinians later rebuilt. The villagers submitted a development plan for Susiya in 2012, but in October 2013 this was rejected by the Civil Administration’s Subcommittee for Planning and Licensing.
The committee was said to have ruled that the rural residences built by the Palestinians did not provide them with proper chances for social advancement, job opportunities or educational empowerment. The committee also argued that the Palestinian Authority and the nearby town of Yatta were unable to provide proper educational, welfare and health services to Susiya.
It allegedly claimed the plan submitted by the villagers would keep Susiya’s 350-strong population in “poverty and ignorance”, and suggested that they integrate into the urban fabric of Yatta instead.
The ruling was condemned by the organisation Rabbis for Human Rights as “especially cynical considering the regime authorities placed obstacles in the way of building a school [and] left it for decades without infrastructure for electricity, water, sewage, and roads.”
In their letter, the villagers say the 2013 rejection of their plan left them “no choice but to remain on our land living in tents, under very difficult conditions, forbidden from building or repairing anything, in order to protect our land from the threat of annexation by the surrounding [Jewish] settlements.”
Then in 2014 Regavim, which calls itself a legal advocacy NGO but is characterised by opponents as a right-wing pro-Jewish settler group, began lobbying the Israeli High Court to demolish Susiya.
Regavim argued that Susiya was an “illegal Palestinian outpost” and referred to its residents as “squatters” with an “agenda intended to obliterate the fact that an ancient Jewish community, including a magnificent ancient synagogue, thrived in this area before Islam even existed.”
The group argued that the idea of an ancient Arab village called Susiya was “an invention”, citing Israel’s High Court rulings that found “such assertions were demonstrably false, based on comprehensive objective historical and geographical accounts.”
Regavim director Ari Briggs asserted that in the past “the area occupied by the squatters” had just been temporary grazing land used by Arab shepherds for between two weeks and a month every year.
As Regavim appeared to have won a decision in favour of demolition in 2015, it was backed by Israel’s deputy defence minister Eli Ben Dahan, of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party.
He told the Knesset: “There has never been an Arab village called Susiya,” adding that claims of its historical existence were “a ploy by leftist organisations to take over Area C [of the West Bank].”
Four days later, the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that the villagers had in their possession an authentic land-ownership document dating back to 1881.
The demolition plans were condemned by the US State Department of President Barack Obama, and by EU diplomats including Alistair McPhail, Britain’s consul general in Jerusalem.
The situation appeared to have become so sensitive that the demolition was repeatedly postponed.
Now, however, the demolition of Susiya appears imminent, at a time when many commentators think the Israeli government has been emboldened by a Trump administration seeming far more reluctant than Obama’s to criticise Israel.
The villagers’ letter states “On 22 November 2017 the Israeli State Attorney’s Office announced that within 15 days they plan to demolish 20 buildings, [that] are our homes and also provide shelter for our animals.
“The timing of the demolition – in the middle of winter – could not be more devastating. It will leave us vulnerable and exposed to freezing rain and harsh winds.
“Our health clinic which provides health services for around 500 people from our own and surrounding communities, is among the buildings they plan to demolish. The Israeli authorities also want to demolish our village council which provides services for 350 local residents.”
So far 30 British politicians including MPs and members of the Scottish Parliament have signalled their support for the villagers, along with dozens of academics and activists.
In the November 29 letter initiated by US Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein and Bernie Sanders, a total of 10 US senators, four of them Jewish, told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “We urge your government not to demolish the Palestinian village of Susiya and the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar.
“The displacement of entire communities would be an irreversible step away from a two-state solution, and we urge your government to abandon its efforts to destroy these villages.
“Instead of forcibly evicting these communities, we encourage your government to fairly re-evaluate Susiya’s professionally developed master plan.
“Your government’s threats to demolish these communities are particularly distressing in light of the Israeli Civil Administration’s efforts to dramatically expand settlements throughout the West Bank.”
Israeli Embassy spokespeople were not immediately available for comment.
Israel has always stressed its claim to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” and fiercely denied claims that it has ever been guilty of war crimes.
A spokesman for Mr Netanyahu has previously stated “Israel is a country with a fiercely independent judiciary … Everything done by the military in Israel is open to judicial review by the independent judiciary.”