Trapped by lines on a map

The village of Susya has become symbolic of the thousands of Palestinians facing expulsion from Israeli-controlled areas of the Occupied West Bank. Now, the village is facing possible demolition once again.

The Palestinian village of Susya has been destroyed four times in the past 25 years. Soon, that number will be five. On June 14th, the Israeli Civil Administration issued demolition orders on some 50 buildings, including tent dwellings, animal pens, water cisterns and a row of German-funded solar panels. This week, a temporary injunction ran out and the village is now subject to demolition.

Susya’s fate is being watched closely by both Palestinian villagers and Jewish settlers in what’s known as Area C of the West Bank. Created in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords, Area C, which makes up 60 percent of the West Bank, is under full Israeli civil and military control.

According to the United Nations, there are an estimated 150,000 Palestinians living there. Seventy percent of Area C is off-limits to Palestinian construction; 29 percent is heavily restricted. Meanwhile, over 3,000 demolition orders are outstanding, including several targeting schools. All, according to lawyer Quamar Mishirqi-Asad, proof of a deliberate policy to drive Palestinians away from Area C.

“Susya is actually the village which represents villages in Area C. It’s Palestine in Area C,” Mishirqi-Asad told DW. Herself a Christian Palestinian, Mishirqi-Asad is representing the village of Susya on behalf of the Jewish NGO “Rabbis for Human Rights.” The Civil Administration’s demolition policy is, the lawyer believes, “another way of making people get away from Area C and into Area A and Area B.”

Israeli political desire to create an area “clean of Palestinians” is, according to Mishirqi-Asad, the reason that the majority of Palestinian villages in Area C are left without access to electricity, tap water, and other basic services. In the case of Susya, Mishirqi-Asad argues, Israeli demolition policy has taken on an urgency which can only be explained by cartography.

Trapped by lines on a map

Palestinian Susya is a collection of tent dwellings located about 15km south of Hebron Palestinian Susya is a collection of tent dwellings

“Look,” says Mishirqi-Asad, pointing to a tattered map hanging on the wall of her office, “there’s Susya.” On either side of the village, two lines cross the map. One line marks the current projectory of the West Bank Separation Barrier, the other marks an alternative route which as yet has no physical basis in reality. “We were scratching our heads to understand why the government was being so stubborn about a few little windswept hills,” Mishirqi-Asad’s colleague, Rabbi Arik Ascherman quips dryly. “But if you look at a map, it becomes a lot clearer.”

With Susya and its neighboring Palestinian villages gone, he explains, “you have a Palestinian-free finger of land going up all the way to Kiryat Arba, one of the major settlements.”

Red-roved Jewish settlements are a key feature of the landscape in Area C. In 1983, a settlement was built next to the Palestinian village of Susya which was, at that time, a collection of cave dwellings. Within three years, the cave dwellings had been identified as a Jewish archeological site, and the residents expelled. Since then, the Palestinian villagers have been living in make-shift tent dwellings on their traditional pasture lands, just a few hundred meters away from their settler neighbors.

In February 2012, the Jewish settlement, which is also called Susya, teamed up with a Zionist organization called Regavim to petition the Israeli High Court to order the immediate demolition of Palestinian Susya. The petition’s success sets new precedents for future cases against Palestinian villages in Area A. Of particular importance is the fact that the petition referred to the Palestinian villagers as “trespassers” living in “illegal outposts” – terminology which has hitherto been applied exclusively to Jewish settlements built without government permission.

Jewish Susya seen from Palestinian Susya.

There’s an invisible boundary between Jewish Susya and Palestinian Susya

Australian-born Ari Briggs is the international spokesperson for Regavim. Like Mishirqi-Asad, he is keen to talk about maps. On a laptop, he pulls up detailed satellite imagery of the two Susyas – Palestinian Susya, and the neighboring Jewish settlement of Susya. The next image is of the same area, but taken in 1999. In this picture, there are no Palestinian dwellings to be seen – proof, Briggs says, that “these people are squatters who are sitting on this land in order to grab it for themselves.”

“We actually believe that it’s an organized plan by the Palestinian Authority to take over as much of Area C as possible because they’re trying to influence final negotiations,” Briggs told DW. “The idea being they see themselves in a weak position in Area C so there is a specific plan to take as much land, to settle as much land as possible so that when they get to final negotiations, they see that there are all these Arab towns – new Arab towns that they claim are old Arab towns that will influence the final negotiations.”

A satellite image is, however, a moment freeze-framed in time. Put that moment into its wider context, and a very different story emerges. In 1998, 113 structures were demolished in Susya. The blank area on the screen isn’t so much proof of what never was, as an image of what is soon to be again.

We will never leave

Meanwhile, in Palestinian Susya, Islam Shakhdeh Nawajeh has been up since 5 o’clock. Like all the women in Palestinian Susya, her day begins with the mucking out of sheep pens, the baking of bread and the cajoling of children. After breakfast, she sets out to tend to the village’s olive trees, taking care not to cross the invisible line between Palestinian Susya and the Israeli settlement on the hill.

Islam Nawajeh. She's the mother of five children, the youngest of which is 13 monthsIslam Nawajeh says she and her family remain rooted to their land

By lunchtime, Islam is hot and thirsty. It’s not rained for months, and the bucket has a long way to fall before the sound of a hollow splash is heard at the bottom of the well. It’s not an easy life, but it’s the only one which Islam knows. “Susya is everything to me,” she told DW, “even if the Israeli army continues to demolish our homes, we will remain rooted in this land.”

Outside Islam’s tent, 26-year-old Ibrahim Nawajeh is clutching a video camera. The memory card is full of interviews with his neighbors. Soon the footage will be online, and his community will have a voice. In each interview, Ibrahaim asked the same questions: “What does home mean to you?” and “what will you do after the demolition?” Ibrahaim’s own answer is the same as everyone else’s: “I cannot leave Susya, because Susya has a special place in my heart,” he says simply.

Nevertheless, Ibrahim is troubled. “I have seen a demolition before,” he says quietly. “It happened here in Susya.” That time, only 10 families were affected. After the demolition, Ibrahim remembers, the families went to live in a nearby town in Area A. They never came back. “I am afraid for Susya,” Ibrahaim admits.

Author: Kate Laycock, Susya, West Bank
Editor: Rob Mudge