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Each time I enter the conference room in J Street’s Washington, DC office, I look to a plaque that sits on our bookshelf. It reads, “Thank you J Street! We wish to express our great thanks and appreciation to J Street for their friendship and support for Susya, Palestine.” The plaque may be small, but it is a weighty reminder that our work in the United States can make a real difference for vulnerable Palestinians living on the front lines of the occupation.
Susya is a small village in the South Hebron Hills. It is also a battleground between the settlement movement and those working to oppose the occupation. Its residents were forced to move to their farmland in the ‘80s after the discovery of an ancient temple at an archaeological site adjacent to the village. The residents live in Area C under full Israeli military control, unable to obtain permits to build or farm on their land. They live under constant threat of home demolitions, settler violence and water shortages, even as an Israeli settlement (also named Susya) has flourished on the next hilltop.
Last year, J Street launched efforts to save Susya, urging the State Department to encourage Israel to halt the impending demolition orders on Susya. And our efforts, combined with the work of other groups, made an impact. The Israeli government delayed the demolition orders on Susya, reportedly following some pressure from the State Department. Susya still stands today.
Until just a few weeks ago, Susya to me was just a name on a plaque and a far-flung desert village. But this summer I spent three days in the village, participating in a trip organized and led by the Center for Jewish Nonviolence.
On our final day there, two of the local children took me to the plum orchard that lays in the valley between their village and the settlement of Susya. I was nervous that approaching the settlement might provoke a hostile response from its inhabitants, as often happens when the Palestinian residents of Susya descend to pick fruit and olives, or to pasture their sheep. I imagined what this encounter could look like and realized how vulnerable these kids would be if I weren’t there. Not just because I am older, but because I am Jewish and I am an American.
Sitting in that orchard, I was protected by different laws than the Palestinian children climbing trees to pick plums for me and my friends. Because of my presence, settlers were less likely to approach and if they did, they were less likely to be violent.
The twenty other diaspora Jewish women who came to Susya with me were also protected by our status as foreign nationals and Jews. And while we were there, that protection extended to the rest of the village. Israeli authorities were less likely to demolish homes and settlers and soldiers were less likely to antagonize the villagers.
We can take action to help provide some of this protection even from the United States. International scrutiny — like the attention our campaign to save Susya mustered — has the power to protect Palestinian lives and homes. My fellow trip participants and I have returned home to tell our communities about this village and ensure that they keep their eyes on what is happening in Susya and other villages across the West Bank. This critical attention, generosity, and time can help defend communities in danger. We cannot let up.