We are asking J Street supporters to urge Secretary of State John Kerry to intervene with the Israeli government on behalf of residents of the Palestinian West Bank village of Susya, who face imminent demolition of their homes by the Israeli Army. We are asking the United States to use its considerable influence with the Israeli government to protect innocent families from being made homeless – and to avoid another serious blow to the prospects for a two-state solution.
Susya is a small village in the south of the West Bank near the Green Line. It is the site of the remains of a 5th-8th century CE synagogue which was converted into a mosque over a thousand years ago. Over the centuries, Arab families settled and farmed the land and established ownership rights backed up by documents.
The current Palestinian population is around 350. Over the past 30 years, these residents have been the victims of repeated expulsions and home demolitions by the IDF. The residents have always tried to return and rebuild their homes on or near the original site (without building permits that the Israeli military refuses to grant them.)
Meanwhile, in 1983, an Israeli settlement was established a mile away and has grown steadily ever since to the point that it now has a population of around 1000. An additional Israeli outpost was established nearby in 2002 without Israeli planning permission and has not been removed.
A right-wing pro-settler group, Regavim, has been petitioning the High Court to demolish the village for years. The Israeli government has offered to resettle the villagers in a different area. But they want to stay on the land that has been their home for decades.
The village is located in Area C of the West Bank where all civil and security affairs are run by the IDF through its Civil Administration.
The village had been negotiating with the authorities for some years to come up with an agreed masterplan for building and development – but the Israeli Civil Administration recently abruptly broke off the talks. The villagers then asked the Supreme Court to suspend the demolition orders, but the court this week declined. It told the Ministry of Defense to come back to the court by August 15 with a plan on how to proceed. If Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman decides to demolish all or part of the village, the villagers could still challenge this decision in the court.
Israel first expelled Susya’s residents from their land in 1986 in order to build an archaeological site on top of the Palestinian village. The displaced Palestinians moved the village to their adjacent agricultural lands and have been fighting to subsist there ever since.
A second expulsion took place in 1990, when residents were loaded onto trucks by the IDF and dumped at a road junction some 10 miles to the north. Most returned and rebuilt on a rocky escarpment within their traditional agricultural and grazing territory but the authorities refused them access to water, forcing them to buy it from another Palestinian town several miles away.
A third expulsion occurred in June 2001, when settler civilians and soldiers drove the Palestinians of Susya out amid violent clashes. The IDF demolished dozens of homes in Susya and contiguous Palestinian villages and bulldozed their cisterns. Solar panels donated by the European Union were also destroyed.
The reason Palestinians in the south Hebron Hills build illegally is because Israeli authorities systematically refuse to grant them building permits or recognize any planning rights. The Israeli army rejects 90 percent of Palestinian planning requests in Area C, and most villages in the area face almost identical restrictions and demolition threats.
Settlements for Jewish Israelis, however, continuously pop up in the area. Settlers are not subject to anywhere near the same level of oversight or restriction as Palestinians when it comes to construction. And when settlers do build outposts illegally, as frequently happens, they only very rarely face government action and home demolitions.
This is an issue that encapsulates so much of the inherent injustice in the way the Israeli authorities treat Palestinians in the occupied territory, compared to the preferential treatment of Israeli settlers. It has important implications for the future of the two-state solution. And it will reflect on Israel’s moral reputation throughout the world and the integrity of its legal system.
Why are we asking the State Department to weigh in?
The State Department is the main representative of US foreign policy interests. They have repeatedly made clear that ongoing settlement activity and home demolitions in the West Bank worsen the situation in the region and undermine the prospects for a two-state solution. Just last week, the State Department condemned a new announcement of Israeli settlement construction and an increased wave of home demolitions.
The Department’s spokesman made clear that “this is part of an ongoing process of land seizures, settlement expansion, legalizations of outposts, and denial of Palestinian development that risk entrenching a one-state reality of perpetual occupation and conflict. We remain troubled that Israel continues this pattern of provocative and counterproductive action, which raises serious questions about Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful, negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.”
Given this ongoing concern, it is vital that the US government take all appropriate steps to ensure that the demolition of Susya not move forward. If we are serious about improving the situation on the ground and protecting the path to a two-state solution, now is the time to decisively act.
Both the United States and the European Union have been actively involved in this issue. In July 2015 the State Department warned Israel against demolishing the village. Spokesman John Kirby strongly urged Israel not to carry out demolitions in Susya, saying they would be “harmful and provocative.” He added: “Such actions have an impact beyond those individuals and families who are evicted. We are concerned that the demolition of this village may worsen the atmosphere for a peaceful resolution and would set a damaging standard for displacement and land confiscation, particularly given settlement-related activity in the area.”
In June 2015 a delegation of envoys from all 28 EU member states arrived in Susya to express their opposition to settlement expansion and demolition. John Gatt-Rutter, the EU’s representative in Jerusalem, said Susya had become “a by-word for a policy that has deprived Palestinians of their land and resources.” “Our presence here today indicates how seriously we in the EU view the intention to demolish this village and its structure and [to] evict its residents,” he said.
Alistair McPhail, Britain’s consul general, called the demolition policy “an impediment to the two-state solution….We are trying to preserve the possibility of the two-state solution and they undermine it.”