Palestinian Susya and the End of a History
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, it’s two legal systems for two peoples.
The history of the Palestinian village of Susya may be coming to an end. With the Israeli Supreme Court’s refusal to grant an injunction that would halt any demolitions until further hearings could be held on retroactively approving building permits for the various structures the villagers live in, any day could see the village leveled. Leveled again, that is.
Since 1986, the people of Susya have been expelled from their lands three times. The original site of the village was situated near an ancient synagogue, which proved to be unfortunate for those living there. Although they had been living there for many years, the Civil Administration declared the area an archaeological site, which necessitated the removal of the inhabitants. The residents were forced to move about 500 meters away to their agricultural land, where they lived in caves, tents, and shacks.
This did not end the problem, however. That first expulsion began a cycle of removal and return, as well as confrontation with the IDF and the settlers from the nearby Jewish settlement of Susya.
The most recent trouble for Palestinian Susya goes back to early 2012, when the right-wing organization Regavim joined with the settlers to petition the Supreme Court (in its capacity as the High Court of Justice in Israel) to demolish the structures the villagers were living in as they were built without authorization and were therefore illegal. According to the petitioners, the villagers living in Susya did not submit a plan for construction, and thus they cannot build. Susya is an “illegal outpost,” its residents “squatters,” in the words of pro-settler Arutz Sheva news site.
Susya’s case is not well-known, even among Israelis and Palestinians. In Israel, it tends only to be noticed by news organizations affiliated with one wing of the political spectrum or the other. For example, Arutz Sheva on the right and +972 on the left. Palestinian news sites such as Ma’an take little notice of it. The case itself pits one non-governmental organization that is considered leftist, Rabbis for Human Rights (helping to represent the people of Susya), against another that is considered equally right-wing, Regavim.
In the end, though, the case of Susya is about those who live there and their struggle to gain recognition of what they consider to be their right to reside and build on their land.
Susya in Context
Susya is a village with a population of around 340 located about an hour south of the city of Hebron, and less than two hours northeast of the Israeli city of Be’er Sheva. It sits in the arid, rugged area known as the South Hebron Hills, not far from the southern border of the West Bank in Israeli-controlled Area C. That is, the areas not run directly by the Palestinian Authority (Area A) or the areas run in a shared administration between Israel and the PA (Area B).
Area C is under full Israeli control, and is administered by a branch of the Ministry of Defense called the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT. The actual day-to-day administration of the people living in Area C falls to the part of COGAT known as the Civil Administration. According to UN estimates, there are around 300,000 Palestinians living in Area C along with around 341,000 Israelis.
Susya and the Court
It is important to note that the legal situation of Susya is not about land ownership. The people of Susya, for their part, are not contesting their original expulsion from the original site of the village, around the ancient synagogue. Instead they are looking to be allowed to build permanent structures on the land that they are currently living on, which was in the past the agricultural land of the originally village.
“The ownership is not so much disputed as it’s about the planning,” noted Yariv Mohar, spokesman for Rabbis for Human Rights, in an interview. Regavim’s protests over Susya stem from a denial of the residents’ connection to the land and an “unwillingness to recognize a semi-nomadic lifestyle” of the type that was a main feature of life in the village for most of its history. Regavim did not respond to requests for comment.
Plia Albeck, one of the legal minds behind Israel’s settlement enterprise, found in 1982 that the land that Susya currently is located on does in fact belong to the residents. As such, if the case before the Supreme Court was about who owns the land, it would seem that the residents of Susya would have the upper hand. That is not what is happening; this isn’t as much about the land itself as it is about what’s on it.
As noted before, the first expulsion sent the residents of Old Susya about half a kilometer away to another section of land that they owned and had used for grazing and agriculture. The Israeli settlement of Susya, founded in 1983, continued to grow as the Palestinians lived nearby in caves and jury-rigged shelters. In 1990 the Palestinians were unceremoniously loaded onto trucks and dumped about 15 kilometers north of Susya, after which they came back and began living at a new site. Each family lived on the specific plot of agricultural land that they owned.
The situation continued to deteriorate for Palestinian Susya, as confrontations with settlers increased and became more violent. Yair Har-Sinai, a local settler, was killed in July 2001 while herding sheep, and the blame was immediately cast on the residents of Susya, leading to a third expulsion from the area that was only stopped by an injunction from the Supreme Court that allowed them to return and for the demolitions to cease. The settlement continued to grow, though, and the confrontations did not stop.
Regavim and settlers from Israeli Susya filed their petition demanding the demolition of the structures at Susya in February 2012, noting the lack of permits for construction. In order to get permits, though, a plan has to be approved by the Civil Administration. Advocates for Palestinian Susya argue that the Civil Administration should have been given some sort of housing solution or master plan after the first expulsion, but this has not happened, even after almost 30 years. Residents and legal advocates for Susya have put forward plans of their own, only to see them rejected.
Another plan for Susya was submitted to the Civil Administration in December 2012, only to be rejected months later. The main reason behind their decision was that Susya was too small and too far away from other Palestinian population centers to be able to support itself and did not offer the tools needed for social and economic advancement.
If the people of Susya submitted an alternate plan for a location closer to the city of Yatta, which is in Area A, then the Civil Administration may consider giving them state lands to build on. However, as Mohar notes, this causes new problems. There is no guarantee that they will be given new land, and these lands may in fact be under the ownership of other tribes or individuals. With the Supreme Court refusing to halt the latest demolition orders, the residents of Susya may be forced to move into Areas A or B.
The defense of Susya has focused on the residents and their representatives trying to convince the Supreme Court that the Civil Administration has an obligation to legalize their village and approve a master plan due to the past expulsions and demolitions. Their lack of permits is not for a lack of trying, but because of a consistent rejection of their applications.
Until their next hearing, which is scheduled for August, the people of Susya do not have a chance in court to get a stay of execution. The demolitions can commence at any time, and on May 10th an inspector from the Civil Administration visited Susya to take photographs and measurements that represent the first steps towards the village’s evacuation and demolition.
In response, the Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem released a statement criticizing the state, saying that “the Israeli authorities’ policy contradicts its obligation to meet the needs of the residents of the occupied territories and constitutes a grave violation of international humanitarian law, which prohibits their forced transfer.”
In front of the Supreme Court, though, the international law argument has not been stressed by Susya’s representatives. “We also involve arguments from international law,” Mohar said about their legal strategy, “but the Israeli high court doesn’t value this. They acknowledge international law in a very narrow sense.” The international law perspective is not particularly helpful, even if applicable, as it is “not a very strong position for the High Court.”
An agonizing waiting game has begun for the Palestinians of Susya. The future of their village is clouded in doubt, not knowing on any one day whether they will have a home by nightfall.
Susya and Israeli Policy in Area C
The case of Susya highlights a number of the salient issues in regards to Israel’s governing of Area C in the West Bank. It exposes the unmistakable presence of two separate and unequal legal systems, one for Jewish Israelis and the other for Palestinians. Palestinian Susya is treated differently than Israeli Susya, despite them being only a few hundred meters from each other. The Palestinians have repeatedly submitted plans, but are using a system that is skewed against them; some 95% of Palestinian requests for building permits are rejected.
One group gets to vote and enjoys all the rights and liberties that come with being an Israeli citizen. The other does not. One group is favored by the law and the military; the other is not. One group builds on land that belongs to others and is given protection by the government. The other group builds on its own land and finds itself under attack for it.
Old Susya, located at the ancient synagogue and where the Palestinians were expelled from in 1986, is now a settlement outpost. This outpost is illegal under Israeli law, but it is not facing demolition.
The tale of the two Susyas is emblematic of the unjust status quo that exists in Area C, something even the Supreme Court finds to be the case. The Supreme Court has acknowledged the imbalance in the administration there and urged the government to rectify the situation so that local Palestinians would have more of a voice in planning and administration. It was only a recommendation, though, not a ruling.
In all fairness, the Israeli government does find itself in an increasingly awkward situation. Not just in regards to Susya, but the administration of Area C in general. With the lack of a final status peace agreement with the Palestinians, the Israeli government is faced with a dilemma: a change in the planning administration in Area C may be just, but they would be implicitly recognize the injustice inherent in their system of governing the territory under their control.
How far should any reforms go? How far can they go when the entire system behind the division of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C is predicated on them being temporary divisions pending a final status agreement? Any changes may face charges, from the Palestinian government in particular, that Israel is moving towards outright annexation of Area C. On the other hand, the government would face pressure from certain interest groups, namely the settlers (as represented by the Yesha Council, which is a coalition of settlement municipalities), to forgo any reforms that could benefit the Palestinians.
Such problems show that the case of Susya is both about the land and not about the land. As stated before, the property rights of the Palestinians are hard to deny. Even some of the land that Israeli Susya is built on is privately owned Palestinian land. The issue brought before the Civil Administration and the Supreme Court is not about the ownership of the land, and the state itself does not have an opinion on ownership. To them it is a simple planning dispute. The Palestinians need a permit to build, they don’t have one but built anyways, so the building must be taken down unless a new plan is approved. For Regavim, this is about the rule of law. An illegal outpost is an illegal outpost. Except when it isn’t.
Bezalel Smotrich, who once ran Regavim and is a settler himself, is now a member of the Knesset from the Jewish Home party and staunch defender of settlement expansion. While Regavim is working to get Susya demolished, he is working in the Knesset to legalize Jewish settlement outposts that are themselves illegal under Israeli law. The double standard is clear to behold. Jewish construction is to be encouraged, Palestinian construction discouraged. Palestinians can have documented proof of ownership of a piece of land, but that hasn’t proven to be all that helpful.
Susya could fall victim to the same practices that have allowed the settlements to expand for decades, the concept of mawat land. A holdover from Ottoman rule in the region, it states that any land that went uncultivated for three years reverted back to the Empire. Israel has made use of it to make land available for settlements.
The land that the village of Susya currently lies on is owned by the people of Susya. However, if they are moved, there is no guarantee that they will be able to access their land to cultivate it. If this came to pass, and three years went by, it would become state land, and Civil Administration would be able to do with it what it would like. That agricultural land could be added onto the holdings of the settlement of Susya.
The possibility of a creeping annexation of Area C is what makes the case of Susya so important. This is not just the story of villagers trying to build on their land; it holds significance in the greater context of Israel’s administration in the West Bank.
Sources available upon request to the author.