The Sydney Morning Herald
Villagers helpless in face of settlers' land grab
January 27, 2007
Palestinian homes may soon be bulldozed into history, writes Ed
READERS of Asterix comics will be familiar with the notion of the lone village surrounded by enemy encampments, holding out for survival.
It is unlikely the people of Susya, on the southern tip of the West Bank, have heard of Asterix. But these poor Palestinian farmers are familiar with the scenario.
For more than 20 years this small agricultural area has served as an example of how Israeli military occupation and right-wing Jewish
settlement have ground away at the lives of Palestinian civilians.
It is mainly thanks to the support of Israeli human rights and peace groups that any Palestinians are left in Susya at all. But under a petition pending in the country's Supreme Court, what is left of the Arab village may soon be bulldozed into history.
Mohammed Nawajeh, a Palestinian lawyer whose family owns land in Susya, says the village's misfortunes began in the early 1980s when the Israeli government began planting Jewish settlements - illegal in the eyes of the International Court of Justice - on the rocky hills around the village.
One settlement even bears the same name as the Arab village, which is mentioned in the Bible. "These settlements grabbed more and more of the village's land every time they expanded, and then they started expelling people," said Mr Nawajeh, pointing to the ring of eight Israeli-held positions on the surrounding hillsides."The whole intention of the soldiers and the settlers is to make us so frustrated that we leave the area for good."
The village was home to 50 families before it was bulldozed by the Israeli Defence Forces in the mid-1990s. Susya is unique in the region in that some of its inhabitants - olive farmers and Bedouin herders - lived in caves. Unfortunately, they were not the first people to live there.
"They were sitting on the remains of Byzantine and Roman and Hellenistic ruins, and an old synagogue from the second temple period," said David Schulman, an activist with the Israeli-Arab peace group Ta'ayush
He said Israel declared the village a national park and evicted people. Many families gave up and left, but some refused to abandon their farmland and moved to another site a few hundred metres away, into tents, stone huts and other caves.
The Israeli Army continued its efforts to drive them away. "There was repeated harassment," said Professor Schulman, a lecturer in Sanskrit at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
"In the early 1990s the army came in the middle of the night and simply put them [the villagers] in trucks and dumped them 15 kilometres to the north," he said. "In 2001 there was a major onslaught where 80-90 per cent of the caves were blocked up. So the people set up this motley collection of tents and huts here, and this is what is left of Susya."
A few dozen people still camp out halfway between the original village and the Israeli settlement.
"It was better in the caves than in the tents," recalls Mahmoud Nawajeh, 23, a relative of Mohammed. "It was drier and warmer, especially in winters."
He points to open craters that were once home to 20 members of his family - before Israeli Army earthmovers broke them open with pneumatic drills. His brother Abdullah, 45, said their father was shot dead by a Jewish settler in 1991 while herding his sheep.
In its latest petition to the Israeli courts, the army is calling for the demolition of the remaining Palestinian shelters because they were built without planning permission from the Defence Force's Civil Administration, which still controls most basic aspects of Palestinian life in the West Bank.
But, say concerned Israeli human rights groups, much of the direct pressure against the Palestinian civilians comes not from the army but from the well-armed residents of neighbouring Jewish settlements.
Susya villagers and the human rights groups have filed numerous
complaints, sometimes with photographic and video evidence of settlers assaulting Palestinian civilians, including children on their way to school.
So far, locals say, no Jewish settler has been punished and when police or soldiers are present they usually fail to intervene to protect
"We've not been able to work the land for the last six years, even though there's an Israeli court order saying we can," Mohammed Nawajeh said.
Most of his land has been declared a closed military zone. "We have to ask the Israeli Army for an escort every time we want to go there and when we do the army says we are too busy," he said.
"We've tried to do it without them but the settlers come and attack us … I called the army to protect me once when the settlers attacked me, and they arrested me instead."
An Israeli police spokesman said there were occasional "small-scale incidents" involving settlers and Palestinians in the area that were investigated immediately. "Arrests have been made," he said.
He was aware of two continuing investigations, but could not say if settlers had ever been prosecuted. As an "extreme precaution" police had escorted Palestinian children to school to protect them from the settlers, he said.