Today we observe/d the Tisha B’Av fast. Our sages taught that the First Temple was destroyed because of bloodshed, idolatry and sexual crimes. The Second Temple was destroyed because of causeless hatred. Susya is one of the many Palestinian communities on both sides of the Green Line today facing destruction, expulsion and dispossession. As I sat in the Israeli High Court on August 1st with Susya’s endangered residents, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that the way we treat Susya is both idolatry and causeless hatred. The might of the State, in coordination with and egged on by the radical right and settler movements, is focused on wiping this community off the face of the earth.
Susya is not alone. This past Tuesday our state demolished five homes in Umm Al Khir, another one of the villages on both sides of the Green Line that the State wishes to entirely destroy. As Jews, we ought to be particularly able to identify with those families whose homes or entire communities have been demolished, or are threatened with demolition. The demolition of a family home, when there was no fair chance to build legally, is as devastating to that family as the national tragedy we recall on Tisha B’Av. However, we instead choose to ignore the Torah’s repeated commandments not to do to others what was done to us.
Israeli citizens are not exempt from this desecration of God’s Name. In the Negev, just a few kilometers away from Susya, the KKL/JNF is engaged in the earthwork for Jewish “Hiran” in the very spot where the State moved the Abu-El-Qian tribe in 1956, promising that there they could rebuild their shattered lives. In El-Araqib, we were hopeful when the KKL/JNF froze forestation efforts in 2011. We wanted to believe that they would wait for the results of the current High Court ordered legal process exploring the El-Turi tribe’s land ownership claims based on purchase documents dating back to 1906. However, the KKL/JNF recently returned and renewed their efforts.
Susya’s residents owned lands on both sides of what became the 1948 border, but were forced to move to their West Bank village Today the State and organizations such as Regavim perpetuate the lie that there never was a village. Plia Albeck, the government lawyer known as “The mother of the settlements,” wrote that there absolutely was a village called Susya, and that the village was surrounded by 3,000 dunams of private Palestinian land belonging to the villagers. In 1983, the settlement of Susya was founded. Even those who claim that the Fourth Geneva Convention doesn’t apply in the Occupied Territories, and therefore Israel is permitted to use what they consider to be state land almost solely for Israeli use, should pause and reflect upon the fact that Albeck wrote to Susya’s settlers saying they had blatantly taken over land beyond what the State had allocated. However, the State did nothing. After all, in this case it was Jews that were stealing land.
In 1986, the residents of Palestinian Susya were expelled yet again. The area was declared an archeological site because of the ancient synagogue located there. The closed area wasn’t limited to the area immediately around the synagogue, but somehow included the entire village. They moved to their adjacent agricultural lands, but again had almost no chance that the army’s all Israeli planning committee would approve a master plan allowing building permits. In the ensuing years, the Susya’s residents suffered from the constant efforts of settlers to takeover more of their lands, expulsion attempts, attacks and even murders.
In 2001, after the murder of a settler from Susya that the Palestinian residents had nothing to do with, they were expelled yet again. The High Court returned them. However, before they were able to return, the army accompanied by settlers destroyed the caves they had been living in and blocked up their water cisterns. Even though the High Court returned them after ruling that the destruction and expulsion should never have happened, the Court failed to provide a remedy allowing them to survive. They couldn’t repair the caves, and had no chance of getting an approved master plan allowing them to build above ground. For the next 10 years, the State tried to make the life in Susya and the other villages in the region so untenable that people would leave “of their own accord.” Once I was nearly arrested for bringing food, and told that I was illegally helping the residents hang on. They didn’t leave. Like the Children of Israel in Egypt, they hung on despite the oppression.
In 2011 “Regavim” and the local settlement council petitioned the High Court to force the army to carry out extant demolition orders on practically every structure in Susya. The Court gave the residents the opportunity to again submit a master plan. It was rejected with the cynical claim that it would be unfair to Susya’s Palestinian residents to force them so live in such an isolated location, without infrastructure? Excuse me? How many isolated outposts are there? Electricity lines and water mains run right by Susya. They have no infrastructure only because our State refuses to connect them into it.
The true reason for not granting a master plan? At the all Jewish planning committee’s hearing on Susya’s proposed plan, a representative of the local settlement council laconically said, “We all know that this hearing is a joke. There is no way that you could possibly be seriously considering allowing a Palestinian village so close to our settlement.”
On August 1st, the High Court judges questioned whether it was appropriate for them to be hearing an appeal of a decision of a planning committee. They chose to see this as asking them to intervene in a technical decision that had been properly made. They didn’t seem to want to take responsibility for the injustice they helped create when they ruled that it had been illegal to expel and destroy in 2001, but hadn’t given the Susya residents any way to legally remedy their situation.
As a result of international concern, the army agreed to enter into talks with the residents of Susya in order to search for a mutually acceptable alternative to demolishing Susya. There was significant progress beyond the army’s previous position that the residents would be allowed to create a village much further away, on lands beloinging to others. The Palestinians know what will happen if they are not living on their land. The Shreitakh family owns land between the settlement and Palestinian Susya. In 1990’s settlers backed by the army had been preventing the family from farming their land. However, in 1997 the Defense Minister acknowledged that all the land between the settlement fence and Palestinian Susya is private Palestinian land. I was present when, for a brief period of time, the family was again able to work their lands. However, the family didn’t live in Palestinian Susya, but much further away in Yatta. Today there is a settler vineyard on their lands. Hardly a week goes by without new settler efforts to take over additional lands. The Susya residents know that if they aren’t living on their lands and guarding them the Shreitakh family story will repeat itself again and again.
The State informed the Court in January that while in general they were wouldn’t demolish without a 45 day notice, there was approximately one third of Susya that they reserved the right to demolish at any moment with no warning. In July the discussions with residents were suspended until Defense Minister Lieberman forms his opinion. However, when he visited Susya with Regavim a few years ago, he declared that Palestinian Susya must be destroyed.
The High Court has an opportunity to fix the injustice it helped create in 2001 The judges could protect the homes that could be demolished at any moment, and order the State to approve a master plan allowing the residents to hold on to the little they have. In light of the revelations that Regavim attorney also serves as an advisor to Justice Minister Shaked, the judges could understand that one side in this conflict is judge, jury and executioner. Rather than hide behind terms such as “law and order” they could acknowledge that in the Occupied Territories “law and order” lose their legitimacy because they are determined by a parliament, courts and planning committee without any Palestinian representation. The judges could understand that they are the one Israeli body that can stand outside this stacked system and its predetermined conclusion to deny the residents of Susya justice.
When I bring groups to speak with Susya spokesperson Nasser Nawaje, they often ask what he is asking for. His reply is often that he wants no more than the basic things that every human being has a right to expect. They don’t ask for much-to safely live and making a living from their land, education and a better future for their children, a place to lay their heads. Nasser frequently adds that his father was expelled from family lands inside Israel and moved to Susya. Nasser himself was a child when his family was expelled from their homes again in 1986, and they moved to their agricultural lands. He looks at his young children, and desperately hopes that they will be spared from suffering the same fate.
The message of Tisha B’Av is that we Jews live in the Land of Israel conditionally. I believe that this Land is holy, and that it is the sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. However, when our love for the Land of Israel causes us to harm our fellow human beings, created in God’s Image just as we are, our love becomes idolatry. The relentless drive to harness the entire might of the State to dispossess simple cave dwellers is causeless hatred.
Today, between minkha prayers and the ending of the fast, I made a pilgrimage between some of the many villages threatened with total destruction. Yesterday, we read in the Haftara reading for the Shabbat before Tisha B;Av that “Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those that return to her through righteousness.” (Isaiah 1:27). Young Jews spent Shabbat in Susya, and others around the world held Kabbalat Shabbat prayer services in front of Israeli embassies and consulates. This is what our first president Chaim Weizman prophesied, “The world will judge the Jewish State according to how she treats the Arabs.” More importantly, God will judge.