The strangulation of Susiya: State criminality as law enforcement

Drive an hour due south from Jerusalem, past Bethlehem and past the Israeli settlement Carmel with its Jewish National Fund pines, and near the bottom of the Occupied West Bank in the South Hebron Hills you’ll find Susiya. Depending on who you are, the name “Susiya” might signify an archaeological site, the nearby Jewish settlement, or the Palestinian village trapped between the two. You won’t find any road signs for the Palestinian village, and Google Maps will automatically direct you toward the settlement if you just search for “Susiya,” so to get there pull off Highway 60 toward the archaeological site, make a U-turn on your left after a few hundred meters, and then drive up the rocky, unpaved road. When you see the small memorial for the boy who “#WasBurnedAlive,” you’ve arrived in Palestinian Susiya — the village that the State of Israel has been trying to destroy, to varying degrees of success, for more than 30 years (simply “Susiya” henceforth).

The residents of Susiya have called on internationals and others to stand with them as they anticipate yet another home demolition at the hands of the state, and it’s in this capacity as a solidarity activist that I’ve visited the village in recent weeks. Starting at 4:30 a.m., we take turns, preferably in pairs, keeping watch for the maize bulldozers rolling in from either the northwest or southeast. As per a recent judicial ruling, the state has been authorized to demolish up to seven structures in the village at any time, including the home of a man dying of brain cancer. Depending on the outcome of further deliberation by the courts, another eight structures may soon be demolished as well. These eight structures include the town’s only school and medical clinic. In all, Israel is threatening to forcibly displace some 45 families with 42 children.

photo credit: Flash90
According to Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Torat Tzedek (formerly of Rabbis for Human Rights), these are three out of the seven structures currently up for demolition. The middle structure and the nearest one belong to a man in the advanced stages of brain cancer. (Zak Witus)

Violating Both International and Israeli Law

The structures in question are also the villagers’ homes. They are the bedrooms, kitchens, and livestock pens that the residents built with stones, concrete cinder blocks, and tarpaulin after the state destroyed their former homes, repeatedly and regularly, for decades. After Israel discovered an ancient synagogue on the villagers’ lands in 1986, the army expelled the residents, many of whom were either refugees themselves or their immediate descendents, forcing them to relocate to what had been their agricultural lands — basically where they currently reside. The Civil Administration (CA)i, which rules over Area C of the West Bank, knew very well that the residents hold a legitimate deed to this land dating back to the Ottoman Empire: The CA director had acknowledged its existence just four years earlier, but the military decided to disregard their legal title, violating not only international but Israeli law as well.

In 1991, the army again expelled the villagers, this time from caves and tents on their privately owned farmland near the Jewish settlement of Susiya. According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, “the military had no official warrant for this action nor did it provide the residents with any explanation… as to why they were being uprooted a second time.” Throughout the 1990s, smaller-scale demolitions continued — a livestock pen here, a family’s kitchen there, some solar panels, etc. Then, during the Second Intifada, the military razed the entire village. A man from the Jewish settlement had been murdered — and murder is a serious crime in the West Bank when the suspects are non-Jews. Despite having no evidence that the perpetrators were from Susiya, the army exacted revenge upon the entire village in an act of collective punishment. Although the Israeli courts later ruled the army’s actions illegal, Israel has never provided the residents a legal avenue for rebuilding their village, hence the technical illegality of the structures currently up for demolition. Other illegal structures have been demolished in recent years: Since 2006, Israel has demolished 26 structures, 12 of them homes that altogether housed 95 people, including 36 children.

Colonialism or “Municipal Planning”

In Israel as in the United States, state criminality wears the mask of law enforcement. In order to legitimize the continued colonization of the West Bank, the CA must adopt the rhetoric of municipal planning, because thankfully “colonialism” is now a dirty word in the West. In the case of Susiya, the CA claims that it cannot issue the necessary building permits because “in our view the current [construction] plan constitutes another attempt to prevent an impoverished population from advancing or the opportunity to choose between partial or other sources of income.” The CA goes on to boldly raise the issue of feminism, writing that the residents’ plan “prevents the Palestinian woman from escaping the cycle of poverty, and holds her back from educational and work opportunities.” And, of course, the CA also claims to be concerned about the children: In particular, it’s worried that the proposed construction project “prevents the Palestinian child from seeing all the opportunities that stand before every other person, in that it determines that he is fated to a life in a small, dilapidated village that does not provide the tools for development.” Therefore, applying its warped logic, the state has denied their request for building permits, suggesting that they again relocate, this time to the nearby Palestinian city of Yatta. In the meantime, Israel will help the women escape the cycle of poverty and provide the children the tools for development by promising to demolish their only school and health clinic. Truly a light unto the nations.

As B’Tselem points out, this PR tactic aims to “[camouflage] Israel’s clear advantage over local Palestinians and their representatives by creating a false show of professional, objective criteria—since the state holds all the planning power.” Furthermore, this rhetoric seeks to “[mask] the political nature of dispossession and land grab by framing the discussion in professional planning lingo (which ostensibly relies on universal progressive values).”

Anyone familiar with the general situation of Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank understands that legal construction is virtually impossible. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 through 2015, the CA allowed Palestinian construction in approximately 0.5% of Area C. According to the Israeli human rights organization Bimkom, from 2011 to 2014, 98% of Palestinian building permit requests were rejected. From 2014 to 2017, CA data show Israel demolished 18 times as many structures as it permitted in Area C. On the other hand, Israeli settlement construction has occurred on hundreds of thousands of dunams, in blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions. Therefore, if we’re concerned with the facts, we have to dismiss the CA’s paternalistic explanation for denying the residents’ permit requests as totally cynical.

Forced Displacement Is a War Crime

According to international law, forced displacement of people living under military occupation constitutes a war crime. Moreover, in this case Israel is also pursuing “ … a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas” — i.e., ethnic cleansing as defined by the United Nations Commission of Experts on the former Yugoslavia. Israel has committed both these crimes repeatedly in Susiya and throughout the West Bank in general. For example, the state is currently pressuring 46 Bedouin communities in the central West Bank, with about 7,000 Palestinians, to leave. And in recent years we’ve seen a drastic rise in home demolitions: 2016 (the last year for which there are available reports) saw more homes demolished and Palestinians displaced than 2014 and 2015 combined. In this way, Susiya stands as a fairly representative case study, revealing general trends about the cruelty of the Israeli Occupation.

At the same time, settlers continue to terrorize Palestinians, using threats of violence and violence itself, almost entirely with impunity. The B’tselem archives contain gut-wrenching video and testimony of these attacks againstthe residents and property of many villages, including Susiya. One particularly shocking video captured four masked men approaching villagers from a settlement outpost and shows them proceeding to beat the Palestinians with bats. Furthermore, Nasser NawajaaNasser Nawajaa, a resident of Susiya and a B’tselem volunteer, has said that he witnessed settlers assaulting some Palestinian shepherds in front of IDF soldiers, including one officer. When he tried to film the incident, the soldiers took his camera and stole his cassette, even though filming Israeli soldiers is perfectly legal.

As the Israeli organization Rabbis for Human Rights observes, the “Demolition of the village [Susiya] is part of a larger initiative to squeeze the Palestinians out of Area C and into areas A and B.” Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s negotiating maps from Camp David 2000 reveal that his administration envisioned Palestinian Susiya as largely within the bounds of what would be “interim” Israeli territory in its proposed two-state solution—that is, Israeli territory for a period of 20 years, or perhaps forever (we can’t be sure because of the strange, idiosyncratic Israeli definition of the word “interim”).

The pending partial demolition of Susiya appears to be a crime that offends even mainstream liberals in the United States. In 2015, a US State Department spokesman said that the Susiya demolition would be “harmful and provocative.” Last fall, eight U.S. senators, including four Jews, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleading with him not to carry out the expulsion, calling it an “irreversible step away from two-state solution.” To boot, more than 300 U.S. rabbis recently urged Israel not to proceed with the demolition.

But we can’t assess this critique from US liberals without recognizing the United States’ blanket support for Israel’s overall policy of colonization and ethnic cleansing. Among liberal American Zionists and Democratic partisans there’s a concerted effort right now to revise Obama’s legacy vis-a-vis Israel/Palestine. We’re supposed to look back fondly on Obama’s policy on Israel/Palestine, because Donald Trump is so clearly far, far worse. But as we see from the most recent proposal in Congress to increase military aid to Israel—which is already the largest in U.S. history—Israeli colonization of the West Bank and war crimes throughout the occupied territories enjoys strong bipartisan support in the United States. Obama, for his part, quickly pledged to forgive and forget the major war crimes Israel had committed immediately prior to his inauguration. Later, in 2014, he gave Israel the green light to decimate Gaza again, promising the continued flow of weapons and offering total diplomatic cover. Ultimately, in terms of sheer military aid to Israel, Obama was the most pro-Israel of any U.S. president.

photo credit: Flash90
In recent weeks, volunteers from Achvat Amim, Operation Dove, and Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel have answered the villagers’ call for internationals and others to spend the night in Susiya, taking turns watching for bulldozers in the early morning. This structure is where they sleep when they spend the night. (Zak Witus)

The Importance of International and Liberal Jewish Opposition

And yet, if one asks the residents of Susiya, some say that international and particularly Jewish pressure on the Netanyahu government has prevented the worst from happening under the new US Administration. Nasser Nawajaa told Mondoweiss that “We tried to speak with the Americans, with the new government, but they stayed silent about Susiya. They [just] gave a green light to the Israeli state to demolish Susiya.” He added, however, that before the outpouring of international and Jewish activism, “the Israelis wanted to demolish everything in Susiya, but because of this pressure they [didn’t] demolish all things, they just demolish seven [structures].” And in the reality of life in the West Bank, that is a victor.

International as well as Jewish pressure should be applied on the State of Israel to approve the villagers’ master plan and finally provide the residents of Susiya with a legal avenue for development. The looming threat of demolition would then be lifted, allowing them to enjoy some semblance of a peaceful life. Without such pressure, war crimes against civilians under Israeli occupation will continue, and those who could have intervened will bear responsibility. No one can say: I did not know.

i The so-called Civil Administration, charged with implementing Israel’s civil policy in the Occupied Territories, operates under the command of the military authority in the West Bank. It is headed by a Major General and derives its authority from the IDF Central Command.

This article was originally published with the Palestine-Israel Journal.

About the Author
Zak Witus is a writer, whose work has appeared in The Forward, +972 Magazine, and Truthout. He is also community organizer with IfNotNow, a movement seeking to end Jewish-American support for Israeli apartheid. Zak earned a master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago (2020).