Middle East

Susiya: Palestinian West Bank village faces bleak end

Palestinian flag and tent at Susiya
Image caption Palestinians face being evicted from Susiya after a long legal battle, despite garnering support from the US and EU

A strong wind blows across a rocky limestone ridge in the South Hebron Hills, Palestinian flags flapping noisily above a few dozen ramshackle dwellings and animal pens.

The village of Susiya - home to some 350 people - has become the focus of an international campaign, drawing in European diplomats, the US state department and pro-Palestinian activists.

"Look, there are families living here in tents. There's a cave, water cisterns and places where we put our sheep," Susiya resident Nasser Nawaja points out. "It's a simple Palestinian life."

But daily existence here has long been caught up in a complicated political situation. Now, for the third time in three decades, villagers are facing the threat of another forced displacement.

In May, the Israeli High Court denied a Palestinian request for an injunction to stop Israel's plans to destroy their homes.

The villagers have deeds to the land going back to the Ottoman era, but the Israeli authorities say their current structures were built without the necessary permits.

A senior officer from the defence ministry's administrative body in the West Bank warned that efforts to remove the villagers could begin any day, even though a legal appeal is due to be heard on 3 August.

The department said he had met Susiya's Palestinian inhabitants to "examine alternative solutions".

Archaeological site

In the meantime, Susiya's residents are watching and waiting.

"Everyone in the village is living on their nerves," Mr Nawaja, 33, said. "We're afraid the Israelis might come at any time. We panic every time we hear cars approaching."

The rudimentary Palestinian homes in this harsh landscape are squeezed between the mainly brick-built houses in the Israeli settlement of Susiya and a site, run by settlers, where ruins of an ancient synagogue were found in the 1970s.

Image caption Nasser Nawaja hopes a legal appeal will halt the demolition order before the army moves in

Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

Susiya falls within the 61% of the West Bank known as Area C, which the 1993 Israel-Palestinian interim peace accords placed under full Israeli control.

In 1986, local Palestinians were expelled from their homes on the archaeological site. The army then moved them again in 2001 after Palestinians killed an Israeli from the neighbouring settlement.

After the residents moved to the current location on their agricultural land, they say they tried to get building permission but it was denied.

Critics say in the vast majority of cases the Israeli civil administration, the body which implements government policy in the West Bank, does not approve Palestinian building applications in Area C.

Diplomatic pressure

Now Israeli and foreign activists are camping out in Susiya around the clock to try to prevent demolition orders from being carried out, and there is also diplomatic pressure against such a move.

"We're closely following developments… We strongly urge the Israeli authorities to refrain from carrying out any demolitions in the village," US state department spokesman John Kirby said in a rare public statement on the issue this month.

He added that any demolitions or evictions "would be harmful and provocative".

In turn, European Union foreign ministers issued a strongly worded statement urging Israel to abandon plans for the "forced transfer of population and demolition of Palestinian housing and infrastructure".

European donations help sustain Susiya village, which is not connected to mains electricity or public water supplies.

'Test case'

The Susiya case has taken on a special significance because of current tensions between Israel and both the US and EU.

They view any action against Palestinians in the context of continuing settlement growth and wider problems of demolitions and displacement affecting Palestinians and Bedouin in the occupied territories and Israel.

At the same time Israel's right-wing coalition government is being pressed by its supporters in the settler movement.

Image caption Ari Briggs says Israel has no legal grounds on which to not enforce the High Court's ruling against Susiya
Image caption European Parliament members have urged Israel not to go ahead with the demolition

They point out there is now no legal obstacle to prevent buildings in Susiya being demolished and that some Israeli settler outposts deemed unlawful by the government have previously been removed.

"This is 100% a test case for the Israeli government - whether it stands up to the unending pressure placed on us, not only by the EU but now by the state department of the US, Israel's closest ally," says Ari Briggs of Regavim, an Israeli legal advocacy group.

"It is only going to get worse if Israel bows to the pressure today. Israel is a sovereign country and it has to say: 'We have interests as well and we have to follow those interests.'"

Back at Susiya, the head of the village council meets a delegation of members of the European Parliament who have arrived for a tour. Meanwhile local youngsters play football with a group of activists.

Seventy-year-old Mohammed Nawaja looks on. "Each time we've had to rebuild we've started with nothing," he says. "I must trust in God that my grandchildren won't have to live the same experience."