Khirbet Susiya, village under threat of demolition. Photo: Ann Pack, Activestills.org, 15 June 2012
The Palestinian village of Khirbet Susiya has existed in the South Hebron Hills at least since the 1830s. Its residents have traditionally earned a living from shepherding and growing olive trees. In 1983, the Israeli settlement of Susiya was established near the village, on Palestinian land that had been declared state land by Israel. In 1986, about 25 families were living in Khirbet Susiya, in caves and structures. That year, the Civil Administration declared the village’s land an “archeological site”; the land was confiscated “for public purposes” and the Israeli military expelled its residents from their homes. Having no other option, the families relocated to other caves in the area and to flimsy wood frame shelters and tents they erected on agricultural land a few hundred meters southeast of the original village and the archeological site.
The military expelled the residents again several times, most recently in July 2001, shortly after Palestinians killed Israeli Yair Har Sinai, a resident of the Susiya settlement. During the expulsion, carried out without warning, soldiers destroyed residents’ property, demolished their caves and blocked up water cisterns. In September 2001, further to a petition by the residents to Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ) filed by Attorney Shlomo Lecker, the HCJ issued an interim order that prohibited further destruction pending a ruling on the petition.
In the following years, pending a ruling, the residents had to deal with an impossible reality. On the one hand, they had to erect homes and structures for their livestock after the military destroyed their previous ones; on the other hand, the Civil Administration refused to prepare a master plan for the village that would enable its residents to build homes legally and connect to the water and power grids, and rejected residents' applications for building permits. The people of Khirbet Susiya were left no choice but to build temporary buildings and residential tents. The Civil Administration then issued demolition orders for the new structures which, they alleged, were not covered by the interim order. In June 2007, the HCJ decided to vacate the petition, without making a ruling. The Civil Administration continued to issue demolition orders for dozens of structures in Khirbet Susiya. Over the years, the residents filed further petitions in an attempt to prevent the demolitions and plan the village legally, but the justices refused to prohibit the demolition. In 2011 the Civil Administration demolished 10 residential structures in the village, six structures used for making a livelihood and four wells.
Planning attempts by villagers blocked
Currently about 250 people live in Khirbet Susiya on a regular basis, and some 100 others live in it for part of the year, as their livelihood is seasonal. In late 2012, Israeli NGO Rabbis for Human Rights submitted a master plan for the village to the Civil Administration, on behalf of the residents. In January 2013, the state notified the HCJ that the Civil Administration was evaluating the plan and that, until a decision was reached, demolition orders for that land would not be carried out.
In October 2013 the Sub-Committee for Planning and Licensing of the Civil Administration’s Supreme Planning Council rejected the proposed master plan. Among its reasons for rejecting the plan, which together conveyed a patronizing and unprofessional approach, the Civil Administration argued that the significant scattering of the small villages – including Susiya – in the greater Yatta area results in such high expenses for the provision of education, welfare, religion and health services that the funds of the town of Yatta are insufficient to adequately provide them. This is remarkable given that the Civil Administration itself supports the legalization of dozens of tiny illegal settler outposts scattered throughout the
The Civil Administration representatives further argued that authorizing the plan would perpetuate the village’s existing social fabric based on clan kinship, thereby barring individuals, and especially Palestinian women, from enjoying the benefits urban life has to offer, such as social mobility skills, job opportunities and cultural and educational empowerment:
The structure of urban life means meeting new people, bringing people closer to one another; it multiplies opportunities and broadens the horizons of each and every person within his family, his tribe, and society at large. Therefore, we see the current plan as yet another attempt to keep a poor, downtrodden population from advancing; from choosing between partial income and other resources; it is an attempt to prevent the Palestinian woman from breaking the cycle of poverty and depriving her of educational and professional opportunities. Similarly, by sentencing the Palestinian child to life in a small, stultified village with no means for development, the plan keeps the child from being aware of all the opportunities available to any other person. It is our recommendation that the plan be rejected out of hand.
The Civil Administration recommended that the people of Susiya make an alternative plan for a location closer to the town of Yatta. As Susiya lies mere kilometers from Yatta, which is in Area A, the recommendation effectively means transferring the residents of Susiya out of Area C.
In February 2014, Israeli NGO Rabbis for Human Rights petitioned the HCJ, arguing that the Sub-Committee for Planning and Licensing had made an unreasonable decision in rejecting the master plan. The petitioners requested that the HCJ issue an interim order preventing the authorities from demolishing the village pending a ruling on the petition. In late March 2015, the state submitted its response, requesting the court reject the petition, claiming there was no justification for intervening in a justified decision by the planning institutions to reject the plan. In their response, the representatives of the state noted that the villagers have continued to build structures illegally.
In early May 2015, Justice Sohlberg struck the residents’ request on the grounds that illegal construction had continued in the village after the petition was filed, actions that he termed “taking the law into their own hands”. Justice Sohlberg added that “the Court has noted the willingness of the authorities in the area to work towards examining promotion of an alternative planning cluster”.
Talks between the state and Khirbet Susiya then began, and were underway until suspended by the state. On 1 August 2016, at a court session of Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ), counsel for the state said the talks were halted because the new Minister of Defense had yet to formulate his position on the matter. The HCJ gave the state two weeks to formulate its position. Justices Naor, Barak-Erez and Hayut declined to issue orders that the state not demolish the homes of Susiya residents pending formulation of the position. The residents were thus left in a state of uncertainty as to their future and at the mercy of Israeli authorities. Since then, the state has repeatedly requested postponements to submit its position, most recently on 1 October 2017.
Settler takeover of Susiya land
During 2001 and 2002, Israeli settlers established a number of illegal outposts on some of the land that in the past had served the Palestinian residents. Furthermore, since the demolition of Khirbet Susiya in 2001, settlers from Susiya and its outposts have prevented continuous access by villagers to about 300 hectares of land around the settlement, including 23 water cisterns. Access was prevented by use of threats and violence, including vandalizing pastures, fields, trees and cisterns, and harassing shepherds. The settlers exploit the inability of the Palestinian residents to reach their land in order to take over some of it. In the summer of 2010 they cultivated about 40 hectares, which is approximately 15 percent of the land area to which they denied Palestinians access.
When police files were opened in response to complaints lodged by the Palestinians for this damage, most were closed without effect. Based on follow-ups Rabbis for Human Rights have carried out since 2007, nearly all 126 complaints to the police in Hebron made by Khirbet Susiya residents - alleging attacks, threats, incursions and damage to property by settlers - were closed without filing any charges; three complaints are still being investigate. From 2004 through 2012, B’Tselem monitored 15 complaints to the police regarding settler violence against Khirbet Susiya residents, including physical assault, setting fire to tent dwellings and belongings, threats, cutting down olive trees, stealing crops and other property damage. In 12 of the 15 cases, the investigation was closed on grounds of insufficient evidence or offender unknown.
In August 2010, 55 of the village’s Rabbis for Human Rights filed an HCJ petition on behalf of the residents, seeking to be allowed, inter alia, daily access to their land. In response to the petition, the state notified the HCJ in October 2010 that the military and the Civil Administration intended to map the ownership of land in the area and then, accordingly, instruct the forces in the field as to how to deal with the need to allow access to the agricultural plots. Up until mid-May 2013, the military had issued only four orders, barring settler access to an area of 41.7 hectares – only about 13 percent of the land to which Palestinian residents had been denied access – and, in practice, reversed only one incursion by settlers, removing them from a plot the size of about one-third of one hectare (3.5 dunams). The prevention of access to some 87 percent of the area continues.
On 2 February 2014 the HCJ vacated the residents’ petition on prevention of access and incursions made into their lands, on the grounds that the petition is non-specific and encompasses separate concerns of ten different families. In their ruling, the justices did address the military commander’s obligation to safeguard personal property and prevent incursions, yet refrained from ruling on the matter. They recommended that each family file an independent petition.