In West Bank, Palestinians 'are just waiting for the bulldozers'

Thomson Reuters
A US street artist from Iowa paints graffiti on the Israel's controversial separation barrier between the West Bank city of Bethlehem and Jerusalem on July 18, 2015.

SUSIYA, West Bank — Sitting under a fig tree to escape the searing sun, Jihad Nuwaja looks out on the only land he knows - the dry expanse of the Hebron hills in the southern West Bank. Within days, his home is set to be demolished and he, his wife and 10 children expelled.

"It feels like the end," says the 47-year-old, pulling a fig from the laden tree and testing its ripeness. "They will come and demolish our homes and we will have nowhere to go. In the coming days, I will see one hundred children made homeless."

Nuwaja's family is one of handful living in tents and prefabricated structures at Susiya, a Palestinian village spread across several rocky hillsides between a Jewish settlement to the south and a Jewish archaeological site to the north — land Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war.

The saga over Susiya has been drawn out over decades, but it reached a culmination in May when Israel's high court rejected an injunction seeking to halt the planned demolition of the village. With appeals exhausted and Ramadan over, the bulldozing is expected any day. The Israeli general responsible for carrying it out came to tell the villagers as much last week.

Israel's 48-year occupation of the West Bank, where Jewish settlements, which most world powers regard as illegal, have expanded rapidly, has thrown up many such disputes. But Susiya stands out for the depth of its perceived injustice.

Many Israelis, from former defense ministry officials to settlement activists and the group Rabbis for Human Rights, believe the Israeli government is making a mistake, pointing to documents that show the Palestinians own the land and have inhabited and farmed the area since the 1830s.

In the past, they lived in caves, but they were expelled from their original dwellings in 1986, after the archaeological site was discovered, and the caves in their current location were destroyed in the 1990s and early 2000s after a series of confrontations, including the killing of a settler.

As a result, they now live in tents and prefabricated buildings. But Israel did not grant them permits to build the structures, therefore the high court has ruled that they can be knocked down.

US opposition

In recent days, American and European diplomats have visited Susiya to express their solidarity with the villagers, who number around 350 in total, living in about 80 tents and lean-tos. Brightly painted children's playground equipment, donated by international aid agencies, stands unused in the blazing midday heat but is popular in the evening.

"We're closely following developments ... and we strongly urge the Israeli authorities to refrain from carrying out any demolitions in the village," US State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Thursday, a rare public statement on the issue.

"Demolition of this Palestinian village or parts of it and evictions of Palestinians from their home would be harmful and provocative."

The settler movement, which is influential in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government, is pushing for the demolitions to be carried out promptly, saying there is no further legal impediment. Local settler leader Yochai Damri points to the archaeological site and evidence of an ancient synagogue to argue that the Jews were there first.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said the government was abiding by the court's decision in the same way as when the judiciary ordered it to evacuate Jewish settlers.

"If the Supreme Court has authorized the decision to evacuate people, it's something we should do. We have evacuated Israelis (settlers) as well as Palestinians that are staying on land that does not really belong to them, so it's not something we are doing with the Palestinians only," he said.

Wary of international reaction, the Israeli responsible for overseeing the demolitions, Major General Yoav Mordechai, has said he is examining "alternative solutions." But Susiya residents say they haven't been presented with anything and fear it is only a matter of time.

"We are just waiting for the bulldozers," says Jihad Nuwaja, who was born in Susiya in 1967 and has rarely strayed from the hills since, making a living from rearing goats, harvesting figs and olives and making honey.

"Living in caves and tents is not a comfortable life," he said. "But soon it will get even more uncomfortable."

(By Luke Baker; Editing by Dominic Evans)