Thursday evening military trucks, soundless but with lights flashing, delivered huge earthmoving bulldozers to an Israeli Army camp very close to Susiya, a small Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank. The Villages Group, a unique group of Israelis and Palestinians (and friends of many people living in Susiya) put us on high alert, engaging nearly all our diplomatic emergency resources to request US intervention to prevent demolition from happening. Things are quiet for the moment, although we can’t afford to put our guard down – the situation is much too dire.
Senators and Representatives get full attention when they call the Israeli Embassy. Congressional letters — private or public — are translated into Hebrew and go all the way to the Israel administrator responsible for issuing demolition orders. But the Fourth of July weekend, like other U.S. holidays, can be a perilous time — the President and the U.S. Congress are away and news media are on holiday.
Anticipating that risk, we flew to Washington DC in mid-June to walk the halls of Congress to keep the village of Susiya standing. We brought Ophir Münz-Manor, a history professor at the Open University of Israel and a member of the Villages Group, joining colleagues from Jewish Voice for Peace South Bay and Rebuilding Alliance, to hold crucial discussions with the staff of twenty-seven representatives and senators. They, in turn, promised to call the US State Department and the Israeli Embassy. We also met with Ryan Arant and his team at the State Department, following up on a visit two weeks earlier by Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights, the NGO who represents Susiya to file petitions to the High Court of Israel.
This intervention is a critical part of what keeps another Area C village, Al Aqaba, standing, in the north of the Occupied West Bank. In 2010, I asked the Israeli Army to arrange for me to meet the Civil Administration official who issues demolition orders in the north, to ask him why he would demolish our kindergarten in Al Aqaba.
He stood up, asking if I was Representative (name withheld, the letter is private). “No,” I replied, “but I know exactly how that letter got to your desk — I was the one who asked my representative to write it.”
Congressional intervention, along with a network of US and foreign diplomats whom we contact in emergencies, has helped stave off demolition and keeps that kindergarten safe and Al Aqaba Village thriving.
The Palestinian Village of Susiya is located in the Hebron governorate in the south of the occupied West Bank, is currently home to 55 nuclear families, who have been living in this location for decades. They hold undisputed title to their land. The homes of half of these families (28) and all the community’s public structures are located in Area C, where Israel maintains full control over planning and zoning, and the remainder in Area B. As summarized in the UNOCHA fact sheet, Susiya: A community at imminent risk of forced displacement, “in 1986, the Israeli authorities declared the main residential area of Susiya an archaeological site and evicted all of its residents. Most of those who relocated to what was later designated as Area C were displaced again in the context of two waves of demolitions, in 2001 and in 2011, on grounds of lack of building permits” which were unattainable for lack of a master plan.
A village’s master plan, like that of any other town, provides an outline for the issuance of all building permits and infrastructure projects in accordance with the vision of the people who live there. It is a representation of possibilities: a plan for the future. Over a hundred Palestinian villages in Area C have now submitted professionally developed master plans to the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA). On Oct.24, 2013, the ICA rejected Susiya’s master plan, not on its merits but because the ICA felt the villagers would be better off living somewhere else instead of developing their town on the land they own.
When on May 4, 2015 the High Court of Israel refused to issue ‘freeze orders’, the temporary injunctions against demolition, it meant the village could be demolished even before their appeal is heard in early August. Their appeal now faces yet another hurdle because on June 9th, 2015 the High Court of Israel denied the right of Palestinian communities in Area C to create village plans on the land they own.
With a weakened court and a reactionary new Israeli government in place, the Palestinian village of Susiya is at especially high risk. That’s why the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel is staying there round the clock. Rabbis for Human Rights, Action Against Hunger, Norwegian Refugee Council, B’Tselem, Ecumenical Accompaniment Program In Palestine and Israel, Operation Dove, Christian Peacemaker Team, and others visit weekly. All the European Heads of Mission visited with full press and the U.S. Consulate has quietly sent representatives too.
On June 24, the children of Susiya made pinwheels for peace. They wrote down what peace means, and drew what it looks like.
The children wrote, “Justice, safety, no attacks [by the settlers nearby], playing with our friends happily and freely, reconciliation, happiness, love, no occupation, birds, freedom.”
Will their message awaken adults to our responsibility to make their dreams real? I would give anything to bring those children and their parents to present their pinwheels to Congress on Sep. 21st, International Peace Day, in celebration of their standing village, a secure master plan and a safe future.
Americans towns hold the right to plan and issue building permits — American policy overseas should support the rights of Palestinian communities to do the same: to live, plan, and build prosperous and welcoming neighborhoods on the land that they own. Our elected leaders may be the only ones who can intervene to press the Government of Israel to recognize Palestinian rights.
Please take a moment this week to call your Representative and Senators, then send them a follow-up email, here’s a template. Ask for the Senior Staff for Foreign Policy then ask them to make two calls on your behalf: a call to the US State Department and a call to the Israeli Embassy to say, “I Care About Peace, I Care About Susiya.”
If you have another moment, make your own Pinwheel for Peace. Help a child write down what peace means and draw what it looks like to make theirs too.