“Every week we fear a demolition is going to be done in the village,” Eid Hthaleen said. “Always people live in fear. Always.”
“We want the demolitions to stop,” Fatma Nawaja added. “Really, it is very painful, the demolitions. It is deeply painful—and hard, very hard.”
Eid lives in Um al-Kheir, a Palestinian village in the southern tip of the occupied West Bank, eight kilometers north of Susiya, a Fellaheen community in which Fatma resides. Both visited the US as part of a seven-person delegation from Israel/Palestine. They brought along their families, and their stories, which they hoped to share with US politicians.
Susiya, although small, entered the international spotlight in a big way last summer. The West Bank village, in which some 350 Palestinians live, was on the verge of demolition by Israeli authorities. Immediately after a May decision by Israel’s High Court of Justice, Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem warned the community was “under imminent threat of demolition and expulsion.”
Because of international backlash, the Israeli government delayed its demolition plans in Susiya—but it did not cease them.
In order to give voice to their communities’ concerns in the chambers of the US Congress, six Palestinians and one Israeli traveled across the ocean to tell their story. Eid was joined by Nima, his wife, and Sadin, their precocious seven-year-old daughter. Fatma was joined by Aysar, her amicable 14-year-old nephew, and Muhammad, her boisterous four-year-old son. David Massey, an Israeli filmmaker, longtime activist, and outspoken critic of the occupation, also joined the delegation. Massey is a member of the Villages Group, an Israeli organization that seeks to build solidarity with Palestinians.
The trip was organized by Rebuilding Alliance, a non-profit organization that says it “is dedicated to rebuilding war-torn communities and bringing the world together to make them safe.”
I met with the delegation in New York City after they finished a jam-packed itinerary in Washington, DC in order to hear their stories, and to see how they were received by our nation’s elected representatives.
Meeting with Sen. Feinstein
In mid July, 11 US congresspeople sent Secretary of State John Kerry a letter, expressing “serious concern” about the Israeli government’s plans to demolish Susiya. The representatives also protested Israel’s denial of planning rights to Palestinians, noting “on June 9th the High Court of Israel denied the right of Palestinian villages in the West Bank’s Area C to plan their own communities, leaving all decisions on zoning and planning to the ICA, with no direct Palestinian representation when it comes to the future of their towns.”
Two weeks later, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) wrote a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging his government to halt its demolition efforts in Susiya. “Demolishing Palestinian homes, displacing residents, and seizing additional Palestinian territory in the West Bank is a step away from peace” she said.
In order to follow up on Feinstein’s action, the delegation met with the lawmaker on September 22.
The group seemed to unanimously agree that the meeting went well. Eid said “she promised she is going to do something.” Kelly Leilani Main recalled Sen. Feinstein assuring them “It doesn’t have to be like this.”
Sen. Feinstein later tweeted a photo of the meeting.
This week, I met with Palestinians from Susiya and Um Al Kheir, villages in the West Bank facing demolition. pic.twitter.com/S1Ac9Sqr2y
— Sen Dianne Feinstein (@SenFeinstein) September 25, 2015
The lawmaker followed up with five more tweets about Israel-Palestine and Susiya, writing:
Hearing stories of these Palestinians only reinforced my belief that we must find a 2-state solution, so all can live in peace and security.
The only way to preserve Israel as a Jewish, democratic state is the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by its side.
This summer I urged PM Netanyahu to halt efforts to demolish the West Bank village of Susiya. …
Plain and simple: Israel should not destroy these Palestinians’ homes. It will only inflame an already difficult situation.
At the same moment, Sen. Feinstein was facing criticism for pressuring the University of California to conflate human rights activism critical of Israel with anti-Semitism and demanding that the school punish students engaging in such work.
Despite Feinstein’s hypocrisy, representatives at Rebuilding Alliance said they felt optimistic that the communities in the South Hebron Hills under threat of demolition will not be expelled.
Meeting with the State Department and Congress
While in DC, the delegation also met with State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Dafna Hochman Rand. Rebuilding Alliance founder and Executive Director Donna Baranski-Walker said the meeting with the State Department went well. “They are much much aware of the situation there,” she said.
In the view of Baranski-Walker, earlier in the year, “the State Department was critical in a quiet way, but now they are willing to be public.” She thinks that, if citizens keep the pressure on, the department could be compelled to take action. However, US politicians will likely only take action, Baranski-Walker emphasized, if average Americans are engaged and make their voices heard.
On September 21, the International Day of Peace, the delegation also addressed members of Congress during a lunchtime briefing. Rebuilding Alliance shared some of the large sheets on which the Palestinian children brainstormed points they would present before Congress.
Sadin expressed concern about the conditions in which her community must live. She said she wanted freedom, to “live in a place without soldiers,” and to no longer be “worried at night that they come to demolish my house.”
Aysar stated he wanted to be “able to live in his home in peace,” not demolished or divided. Peace, the young boy said, means mutual love, respect, and safety.
The children also brought “pinwheels for peace” as gifts for the lawmakers. Baranski-Walker said she felt the pinwheels for peace had a big, visible impact on politicians. When the Palestinian kids brought the lawmakers the tiny crafts, signed by children who live under violent military occupation, it appeared to strike them on a visceral level.
Congresspeople were busy, Rebuilding Alliance said, so the delegation did not get a chance to meet with any others personally. Main said congressional staffers were welcoming and visibly moved, however. One staffer, she recalled, said he was reminded of his own children upon interacting with the Palestinian youths.
Rebuilding Alliance says it is going to continue reaching out to Congress, particularly in light of Netanyahu’s upcoming visit, in November.
Reflecting on the meetings in DC, Rebuilding Alliance Assistant Project Manager Kelly Leilani Main said the trip went “very well.” Overall, spirits seemed high. The children were tired—after all, they had been traveling all week, and were still recovering from jet lag—but the group said they were happy to see New York (although they admitted they found it to be much less scenic than Washington) and continue their journey.
The other delegates told me more about their lives and struggles, living under occupation in Palestine.
The Nawaja family
Fatma Nawaja was born and raised in Susiya, where she said her family has lived “a very long time, for many generations.” Most families in Susiya are agricultural workers. They raise sheep and other animals and cultivate olive trees. It was a “beautiful place” when she was young, Fatma recalled. But, in the years since she was born, in 1978, more and more of the village’s land has been colonized by Israel.
In 1986, 60 families were expelled from Susiya. Fatma, who was a child at the time, spoke dolefully of the painful memories. Some families fled to the Jordan Valley; others lived in different areas throughout the South Hebron Hills.
“Expulsion means decimating the community,” Fatma explained, with translation assistance from Eid. She spoke of how the pain of expulsion lies not just in the act of expulsion itself, but also in the ways in which it tears apart relationships and and destroys communal ties and customs that were cultivated over decades.
Palestinians have lived in Susiya since at least the 1830s. Many of the present inhabitants hold titles to their land going back decades. Israel began to construct an illegal settlement in Susiya in 1983. Since this time, more and more Palestinian homes have been demolished.
On the eve of the 1986 expulsion, the Israeli government declared Susiya to be an archaeological site, and thus forbade Palestinians from living on it. Later, nevertheless, settlers began to live on the land. Rebuilding Alliance Founder and Executive Director Donna Baranski-Walker said this is not an uncommon tactic.
Just around 30 families live in Susiya now, Fatma said, “and life is difficult.” Families in Susiya traditionally lived in homes they constructed partially out of caves. These homes were cool in the heat of the summer and warm in the chill of the winter. Now, Palestinian families are forced to live in tents and shacks, away from mountains. These homes do little to protect inhabitants from the extreme elements.
When they are not worried about having their homes demolished, Palestinians are also afraid they will be attacked by Israeli settlers. In both Susiya and Um al-Kheir, the inhabitants said they constantly endure settler attacks. Israelis living in illegal, often expensive and luxurious homes just meters from Palestinians’, destroy and burn their olive trees and kill the sheep they rely on for a living. Eid said settlers even poisoned the well out of which his family member’s sheep drank, killing 15 of them.
David Massey, himself an Israeli, said it was frightening to see his fellow countrymen walk around heavily armed. Even when settlers go out on their back porch for a cigarette, he explained, they often have guns slung over their shoulder. The Palestinian families said they are frightened for their children, who have to grow up next to hate-filled neighbors who carry firearms with them everywhere they go.
Lives of struggle
Moreover, those living in Susiya do not have enough water, Fatma explained. Palestinians in the occupied territories do not have control over water resources, over 90% of which are used by Israel. The inhabitants of Susiya and elsewhere must buy water in tanks.
For Fellaheen Palestinians, most of whom are agricultural workers working in the informal economy, it is difficult to afford the water, even if they have enough access to it. It costs 35 Israeli New Shekels, or roughly $9 USD, for one cubic meter of water.
When water is delivered, Eid said the tractors and trucks used to transport it are also sometimes confiscated by Israeli occupation authorities. Four-year-old Muhammad said he remembers when Israeli soldiers confiscated his grandfather’s tractor, which he was using to move water tanks that an Israeli organization had donated to the community, which were also confiscated. If the Palestinian owners are even given the opportunity of getting their stolen property back, they often have to pay hefty fines.
Eid said Palestinians live in a constant state of punishment. “They prevent you from [having a normal life] and make you so bored you leave,” he explained.
“There’s non-stop economic violence going on,” David added. Eid agreed, and said that was the most difficult thing of all. When the Israeli government destroys your home, “you can’t just rebuild; you have to find money,” Eid said.
The physical oppression is hard enough, explained Eid, but the grinding poverty, and the inability of Palestinians to lift themselves out of it while laboring under a military occupation, is even more grueling.
“There’s no economy; there’s no economic development,” Eid remarked. Under occupation, “there is no hope for progress or our future.”
The Hthaleen family
Eid Hthaleen and his family live in Um al-Kheir, another Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills, just eight kilometers north of Susiya. Eid’s family was forced into the area in 1948, during the founding of the state of Israel, referred to by Palestinians as the Nakba (“catastrophe”), in which approximately 80% of the indigenous population was ethnically cleansed.
There are 60 homes in Um al-Kheir, and 57 have demolition orders on them. Every year, Palestinians’ homes are demolished in the village.
In the 1980s, Israel began constructed illegal settlements in Um al-Kheir. The Carmel settlement is located just meters away from where Eid lives. It is constantly expanding; Eid described it as growing, encircling, and choking Susiya.
The Carmel settlement is “illegal by Israeli law first, and by international law in general,” David stated. He explained the Israeli government essentially demolishes one Israeli home that is illegal for every 1,000 homes to which indigenous Palestinians have deeds, and then claims it is following the rule of law.
Eid’s home has a demolition order on it. He is constantly afraid an Israeli demolition team will come one day to destroy it. Eid and Nima have many friends and family members whose homes have been destroyed.
Nima, Eid’s husband, is a grade school teacher in Um al-Kheir. She studied at a university in Hebron, before returning to Um al-Kheir.
In 2011, Nima watched as the Israeli government reduced the homes of two neighboring families to rubble. The demolition team warned the villagers they would be back to destroy 12 more homes.
“There are no opportunities,” Nima said. She was always smiling and seemed so cheerful, yet pain could be seen below the surface. “Every year is worse.”
Children bear a particularly large burden, Nima explained. The “kids are suffering,” and, because they live under occupation, do not have childhoods like others, she said. “It breaks my heart,” she bemoaned.
“It’s very difficult in life, living beside the settlement,” Nima said. “My daughters always ask me ‘Why, why, why? Why do the settlers have the houses and keep expanding?'” she said. When I asked what she tells them, Nima looked back in pain, and said she has no answer. “It’s occupation,” she replied.
“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” Eid added. “It’s dark.”
“They control the people in the villages,” Eid lamented, referring to Israeli occupation forces. He detailed how Palestinians must always have an ID on them, in their own village, lest they be stopped by an Israeli soldier. “You can’t walk five meters without an ID.”
Both soldiers and settlers have beaten Palestinians living in Susiya and Um al-Kheir. Eid says a family member is paralyzed after an Israeli settler smashed his head in with the butt of a gun. The disabled man has brain damage and suffers from tremendous trauma.
Eid recalled visiting a village near Um al-Kheir and seeing a young girl who was hit in the head with a rock thrown by a settler. Settlers are virtually never punished for attacking Palestinian civilians.
Israeli soldiers guard the illegal Carmel settlement. The Israeli “government takes care of the settlers and demolishes the houses of Palestinians,” Eid said.
Many of the demolitions are in the winter. The Israeli government chooses this time to make it more difficult for Palestinians, hoping that they instead choose to leave. In doing so, Israel can claim that it is not forcibly ethnically cleansing the area by giving the Palestinians whose homes it destroys an ostensible choice about whether they wish to stay.
Some families are not as strong, Nima said, and have moved elsewhere, in hopes of finding a life that is not as difficult—although it is practically impossible to escape the occupation.
Because of the structural violence of military occupation, PTSD is widespread in the villages, particularly among the youth. Fatima and Nima said many children suffer from bouts of shock, after having constantly been subjected to violence and destruction.
Susiya and Um al-Kheir are located in Area C of the West Bank. Under the Oslo Accords, Palestinian land designated Area C—which comprises close to three-fourths of the West Bank—is under the control of the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA).
The ICA maintains that demolitions in Area C are justified because Palestinian inhabitants usually lack permits for their shelters. Rebuilding Alliance noted that “it is nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain permits from Israeli authorities to build in Area C.” The group says this is “part of Israel’s policy of restricting the growth of Palestinian population centers there while expanding Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.”
A 2014 UN report found that the ICA has more than 13,000 demolition orders against Palestinian properties in Area C. 2,000 were carried out.
In order to legally build a property in Area C, Palestinian villages must propose a “master plan” to be approved by the ICA. Eid said Palestinians would be willing to pay and go through the lengthy process of licensing if it was guaranteed.
Israeli human rights organization Rabbis for Human Rights helped Susiya draft and propose a professional master plan for its community. The ICA rejected it in October 2013. The Israeli government also suggested that the indigenous inhabitants would be better off moving elsewhere.
Rabbis for Human Rights helped Palestinians petition Israel’s High Court of Justice, asking for it to reconsider the proposed master plan. In May 2015, the court denied the plan and refused to issue an injunction against the planned demolition of the village.
Because the Israeli government rejected the proposed plan, Palestinians are not legally allowed to build homes or infrastructure in their community.
“It’s through a planning process; it’s not just happening randomly,” Kelly Leilani Main said. The Israeli government is ethnically cleansing the area of indigenous Palestinians, so homes for Israelis can be built on it. “It’s a very expensive and long process,” and is rarely successful, she noted.
The ICA “finds an excuse for any little reason not to authorize the process,” Massey added.
The strength of the Palestinian communities in these small villages, in spite of the violent and ubiquitous oppression, truly shined through. David, who has befriended and worked with the inhabitants for years, was also struck by the bravery. “Palestinian communities are very strong,” he said.
Fatma founded the Rural Women Association, a non-profit organization that says it “aims to raise women’s voices in marginalized and remote areas of Palestine.” Her group connects women throughout the South Hebron Hills, and fosters a community where the women can support each other. The Rural Women Association teaches women skills like beekeeping, the raising of sheep, sewing and embroidery, reading and writing, and more.
Nima and Fatma shared ornate traditional Palestinian dresses, shirts, bags, purses, and more made by women in the South Hebron Hills. The geometric floral designs in rubescent hues were all stitched by hand.
When I asked her about her organization, Fatma proudly said it “gives women a voice,” and helps provide Palestinian women with “what they need.” Fatma also handed me a card and a brochure filled with information.
Eid handed me a card too. He is an artist who specializes in sculpture; he uses recycled materials to make meticulously detailed replicas of various vehicles, like tractors, helicopters, and jeeps. Examples of Eid’s work can be seen at a website set up for him by the Saaheb Collective, a group of artists and activists.
The Saaheb Collective also created a short film highlighting Eid, his art, and his family, as well as Um al-Kheir.
Life is not all doom and gloom for the Palestinian families. In spite of the enormous hardship they bear, the families were remarkably good-spirited. And generous—when I arrived to interview them, they even offered me food they had just cooked. (I happily accepted, and it was delicious.)
The children love to play football/soccer, Nima said. Eid said they also enjoyed dancing dabke, a traditional Levantine Arab dance. Fatima said they also loved listening to music, especially music by Iraqi pop artists.
Mohamed was bubbling with energy. He walked around, playing with all the toys he could get his hands on.
In spite of their high spirits, the delegation was not optimistic about future prospects for peace in Israel/Palestine. The “peace process is dead,” Eid declared. “When you hear the words ‘peace process,’ you know someone is going to die.” “The people who talk about the two-state solution are really disconnected from what’s on the ground,” Massey added.
They emphasized, nonetheless, that the struggle of Palestinian Fellaheen and Bedouins in Susiya and Um al-Kheir is not isolated from that of Palestinians in other parts of the West Bank; rather, it is symptomatic of a larger fight for freedom, Massey emphasized. Susiya is “the village of symbols,” he remarked.
Rebuilding Alliance and its allies plan on pushing to get a master plan for Susiya and Um al-Kheir, in hopes of not just gaining a symbolic victory, but also of saving the homes in which Palestinians have lived for many decades.
When I asked what her goal was in coming to the US, Fatma said “we just want to live in peace. … Let us just not live in fear.” In the meantime, she stressed that ending the demolitions of homes in her community is an easy first step.