By Bailey Fisher
Located in the southern tip of the West Bank, the South Hebron Hills are home to tens of thousands of Palestinians living in largely herding and agriculturally-based communities. Relying almost completely on the natural resources provided by the land, the earth is critical to their survival; additionally, market access for them to sell their goods is also crucial, as it provides the only stable source of income.
Since the early 1980s, the number of Jewish settlements in this area has drastically increased, bringing with them a diminishing amount of water, land, and safety for these Palestinian villages. As the settlements continue to expand, the Israeli army has continued to not only push out the Palestinian villages but, in many cases, demolish them altogether; between 2008 and 2011, 1,101 Palestinian structures have been torn down here, leaving Palestinian villagers nowhere to live and nowhere to go .
Susiya, a small, agricultural Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills, has been inhabited by Palestinians since the early 19th century. Sustaining themselves through livestock and crops, the people of Susiya have traditionally been a herding community, selling animal products in Jerusalem on a seasonal basis. In 1983, Israel declared the land on which Susiya is located as “state land”, and subsequently established the ever-growing Jewish settlement of Susiya. The Palestinian villagers have been expelled twice since this declaration, yet have returned both times to Susiya. Each return has proven more difficult, and after their second return, much of their land had been confiscated and new provisions had been implanted, barring them from building any new structures on the small plot of land that did remain. Their main source of water has been taken for settler use, and the villagers are still not allowed to access it. Instead, they are forced to purchase water 50 km away, making it much more expensive and much less accessible. Moreover, their access to the Jerusalem market has been essentially cut off with the separation wall, leaving them with a diminished source of income, now more vital than ever for the purchase of water.
Driving through the winding hills of South Hebron, I arrived in Susiya around 11 am on June 20th with a group of 25 European and American students and our tour guide, a former Israeli soldier and member of the Israeli non-profit organization Breaking the Silence. Stepping out of the bus, we were immediately met with a rush of hot, still air, the kind of dry heat that stifles any hint of energy; that dries up sweat faster than your body can produce it, that bakes your skin until it resembles the flaky thin pastry of baklava. Entering the village, we found tents, the smell of goats and chickens, a few shacks made out of various pieces of rubble, a couple of caves with wooden doors, and people: Families. Grandparents. Children. My shoes scuffed against harsh brush and cacti as I walked. Oddly, I was struck silent.
I looked to my left. Sixty or so well-built settler houses rested just above the village, with several military posts not too far away. The settler houses were sound structures, with driveways, streetlights, and even a few swimming pools. And those people attacked this village? Frankly, it was quite difficult to imagine. We stopped in a few spots of rare shade and were then welcomed by a member of the Susiya village, a man named Nasser. His smile was warm and his eyes light, though he explained the situation of the village very matter-of-factly. They had close to no water, though settler water pipes ran directly below the village; they were forced to travel 50 km from their village and pay seven times what a Jewish person living in Jerusalem pays for water. Virtually all farmable land was being used by the settlers, so the villagers had very little left to sustain themselves. Violent attacks from the settlers had increased dramatically over the past few years; his arm, slung half-heartedly in a makeshift sling, was a testament to this.
Energetically he then led us through the village, showing us a well that had been destroyed by the Israeli army, a small plot of olive trees, and finally a tent filled with around 50 children attending a summer camp. When we entered, they were playing a game in which two kids with their hands tied behind their backs competed to find a key in a pile of flour, using only their faces.
I guess I considered the survival of these people to be somewhat of a miracle. Hearing these stories I felt selfishly hopeless, watching these people lose everything with very little control. Life was very, very difficult, and with little prospect of improving in the near future.
And yet, children laughed, pushing each other in the dirt. Women smiled behind their long, conservative clothing, caring for the younger children. Men welcomed us into the village with big smiles and open arms. People were alive, resilient, and hopeful. There was no need to pity them, for they are people, and they are strong. Hope and communal support go a long way; I was amazed to find that these people, with so much misfortune in their hands, were far from unhappy.
I left Susiya without fully understanding humanity’s strength to endure but at least having somewhat of an appreciation for it. Somehow, I trusted an anonymous yet present goodness and strength within people to solve the incredibly complex conflicts entrenched in this region. Girls giggling with their friends, boys pushing each other playfully in the dirt: factors prevalent in all lives no matter the conditions, thus connecting us together in some transparent web of humanity and bringing us together in an utopian image of peace.
On Tuesday, June 12, 2012, 50 temporary structures in the Palestinian village of Susiya received a demolition order from Israel’s Civil Administration. Residents were given three days to appeal the demolition order to the Civil Administration’s Supreme Planning Council. The structures facing demolition include at least 17 residential tents housing over 100 people, 14 tents serving as kitchens, a shop, a clinic, a community center, a structure for storing sheep’s milk, solar panels, a cave used as a Palestinian cultural museum, and shelters for sheep and chickens .
I try to have faith in mankind’s ability to live together, to overcome, and to survive. These people will care for each other, they will endure and their inner strength will carry them farther than many of us would dare go. They will overcome, and they will raise their next generations.
Yet I cannot help but wonder, what happens if they don’t? With no end to Israel’s settlement practice in sight, what will keep them going? And what happens when they stop?