villager in sussiya.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Leaning on a cane, Muhammad Ahmed al-Nawajiya says he has seen a lot in his 70 years. Today he worries that his home – somewhere between a tent and a cinder-block structure – could be demolished if the Supreme Court rules against the village.
A hearing is set for Monday.
“This is my land, but the government doesn’t recognize it,” Nawajiya tells The Media Line as his daughter and one of his 40 grandchildren listened. “All I want is a house for my children and a roof over the heads to protect us from the sun and the rain just like anyone else.”
He says this land has belonged to his family for generations and he has Turkish land documents to prove it. However the Turkish documents usually mention landmarks that no longer exist, making it hard to use them in court.
The Palestinians here in the South Hebron Hills on the edge of the desert eke out a living herding sheep and growing grapes and olives. In 1983, a Jewish community, also called Sussiya, was built nearby. Three years later, the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria declared much of the Arab village’s land an archeological site; it contains the remains of a 5th-8th century CE synagogue and of a mosque that replaced it.
The residents, Nawajiya included, moved into caves on their farmland. In 2001, when the second intifada began, the army destroyed the caves, the buildings and the water cisterns.
The 350 Palestinians living here built temporary structures, without Israeli permits. Left-wing Israeli groups including Rabbis for Human Rights, which has helped represent the villagers in the Supreme Court, admit that the building was done without permission. The government said it will not allow any building until a master plan for the village is approved.
“There is no question that this is private Palestinian land,” Rabbi Arik Ascherman, president and senior rabbi at Rabbis for Human Rights, tells The Media Line. “But the government refused to approve a master plan. The real reason is that they don’t want a Palestinian village next to a settlement.”
Ascherman says the Palestinians living here have Turkish documents proving their ownership. He cites a ruling by Israeli legal expert Plia Albek that the village is built on private Palestinian land, a ruling that should pave the way for them to get a master plan and legalize their building.
Other NGOs tell a different story about the Palestinians who live here. According to Regavim, which says it works “to ensure responsible, legal, accountable and environmentally friendly use of Israel’s national lands and the return of the rule of law to all areas and aspects of the land and its preservation,” the land was only used for grazing sheep, and shepherds in Yatta would occasionally sleep there.
“The Palestinians have no legal or historical claim to this land. They have been squatting illegally in the area for the past 15+ years,” Regavim’s International Director Josh Hasten tells The Media Line. “We call upon the Supreme Court to enforce its decision against illegal construction carried out in deliberate violation of explicit court orders.”
Regavim says there are 64 structures in the encampment, all of which are built illegally and should be demolished.
B’Tselem – The Israel Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories says that in the first half of 2016, Israel demolished more homes in Palestinian communities in the West Bank than in the entire previous year.
The group says 168 Palestinian homes were demolished, leaving 740 Palestinians homeless.
Most of these homes were in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank where, under the Oslo Accords, Israel maintains complete control, and where 350,000 Israelis live. Some charge that the home demolitions are part of a policy to pave the way for annexation of Area C.
“The Israeli authorities impose an impossible daily reality on Palestinian communities in Area C by repeatedly demolishing their homes, constantly threatening further demolition, and other violations of their rights,” B’Tselem wrote in a recent report. “This governmental policy, implemented systematically for years, constitutes the forced transfer of Palestinian residents within the occupied territory, in breach of international humanitarian law.”
Israel has offered a compromise to allow the residents to establish a new village a few kilometers away near the town of Yatta, a suggestion that Nawajiya rejects.
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