The United States on Friday warned Israel against following through with a planned demolition of a tiny Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills.
Israeli authorities say that many of the structures in the village of Sussiya were built illegally, but the US State Department said that razing the buildings would constitute a “provocative” act.
“We’re closely following developments in the village of Sussiya in the West Bank, and we strongly urge the Israeli authorities to refrain from carrying out any demolitions in the village,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby. “Demolition of this Palestinian village or of parts of it, and evictions of Palestinians from their homes would be harmful and provocative.”
Human rights groups say that if Israel goes through with the demolition, it would force the more than 300 residents of Sussiya to leave.
“Such actions have an impact beyond those individuals and families who are evicted,” Kirby said. “We are concerned that the demolition of this village may worsen the atmosphere for a peaceful resolution and would set a damaging standard for displacement and land confiscation, particularly given settlement-related activity in the area.”
“We urge Israeli authorities to work with the residents of the village to finalize a plan for the village that addresses the residents’ humanitarian needs.”
The State Department echoed a similar plea from the European Union, which last month called on Israel not to demolish the illegal village.
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“On behalf of the EU, I call on the government of Israel to reverse its plans to carry out demolitions here in Sussiya,” said its representative to the Palestinian Authority, John Gatt-Rutter.
As part of a stepped-up campaign by the EU and the Palestinian Authority against such IDF demolitions, Gatt-Rutter visited the village in the morning, along with PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, under the watchful eye of the IDF, which was stationed just outside.
“Sussiya has become a byword for policies that deprive the Palestinians of their land and their resources,” Gatt-Rutter said.
He and Hamdallah sat by a plastic folding table under a tent, to speak with villagers and representatives from 23 of the 28 EU countries, all of which have representative offices that handle relations with the PA.
Palestinian flags fluttered above the tent and a number of Palestinian security officers sat inside.
Just a short distance away, across the barren, dusty brown landscape, one could see the adjacent Jewish settlement that bears the same name, Sussiya.
Children on the swings in the small playground of Palestinian Sussiya shouted out for the cameras, “One, two, three, four, occupation no more.”
Gatt-Rutter told those in the tent that his presence in the village was “intended to indicate the seriousness with which the EU views the orders to demolish Palestinian homes and structures in this village and to evict the villagers.”
The EU, he said, has worked to support the village through educational initiatives and by providing temporary shelters.
The EU symbol is on the sign to the village and on at least one of its structures. Last month, the NGO Regavim charged that the EU is helping Palestinians build hundreds of illegal structures in the West Bank, in an attempt to help shore up the Palestinian hold on Area C of the West Bank.
In Sussiya, Gatt-Rutter said, “Israel has a duty to facilitate Palestinian development in these areas occupied by it, including in Area C, which represents over 60 percent of the West Bank.
“Palestinian development, not Palestinian exclusion, should be at the heart of Israel’s policies here in Area C,” he said.
Unfortunately, he added, Sussiya is not a unique case.
Israel is also working to relocate Palestinian herder communities and Beduin in an area of the West Bank just outside of Jerusalem, on the way to the Dead Sea. Hamdallah and Gatt-Rutter made a similar visit to those communities in May.
Israel should “halt efforts to transfer Beduin and other herder communities elsewhere in the West Bank,” he said.
Casting an eye in the direction of the nearby Jewish settlement, Gatt-Rutter said, “We can see the settlements which surround this piece of land.
“The EU, which you know has a clear position on settlements – which are illegal according to international law and threaten the viability of a two-state solution, in which the EU has a profound and significant interest,” he said.
Hamdallah called on the EU representatives to pressure Israel to halt the destruction of Sussiya. The village’s resistance to such plans, he said, is a source of “pride for the PA,” which would do everything it could to support it, he said.
The state wants to relocate the village to a plot of territory that is close to Area B, which is under the civil control of the PA.
According to a report on Sussiya published by the NGO B’Tselem, the village was initially located in the middle of an archeological site.
In 1986, the IDF forced the village to relocate to its present location. The villagers rebuilt their homes of tents and temporary structures on agricultural land they owned just a few hundred meters away.
The fate of the village is now before the High Court of Justice, which is examining a petition by Rabbis for Human Rights with regard to a master plan it prepared that could allow for the legalization of the structures.
The civil administration has rejected the master plan, but Rabbis for Human Rights appealed the decision and petitioned the High Court to intervene.
The court agreed to hear the case, but failed to approve an injunction to prevent the demolition of the village during the judicial proceedings.
Members of the village and nongovernmental groups that fear that existing demolition orders against the village could be carried out at any time have mounted a stiff public relations battle in support of Sussiya.
Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the territories said of Sussiya village, “It’s a gathering of illegal houses next to the archeological site of Susya. It has been expanded through the years despite the issuance of warrants.”
The spokesman for the South Hebron Hills Regional Council, Assaf Fassy, accused the PA of supporting illegal growth such as occurred in Sussiya to achieve its policy objective of creating contiguous Palestinian territory between Gaza and the West Bank.
“The PA has been trying for a long period to create a sterile [‘Judenrein’] Palestinian territory that connects Gaza and Judea and Samaria,” he said.
“It is for this reason that they are using international pressure and engaging in activities that are illegal,” Fassy said.Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.
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