Palestinian village Khirbet Susiya under imminent threat of demolition and expulsion

Published: 
7 May 2015

Susiya reflects Israeli authorities’ policy throughout Area C of West Bank

Khirbet Susiya, village under threat of demolition. Photo: Ann Pack, Activestills.org, 15 June 2012
Khirbet Susiya, village under threat of demolition. Photo: Ann Pack, Activestills.org, 15 June 2012

On 4 May 2015, Justice Noam Sohlberg of Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ) rejected a petition for an interim order that would freeze the implementation of demolition orders issued against homes in the village of Khirbet Susiya, which lies in the southern Hebron hills in the West Bank. The village residents requested the order as part of their petition to the court against the Civil Administration’s decision to reject the master plan they had drawn up for the village. In the petition, Att. Qamar Mashraki from Israeli NGO Rabbis for Human Rights argued on behalf of the residents that their plan had been rejected for improper considerations, and that this constituted a double standard in planning and blatant discrimination against the Palestinian population.

The meaning of Justice Sohlberg’s decision is that at any moment, the Civil Administration can demolish all homes in the village. The residents, some 250-350 people depending on the season, will be left homeless in harsh desert conditions. They will be effectively expelled from their land in an act that is not only cruel but also illegal.

Israeli settlers in the area have already taken over almost 300 hectares of the villagers’ land. Past experience indicates that if the Israeli authorities succeed in expelling the villagers from Khirbet Susiya, either the settlers will directly take over the land or the authorities will take control of it an allocate it to settlers.

The state’s treatment of Khirbet Susiya and its residents illustrates its systemic use of planning laws to prevent Palestinians in Area C, which is under full Israeli control, from construction and development that meet their needs: most Palestinians in the area live in villages where the Israeli authorities have refused to draw up master plans and connect them to water and power supplies, under various pretexts. With no other choice, the residents eventually build homes without permits and subsequently live under constant threat of demolition and expulsion. This policy is intended to serve the goal, explicitly declared by Israeli officials in the past, of taking over land in the southern Hebron hills in order to formally annex it to Israel in a permanent-status agreement with the Palestinians, and annex it de facto until such a time.

In implementing this policy, Israel is acting in contradiction to its obligation to care for the needs of West Bank residents as the occupying power there. This is a grave breach of the prohibition in international humanitarian law on forced transfer of residents of an occupied territory. The prohibition permits such transfer only in exceptional cases, from which Khirbet Susiya is a far cry.

The state has been abusing the residents of Khirbet Susiya for many years: the military and the Civil Administration have repeatedly removed the residents from their homes, in which they have lived since before 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank. The Civil Administration is responsible for all aspects of civilian life in area C and is theoretically supposed to promote the well-being of the local population. In practice, the Administration uses its planning systems, in which Palestinians are not represented, to prevent them from promoting solutions that would meet their needs, barring them from building legally and from connecting to water and power supplies. The authorities also systematically refrain from protecting the residents of Khirbet Susiya from settlers who attack them or vandalize their property, and restrict their free access to the main town in the district, Yatta.

Over the years, the villagers petitioned the HCJ several times against demolition of their homes, requesting that they be permitted to build legally. However, the Court repeatedly adopted formalistic arguments and refused to force the authorities to fulfill their obligations, which include drawing up a master plan for the village and not demolishing homes there, so that the residents can continue to live in the place in reasonable conditions.

In contrast to Israeli settlers in the West Bank, Palestinian residents there are considered “protected persons” under international humanitarian law. The violation of their rights is especially blatant given the active support provided by Israeli authorities to construction and expansion of settlements in the area, even when they are established in contravention of Israeli law.

Children in the village of Khirbet Susiya. Photo: Yoav Gross, B'Tselem, 17 Nov. 2010
Children in the village of Khirbet Susiya. Photo: Yoav Gross, B'Tselem, 17 Nov. 2010

Background (see additional details here):

The Palestinian village of Khirbet Susiya has existed in the South Hebron Hills since the 19th century. In 1983, the Israeli settlement of Susiya was established near the village, on Palestinian land that had been declared state land by Israel. Since then, the Israeli authorities have been working to force the Palestinian residents out of the area.

In 1986, they were expelled from their original village, which now functions as an archeological site run by settlers, who also live on the spot. The military expelled the residents again in 2001 – a short time after Palestinians killed Israeli Yair Har Sinai from the Susiya settlement. The residents relocated to their privately owned agricultural land.

In October 2013, after a long struggle, the Sub-Committee for Planning and Licensing of the Civil Administration’s Supreme Planning Council rejected the master plan that the residents had drawn up for Khirbet Susiya. At the same time the civil Administration announced its decision to issue final demolition orders for all structures in the village. The sub-committee cited several reasons for its decision that conveyed a patronizing, unprofessional attitude. For instance, one argument was that the number of residents – several hundred people – was too small to warrant an independent community in terms of planning. Remarkably, the sub-committee has had no problem approving tiny illegal outposts established by Israeli settlers in the West Bank. The sub-committee further argued that the plan would prevent the villagers from developing and breaking the cycle of poverty; it did not see fit to mention that the villagers' drudge-filled existence is largely due to restrictions imposed by the Civil Administration itself, including the lack of amenities. The Administration recommended that the people of Susiya make an alternative plan for a location closer to the town of Yatta, a move that would effectively transfer the residents of Susiya out of Area C and expel them from their land.

In February 2014, Rabbis for Human Rights petitioned the HCJ, arguing that the Sub-Committee for Planning and Licensing had made an unreasonable decision in rejecting the master plan. The Court rejected the request for an interim order filed as part of the petition, and the village now faces immediate demolition.

The Israeli authorities’ policy towards the residents of Khirbet Susiya starkly contrasts their generous planning policy towards Israeli settlers in the area. The settlers of Susiya and its outposts enjoy full provision of services and infrastructure and are in no danger of their homes being demolished – despite the fact that the outposts are illegal under Israel law and in the settlement itself, according to figures published by settler organization Regavim, 23 homes were built on privately-owned Palestinian land.