- The Palestinian village of Khirbet Susiya has existed for at least a century. It appears on maps as far back as 1917 – decades before Israel began occupying the West Bank. Aerial photographs from 1980 show cultivated farmland and livestock pens, indicating the presence of an active community there. In his book Expansion and Desertion: The Arab Village and Its Offshoots in Ottoman Palestine [in Hebrew], geographer David Grossman wrote that some 25 Palestinian families were living in caves in the village in 1986.
- An internal opinion written in 1982 by Att. Plia Albeck, head of the Civil Division in the State Attorney’s Office, recognized the Palestinian village of Susiya and acknowledged that its residents own the land on which the village was built. According to the opinion: “The synagogue is located in a place called the lands of Khirbet Susiya, and it is surrounded by an Arab village that lies amid ancient ruins. The land of Khirbet Susiya is listed in the Land Registry as an area of some 3,000 dunams [300 hectares] in the private possession of many Arab owners”.
- In 1986 Israel expropriated the land on which the historic village of Susiya was located, expelled its residents, declared the area an archaeological site, and appointed settlers from Susiya – an Israeli settlement established nearby in 1983 – to manage the site. Archeological excavations found remains in the area that have been identified as part of a synagogue in use on that site until the eighth century. Subsequently, a mosque was constructed atop the ruins of the synagogue. Some of the expropriated land was incorporated into the jurisdictional area of the settlement. Later, an illegal outpost was established on the original site of the village and is now home to settler families.
- After they were expelled from their village, the residents moved into caves or tents on their privately-owned farmland, in an area called Rujum al-Hamri, close to the settlement of Susiya and the original site of the village. In 1991, the Israeli military expelled them from this area as well. The military had no official warrant for this action nor did it provide the residents with any explanation to as to why they were being uprooted a second time.
- After the second expulsion, the residents went to live elsewhere on their cultivated farmland, in a location further away from the settlement of Susiya and the original site of the village. They still live there today. They lived in caves and tents, as aerial photographs taken in 1999 clearly show. In 2001, the Israeli authorities tried to expel them a third time, as “penalty” for the killing of settler Yair Har Sinai by Palestinians (who were not residents of the village of Susiya). Over the course of several days, the Israeli military, the Civil Administration (CA), and settlers from the area sealed off the residents’ caves and wells and demolished their tents and livestock pens. On 26 January 2001, leading Israeli news website Ynet quoted the IDF Spokesperson as saying that the OC Central Command had ordered an internal inquiry into the evacuation of the residents, which had been carried out in breach of regulation.
Detail from an aerial photo of Khirbet Susiya in 1999. Click to view full photo and additional images (courtesy of Dror Etkes)
- The residents were forced to leave their homes for a short while; after they petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ), the Court ordered that they be allowed to return, that no further structures be demolished, and that there be no further attempts to displace them. The residents went back to their farmland and erected temporary structures for their community.
- Since 2001, settlers from the surrounding area have frequently prevented the residents from accessing some 3,000 dunams (300 hectares) of land around the settlement, using threats or physical violence. Most of the police files opened following complaints lodged by Palestinians in such cases had no actual results. At the same time, the residents’ land taken over by the state was used to expand nearby settlements. The land from which they were expelled in 1991 was later used to establish the settlement of Susiya North – a residential block of pre-fab homes. Other land owned by the residents was used to establish the illegal outpost Havat Har Sinai and to expand the illegal outpost Mitzpe Yair.
- In 2013, the residents submitted a master plan for the village to the Sub-Committee for Planning and Licensing of the CA’s Supreme Planning Council. Their request was denied on the grounds that it failed to meet planning criteria – the same criteria that many settlements supported by the Israeli authorities throughout the West Bank do not meet, either. Citing planning considerations to reject the master plan is a cynical attempt to use expert arguments to mask the political objective of expelling Susiya’s residents. The committee’s decision to reject the plan was not made in good faith, and included arguments that the village does not meet planning criteria, even though this deficiency is the result of restrictions imposed by the authorities themselves. The twisted use of ostensibly valid planning considerations is merely another example of Israel’s extensive citing of planning considerations as a means for taking over lands, as part of its policy in Area C of the West Bank. In February 2014 Susiya’s residents petitioned the HCJ with the help of NGO Rabbis for Human Rights, arguing that the Sub-Committee for Planning and Licensing had made an unreasonable decision.
- The planning regime in Area C, which constitutes 60% of the West Bank – including Susiya, is determined by the CA. The CA uses its authority over all planning in Area C almost exclusively to prevent Palestinian construction, blatantly ignoring its duty to ensure planning, development, and construction for the local Palestinian population. To date, the CA has allowed Palestinian construction only in about 0.5% of the area (approx. 18,000 dunams = 1,800 hectares), while allocating hundreds of thousands of dunams to Israeli settlements. This planning stranglehold leaves Palestinians no choice but to build without permits. When they do so, the CA cites planning laws to declare the structures illegal and issue demolition permits for them. Israel appears to have an unofficial policy designed to reduce the number of Palestinian residents in Area C and for the purpose of expanding settlements there, thereby extending Israeli control over the area and its resources and annexing it de facto to Israel proper. Couching this policy in terms of planning considerations serves the state in two ways: (1) camouflaging Israel’s clear advantage over local Palestinians and their representatives by creating a false show of professional, objective criteria – since the state holds all planning power; (2) masking the political nature of dispossession and land grab by framing the discussion in professional planning lingo (which ostensibly relies on universal progressive values). Israel’s use of planning measures is both cynical and paternalistic. It is not an attempt to create a fair and suitable planning policy for Palestinian residents of Area C.