Rolling hills lined and crossed with newly planted olive trees and rows of grapevines… Sturdy, orderly greenhouses… signs of well-planned agriculture, usually a quite inspiring and motivating sight, particularly lovely under the setting sun and changing shades of dusk.
Yet, in context, these scenes are sickening. The realization that this West Bank land, this Palestinian field, is being cultivated by Israeli settlers, land stolen just over two decades ago through acts of bloodshed, menace, assault, forced-evictions, and lies. The IOF and settlers have caused untold amounts of suffering to these Palestinians whose families have inhabited the area since the early 1800s.
Over a hilltop, beyond a largely dry and uncultivated valley, small patches of olive and fruit trees, rocks, and desert scrub signify the start of allowed Palestinian areas. Although the IOF and settlers have done their utmost to frighten away the Palestinian land-owners, they are resilient and return time and again, despite beatings, harassment, evictions, and countless other affronts to one’s sensibilities and breaches of basic human rights.
Just 6 years ago, in September 2001, Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ) deemed the actions of the IOF and settlers illegal and immoral: by then, the Israeli army and settlers had already over 5 times evicted the Palestinian land-owners and demolished their dwellings. They had also poisoned sheep, goats, and water cisterns, uprooted and/or destroyed olive and fruit trees, beaten and harassed the Palestinian residents, and stolen trees and livestock. This HCJ ruling came after the latest and worst assault on the Palestinians of Susiya in July 2001 in which the Israeli military machine brought in the dozers to demolish homes, to even one week later bulldoze emergency tents supplied by the Red Cross.
The day after the ruling, however, the IOF declared the area a “Closed Military Zone” and decreed that the Palestinian residents could not return, despite the High Court Order’s dictate. Some persistent Palestinians did return, in spite of the illegal military order.
Three years later, another HCJ hearing re-affirmed the 2001 injunction, admonishing the State and military’s demolitions: “The state did not establish a legal procedure which would allow for a building permit, hence the state is not carrying out its duties and is creating a situation under which a human’s basic existence becomes impossible.”
Surprisingly, amidst the arid desert scrub of the Palestinian area, which is denied basic services of water and electricity, things do flourish and families persist, get by on the olive trees, grapevines, cactus fruits, tomatoes, and cucumbers they manage to eke out of the sun-taxed earth. Their shoddy, piecemeal tents demonstrate not their abilities as architects, but rather their ingenuity and ability to survive in the most basic of conditions, put to the test, denied everything—including the right to construct a dwelling.
At one of the many unbelievable soldier and settler-encounters, a soldier stated that the Palestinians chose to live in Susiya this way, in ramshackle tents without any sense of permanence and without electricity or sufficient water. Only a fraction of what he said was true: the Palestinians of Susiya chose to live in Susiya, where their families have lived for generations. They didn’t choose the conditions, nor would they reject the opportunity to build homes, have running water, have electricity. The condescending remark of the soldier highlights what I’ve encountered over and over in discussions with settlers and soldiers: the belief that the Palestinians are backwards, primitive, and uneducated, and filled with hate. What I have seen is to the contrary: ingenuity, love, and a desire to live life fully, not under the suffocating weight of oppression. The oft-cited hate for Israelis is nullified by the strong friendships between the various Israeli activists (like Ta’ayush, Israeli Anarchists, and independent Israeli activists) who stand in solidarity with Palestinians.
The 2004 HCJ ruling additionally suggested the Palestinians seek building permits from the Civil Land Administration, a challenge which they have pursued with the help of their Israeli attorney. It is a colossal challenge, as the CLA is considerably settler-biased (being staffed by a large percentage of settlers) and run by the State of Israel. Permits have been rejected for pedantic reasons, like inaccurate measurements for planning, yet the landowners have not been allowed to bring in surveyors to correct inaccuracies in measurements. Round and round in a whirlwind of bureaucracy they spin, ever aware of the prospect of demolition and eviction at any given moment.
At night, in certain areas designated “Special Security Areas” the Palestinians don’t dare stray: the military order is shoot first, shoot to kill. These areas include the buffer zone around Susiya settlement, a zone which actually exceeds the size of the settlement itself, and which, of course, was formerly Palestinian-owned land, before being declared off-limits by the military. This is a typical strategy, one of denying access to lands so that they eventually become stagnant, then transferring ownership to another (**settlement) as the land is clearly unused and abandoned.
This is what has happened and is currently happening with the land just off the main road, highway 317 between Susiya and Maon settlements. There, one settler in particular has fenced-off the land, planted grape vines, and aggressively defended his right to steal this land, abandoned through menacing and harassment as it was.
So it happens that even if the High Court does rule in favour of the rights of Palestinians, in practice the IOF and settlers do what they will. And the Palestinians of the Susiya region are consigned to tent life, temporary at that.
In those pitiful tents—tents erected because former permanent structures were deemed illegal, due to the lack of irrelevant and unattainable building permits—persist families who have been forcedly-moved, some since before the building of the Israeli settlements in the 1980s. Families who, despite their enormous losses—some have lost over 50% of their land; others, moved to Yatta and nearby towns, have lost all of their land— and daily on-going suffering, not to mention the uncertainty of their very physical existence and that of their temporary dwellings, still laugh, love, and give with a phenomenal, humbling graciousness.
Babies and children are coddled: “my love, my silly little child, my love…” These words of adorations are constantly murmured to content children. Content. In these very basic surroundings, under threat of settler assault or tent demolition (for many for the 5th time).
The young ones don’t yet know their fate as refugees among a larger, internally-displaced refugee population.
The older children seem aware of the rule of settlers and soldiers, and of their responsibility for their younger siblings.
Children learn early a graciousness that persists through youth and adult years. Even A, exceptionally obnoxious and annoying in his shout-speaking and interrupting ways, retains the gracious role and obligations of a host: you, the guest, are revered.