Pressure is mounting on Israel as politicians, diplomats and religious leaders around the world have come together to condemn the Zionist state over its planned demolition of the village of Susiya in the occupied West Bank. Some believe that the demolition would amount to a war crime.
The international condemnation, which includes an influential group of rabbis, was triggered after the Israeli government announced that it is scheduled to demolish 20 per cent of Susiya in the South Hebron Hills before the end of this week. On Wednesday there is an urgent debate in Westminster on the effect that Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes has on local communities; British MPs are being asked to sign and support Early Day Motion 616 which, among other things, “urges the [British] Government to condemn the aggressive actions of the Israeli Government and engage in diplomatic talks to achieve peaceful solutions in accordance with international law and the protection of human rights.”
Furthermore, a strongly-worded protest has been made by dozens of British rabbis who have written to Israel’s ambassador in London accusing the state of “bad faith” if the demolition goes ahead. The Australian-born Ambassador, Mark Regev, received the letter on behalf of the Israeli government.
The signatories pointed out while Palestinian homes will be demolished, similar buildings housing Jews would be left intact. Despite the fact that Susiya is protected under international law because it is in the occupied West Bank, Israel has previously expelled villagers to excavate an archaeological site of an ancient synagogue, although some were allowed to return “temporarily” in 2001.
“Since 1986 these people were forced to live in caves as they had no way of building legally on their land, even though they were continually applying,” said the rabbis in their letter. The Jewish activists from the pro-Israel group Yachad say residents “have been moved at least five times from their homes, with structures being demolished, throwing the community deeper into poverty and significantly damaging Israel’s international standing.”
The rabbis describe the planned demolition as “arbitrary” and “cruel” in their letter to Regev. “The way this is being done outside of the legal system is deeply worrying to us. There are hundreds of Jewish structures in the South Hebron Hills that are not being treated according to the same principles and this is hugely problematic. The Torah reminds us there is one law for the Israelite and for those who live among us.”
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill in Washington an unprecedented number of US Senators have already written letters of protest to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanding that he calls a halt to the impending demolition of Susiya and the Bedouin town of Khan Al-Amr, also in the occupied West Bank. Until last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California was a lone voice on the issue and her one-woman campaign — backed by the Obama Administration at the time — has done much to delay Susiya’s demolition.
However that changed when nine other Democrat Senators joined her in condemning Israel’s plans. Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Pat Leahy, Illinois’s Dick Durbin, Delaware’s Tom Carper, Minnesota’s Al Franken, Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren, New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich, Oregon’s Jeff Merkley and Hawaii’s Brian Schatz all signed the latest letter to Netanyahu urging him not to demolish the homes.
The US lawmakers did not mince their words: “Instead of forcibly evicting these communities, we encourage your government to fairly re-evaluate Susiya’s professionally developed master plan and provide the residents of Khan Al-Ahmar equal building rights. Your government’s threats to demolish these communities are particularly distressing in light of the Israeli Civil Administration’s efforts to dramatically expand settlements throughout the West Bank.”
Even stronger was an open letter sent from the Village Council of Susiya itself, which states clearly that Israel is about to “commit a war crime” and points out that among the homeless would be 50 Palestinian children, as well as their parents and grandparents; they would be extremely vulnerable in the freezing winter conditions which affect the region. The letter reminds the international community of Israel’s obligations to protect those living under occupation, adding that the demolition of their homes would be a “war crime” if the Israeli government forcefully displaces the village.
Last month, EU Representatives and the EU Heads of Mission in Jerusalem and Ramallah issued a joint statement to remind Israel of its humanitarian legal obligations as “an occupying power” and demanded that the demolition should be halted. Declaring themselves “deeply concerned” about the Susiya demolition plan, the diplomats said: “The EU calls upon the Israeli authorities to halt demolitions of Palestinian houses and property, in accordance with its obligations as an occupying power under international humanitarian law, and to cease the policy of settlement construction and expansion, of designating land for exclusive Israeli use and of denying Palestinian development.”
Susiya has been a source of growing tension since 1986 when the site of the original village was declared a national park because of its archaeological heritage, which included an ancient synagogue that was later converted into a mosque. Throughout the nineties, the Israeli military enforced its brutal occupation and demolished new Palestinian-owned homes there, claiming that they had been built illegally. The Civil Administration’s Subcommittee for Planning and Licensing even feigned concern by saying that the new homes did not provide Palestinians with proper opportunities for “social advancement, job opportunities or educational empowerment.”
The residents of Susiya submitted their own plan to the occupation authorities in 2013. On receiving the details, the subcommittee said that it would keep Susiya’s 350-strong population in “poverty and ignorance.” An organisation called Rabbis for Human Rights condemned the committee ruling and described it as “cynical”; they accused the authorities of deliberately placing “obstacles in the way of building a school [and] left it for decades without infrastructure for electricity, water, sewage and roads.”
In 2014, the right-wing pro-settler group Regavim began to lobby the Israeli High Court to demolish Susiya, calling it an “illegal Palestinian outpost”; it is a village, remember, built on Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank. Regavim was backed by Israel’s Deputy Defence Minister Eli Ben Dahan, of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party. “There has never been an Arab village called Susiya,” Ben Dahan told the Knesset. Claims of its historical existence were “a ploy by leftist organisations,” he alleged.
Seemingly emboldened by the Trump administration’s support, the wrecker’s ball is now being prepared to wipe out the Palestinian village of Susiya even though authentic ownership documents dating back to 1881 prove that the land belongs to the residents. Faced with accusations of war crimes, pressure from dozens of rabbis, diplomats, British and American parliamentarians and EU politicians, Israel must know that right and justice lie with the Palestinians.
Most of the international community acknowledge the threat posed by Israel to the human and legal rights of the Palestinians; the applicability of international laws and conventions to their plight; the likelihood that Israel has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity; and the damaged relationships that result from this reality. The simple fact is, though, that Israel doesn’t seem to care.
Susiya village has thus become a real test of Israel’s moral fibre. It can either do what is right and act like a genuinely democratic state which values human rights and international laws and conventions, and choose to leave the residents of Susiya to get on with their lives in their own homes, undisturbed by Israeli bulldozers. Or it can ignore all of the above and continue to act like an occupier with a shameful record of brutality and contempt for the laws and conventions that the rest of us value so much. Unlike the Palestinians who live in Sisiya, Israel has a choice. Right-minded people around the world hope that it will choose wisely.