The sun was big and bright, setting quickly over the South Hebron Hills. A group of international Jews getting ready for Shabbat in the Palestinian village of Susiya. Lighting candles, singing songs and sitting around talking about Abraham with one of our Palestinian hosts. It sounds like an odd scenario but it was a beautiful experience that I was lucky enough to be a part of. This was one of many incredible experiences we embarked upon during our 10-day convergence with the Centre for Jewish Non-Violence (CJNV).
The CJNV is a group striving for the full equality and shared humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians. They engage in non-violent activism in the occupied territories and Israel, with the aim of bringing an end to the occupation.
On the 10th of July 2016, 40 diaspora Jews from North America, Europe and one eager Australian came together in Bethlehem in order to stand up and say that “Occupation is Not Our Judaism”.
There were many anxieties from family members of participants, particularly concerned for our safety as Jews. My journey in particular was in spite of this very concern. I decided that as a Jew and a Zionist I needed to meet and speak with the actual people – the men, women and children – who are too often grouped as “the Palestinians”. And I can say with no exaggeration that my heart and mind were opened as I heard their stories, worked side by side in the summer heat and witnessed injustice unfold before me. Everywhere we went, I was welcomed with warm greetings and open arms. People were honest, genuine and above all else, inspiring despite their challenging reality.
I met Awdah, a Palestinian Bedouin man from the village of Umm Al-Khair (located in Area C of the West Bank). The homes of the village and the community center we ate lunch in, all have demolition orders from the Israeli Civil Administration. Despite residents owning deeds and documentation for the land, they are not allowed to build anything more than 30cm off the ground. They can apply for building permits but 99% of the time they are rejected. The main source of income for the village comes from agricultural work. However, when the village does not receive adequate water or electricity from the Israeli Civil Administration, this makes it near impossible to work the land, not to mention, live. Our mission there was simple, to clear as much of the land from weeds and rocks, and then plant Za’atar cash crops. This is what the community wanted, explaining to me that selling the Za’atar would produce significant income for the community and allow them to help youths finishing school, attend university in Hebron. When I asked Awdah what it meant for us to be there, he said he was so happy and thanked me so much.
I met Ahmad, a 7-year-old Palestinian boy from Susiya. Full of energy, smiles and high-fives. For him, our Judaism was intriguing, as he joined us for the candle lighting and the Shabbat service. He doesn’t know what we are saying but claps along enthusiastically. When we leave Susiya the next day he makes sure to go around and hug each and every one of us.
I met Fatima, a Palestinian woman with years of wisdom. She was expelled from her home some 30 years ago and now returns for the first time with her family and community. The multi-generational group of Susiya residents, from the elders of the village to the newborn babies, walked together with members of CJNV, some 200 meters down the road from where they live now. We entered what is now an archaeological site for an ancient synagogue. But to these people it is where they were born and grew up. They tell their stories to the kids and grandkids that are full of joy and excitement. For many of the adults it was an extremely emotional experience to come back. I imagined my grandparents showing me around where they used to live in Hungary before the Holocaust and I took pride in being able to accompany these families to this special place that they are normally forbidden to enter.
I met Issa, an intelligent, rational, warm and humorous Palestinian resident of Hebron. He is the founder of the organization Youth Against Settlements (YAS). He has dedicated his life to learning strategies of non-violence and through YAS, teaching young people the importance of non-violent resistance. He shared his experiences of being arrested multiple times by the IDF, being harassed by settlers and being stripped of the most basic human rights. I sat and listened intently, trying to soak up every word. I found myself wishing that everyone I knew could be sitting there and meeting Issa because despite the brutal reality of Hebron and the occupation, I’d never before met someone like Issa, someone so inspirational and hopeful in his pursuit for freedom and justice.
There were so many more as well, but I don’t want you to read about them from me. I want you to meet them for yourselves. I want you to see and experience the occupation for yourselves and then decide where you stand. For the sake of my Jewish liberation, I need to see the liberation of the Palestinian people as well. Jews need to unite together against injustice, especially when it is happening in our name. To recognize your own weaknesses is one of the most difficult struggles but it is not anti-Semitic and it is not anti-Israel to say that these people deserve to live full and equal lives. And for this to happen we must end the occupation.
As a diaspora Jewish organization, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence (CJNV) strives to find the balance between asserting our voice and values as Jews who are implicated in Israel’s policies and actions, while also recognizing that it is Israelis and the Palestinians themselves who ultimately must find an equitable and sustainable way to live in close proximity to each other. On this trip we used our Jewish privilege to stand in solidarity with Palestinians and Israelis who oppose the occupation and want to see justice and equality prevail. We were observant and secular Jews, rabbis, human rights activists and students. Most of our action took place in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills, some of the most difficult places for Palestinians, where it can truly be said – “Existence is Resistance”.
Susiya goes to Susya
I joined 40 Jews from around the world who visited the South Hebron Hills with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence (CJNV). We were here to take the whole Bedouin village of Susiya to visit their original home across the road. The Bedouin people tell of the time in the 1980s when strangers came to their village with equipment and began to excavate. Women brought the strangers coffee and food – they are traditionally welcoming to strangers. Some weeks later the people were evacuated from the village. They returned some days later to try to retrieve some of the belongings they had left behind, but a huge fence had been built. Some of them tunneled under it at night. Now older villagers who remember this time, and their descendants, live in the village of tents nearby, and although Palestinians are in theory allowed to visit what is now an archaeological park, they are rarely admitted, nor do they even try.
Susiya Archaeological site is that of an ancient Hebrew town, and tells the Jewish history of the area. Pride of place is occupied by the ancient synagogue, on top of which had been built a mosque, but there is no mention of this. We bought in advance 100 tickets to the site, and the older residents and small children used our bus, whilst the rest of the villagers walked with us past the visitor centre, where an Israeli settler family were celebrating a bar mitzvah. Excited children ran amongst the ruins. Older people gazed about and smiled. At the synagogue we had planned to have a joint prayer for both Jews and Muslims, but everyone decided it was too exciting to settle to prayer. Elders of the village pointed out where they had lived, where their goats had roamed, where they had tended gardens. One of the park volunteers came and watched for a while, but it turned out his concern was whether we had bought enough tickets – and also that children may fall down one of the many holes.
On the walk back a man and his mother invited us into one of the caves. Our guide Amiel from the Israeli human rights organization Ta’ayush, had done some research on how long cave dwellers had been in this area, because many Israelis will tell you that they are very recent arrivals, but Amiel had found the diary of an English traveller who spoke of cave dwellers here in the 1860s. “This is where this woman gave birth to me and my brother and sisters” – announced Abed. His mother was sitting on the little ledge, beaming a radiant smile. Another cave nearby had been the home of Hajisara – the local midwife until her death not long ago. Now there is nothing to mark her, but just an information board with stories of local Jewish history.
Susiya is in the area of the West Bank known as Area C, designated after the Oslo accords as temporarily under the military and civil control of the Israeli army. Over 20 years later this is still the situation. Strict land laws make it impossible for the people to build legally or develop necessary infrastructure. Hence they live under constant threat of eviction and demolitions. For them the slogan holds true “Existence is Resistance”.
The following day we returned to Susiya where the people had invited us to perform our Sabbath rituals. Some of the children joined us, lighting candles and listening to the singing and chanting. As the sun went down we all watched the sunset together. Two cars turned up as we stood in a circle silently. They contained the 6 Israeli activists who had just been arrested whilst on an action with us in Hebron. But that’s another story for another post.
Since writing up this experience this piece came through from Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel.
“Refusal by the state to continue dialogue regarding the authorization of Susya implies an increased threat of demolitions occurring to 40% of the village. Were this to occur, the already very difficult humanitarian conditions existing in the village would be greatly exacerbated._
Continuation of dialogue between residents and the state now depends on Israel’s new minister of defense.
For the most part, the situation in Susya will be decided by the High Court in an upcoming hearing scheduled for Monday August 1 at 9am. During this hearing, the Court will decide if it will accept the state’s request to immediately and without prior notice demolish 40% of the village. Most of the structures currently slated for demolition are residential, providing living quarters to approximately 100 people.
It is important to acknowledge that the IDF’s Civil Administration – responsible for planning in Area C – refuses to issue building permits to the residents of Susya. Over the years, dozens of these requests have been denied during on-going, protracted legal discussions. Faced with no other options, residents are forced to build ramshackle structures and tents on their privately owned land in order to survive the harsh desert conditions. The destruction of these basic structures will cause great deterioration to the living conditions in the village, which are already quite low.
Talks with the Israeli authorities were held over the last three months with the objective of looking into the option of legalizing the village from a planning perspective. However, two weeks ago, this dialogue was abruptly halted and residents were informed that any agreement to continue them was now the responsibility of the new minister of defense. Discussions with senior members of the administration gave rise to suspicions that the village was under the increasing threat of immediate demolitions. These indications, in addition to the demolition of structures in the general area of Susya over the Ramadan holiday — a rare move made by the army — set a dangerous precedent and raise concerns that political considerations have been introduced to the professional planning process. All of this is to the detriment of the local Palestinian population, already suffering under a discriminatory planning system. Urgent action is now needed in order to save Susya.
Action in Hebron
CJNV spent a year or more developing Israeli and Palestinian partners on the ground to inform the work we undertook. Issa Amro from Youth Against Settlements (YAS) was a major partner in Hebron and All That’s Left (ATL) is an Israeli anti-occupation group. Together with these organizations and the owner of the land on which stands an old disused factory, Mohammed Abu Ayesha, we planned to clear the site of rubbish so that it might be used to house equipment to show films for the local Palestinian population of Tel Rumeida. Tel Rumeida is an area of Hebron’s H2 – the area 500 Israeli settlers threaten the daily lives of those Palestinians that still live there. Abu Ayesha’s family live in the so-called Caged House – surrounded by a metal cage to prevent attacks by the settlers.
Wearing tee shirts with the slogan “Occupation is not our Judaism” – we started our work, singing as we went peace songs in English, Arabic and Hebrew. Settlers watched us through a locked gate. We were about 60 people altogether, with addition of several press and TV journalists, including Peter Beinart from Ha’aretz, the New York Times and local media.
Police and army were called. First of all they tried to persuade the owner to put in a complaint against us. When this did not work they told us that this was an illegal gathering. Being under military law any gathering over 10 people can be termed illegal. We carried on working and singing. Issa, who is well known to local police and army, was pushed around a bit, so we surrounded him to keep him safe.
The soldiers went away, but we knew they would be back. When they did return they declared the area a closed military zone and told us all to leave. We knew that without showing us a map outlining the area of the closed zone, they could not move us, so we stayed put. Once they were able to show us the map we allowed them to move us on, but all those with Israeli passports were arrested and taken to Kiryat Arba police station. (Kiryat Arba is an Israeli settlements just outside the city).
Some of us went back to the YAS house and some tried to walk to the police station. We were constantly stopped by soldiers who declared more of the area closed military zones.
We did eventually manage to reach the police station in searing heat, and we stayed for some hours loudly singing – those inside said this was audible and very heartening. Eventually a message came through telling us to go back to Susiya where it was planned to celebrate the Jewish Shabbat. They were confident they would be out soon and would join us there. In fact, as the sun was setting over the hills around Hebron and we stood in a circle finishing our Shabbat service, two cars appeared, and our Israeli friends stepped out to join us watch the sun go down.
Peter Beinart wrote a wonderful article about the action, in which he waxed lyrical about the millennials – the new generation of mainly American Jews – who are now prepared to criticize Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and are throwing out a challenge to diaspora Jews in the US. US tax dollars pay for much of what goes on in occupied Palestine and Jews are becoming increasingly uneasy about what is done in their name.
As an elderly British Jew I felt honored to be present at what many are saying is a turning point.
Silwan and the City of David
Just outside the Jerusalem old city walls lies a new archaeological park called The City of David. There are certainly some interesting finds there, although there is no clear evidence that it is anything to do with King David, or even that such a King actually existed at all. The park is beautifully landscaped, with high walls dripping with bougainvillea. Parties of excited Israeli school children are led around. If you take the trouble to climb up a bit and peek over the walls you will see Palestinian houses, which are part of the area known as Silwan. One Palestinian family even has a constant pass to enter the park, as their house is right inside. To achieve contiguity in the park tunnels have been constructed underneath the houses. Some of the foundations have been compromised. Some years ago a Palestinian girls’ school wall collapsed as result of excavations.
Across the valley of the Pool of Shiloah Silwan district rises up – a typical Arab town with houses layered up the steep hill. But amongst the buildings flutter the occasional large Israeli flag. The area is discovered to have been the site where Yemeni Jews lived in the late 19th century. Some radical Zionist Israelis – mainly dropouts from Yeshivas and young families – have begun to claim houses in the district as their own. Eviction notices are served on Palestinian residents. Several are fighting such orders, some have already been moved on, and some live in a small corner of a building whilst the Israeli settlers restrict their movements in and out.
We met Zuheir Rajabi who is awaiting court decision on his house. We had planned to organize a street party outside his house. There was much excitement. Not only would this be as much fun as any street party, but of course it would be a political statement. Balloons were strung across the street, face painting stall was set up. A barbecue and salads were prepared. Young men performed their local dubke dancing. Young children danced and played football.
Israeli settlers in the vicinity are constantly accompanied by private security guards. A mother with a pushchair and a 3 year old walked past with her guard. The 3 year old clearly wanted to stay and play, encouraged by a small Palestinian child – too young to know that you ignore settler children. The mother was distraught. She tried to pull the child away whilst maneuvering the pushchair on a steep hill. She shouted at the young Palestinian. It was a very sad and poignant sight.
Whilst we were there we also met Jawad of the Abu Nab family. He has already had to leave his house, and lives in rented accommodation across the street. Some of his belongings have been thrown into a basement room of the house now occupied by Israelis. The only way he can reach them is down a very steep ladder into a deep pit where a door goes into the basement. He dared not go down on his own for fear of attack. So 20 of our party accompanied him down the ladder, cleared accumulated rubbish and helped him claim some of his belongings. Settlers above threatened us with fire extinguishers, but all Jawad could do was look up smiling beatifically, holding his baby in his arms.
Jerusalem was, according to the original partition plan into 2 states, to be an internationalized city for all 3 Abrahamic religions. However it is wholly annexed by Israel and its boundaries extended well to the east to include established Israeli settlements like Ma’ale Adumim. An 8 meter high separation wall stands between Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Palestinians in the city have Israeli residency but not citizenship, so they cannot vote. There is much else to say about Jerusalem, but space prevents more than this small sketch.
Umm al Khair – South Hebron Hills
Umm al Khair is a Bedouin village nestling right up against the fence of Karmel Israeli settlement. South Hebron Hills is covered with settlements which are illegal under International law, and settlement outposts which are illegal both under International and Israeli law.
In practice all these settlements have electricity and water provided through the grid, unlike the unrecognized Palestinian villages. These receive services from a local NGO called Comet ME, which builds water filtration gadgets, collection tanks and solar panels for the villages.
We were invited to work with the village on several projects – preparing ground for planting Zatar (thyme) – we had bought 5000 plants – helping to rebuild a demolished house, working with some of the children to paint a mural on the community centre (also threatened with demolition) and rebuilding terrace retaining walls.
Watched by a member of the Israeli army’s Civil Administration – those responsible for ordering the demolition of so-called illegally built structures – we dug up weeds, moved rocks and prepared the ground for ploughing and laying water pipes. Some of us backfilled the foundations of a prefab house that had been delivered by the UN. The mural was designed with children telling us what they would like to feature in it.
Whilst we were there the school certificate results came through and many young people had passed, so we sang and celebrated, and some children danced traditional Bedouin dances. Young men who have already attended university in Hebron, and now teach in the village school or work for local NGOs, do not plan to leave their village. They are committed to staying and seeing an end to the occupation.
Background information about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its effects
Following the 6 day war in June 1967 Israel took over the territories of Gaza, the Golan Heights and the area known as the West Bank (west bank of the Jordan river). These territories had previously been administered by Egypt, Syria and Jordan respectively. 19 years later it looked like progress might be made towards the so-called 2-state solution as the Oslo Accords were signed by Israel and Yasser Arafat for the Palestine Liberation Organisation. But the temporary state of affairs outlined by Oslo as an interim measure is still the status quo 23 years later. To address Israel’s security concerns until a Palestinian state could guarantee security, the West Bank was divided into Areas A, B and C. In Area A, the large conurbations of Palestinians, the newly formed Palestinian Authority took control of almost all functions, In Area B, surrounding villages and populated areas, there was civil control by the PA and security control by the Israeli army and in Area C, 61% of the West Bank, sparsely populated rural areas, Israel took full military and civil control. The city of Hebron, the only Palestinian city with Israeli settlers living right In the middle of it, is a special case, being divided into H1 – with 180,000 Palestinians resident – and H2, the old city, the famous tomb of the patriarchs, the original souk and some surrounding areas, where 600 Israeli settlers live amongst Palestinian residents.
There are now 325,000 Israeli settlers in Area C living in 125 settlements and 100 outposts. According to the Geneva Convention it is illegal for occupying powers to move population of their own into occupied areas, or to expel indigenous people from it. So the international community universally considers these settlements to be illegal. The outposts are illegal also under Israeli law, although in practice, once established, they are protected by the army, connected to water and electricity, and provided with necessary infrastructure.
Bedouin and other agricultural and herding communities living in Area C are vulnerable. Israel has declared much of Area C state land, closed military and firing zones, and land that is too close to settlements for their security to be guaranteed. Strict planning laws apply in Area C. Many of the Bedouin came to the area after they were expelled from the Negev when Israel became a State in 1948. The people lived in caves and tents. When Israelis took control in 1967 if there were no registered owners of the land, or if the owner had been absent from it for more than 3 years, the land was declared state land. There were 4 major tribes around the South Hebron Hills area, each owning their own land, and each respecting each other’s boundaries. As land was given to Israeli settlers, they built on the land the Bedouin saw as their own. I many cases, as in Umm al Kheir, the settlements directly abut Bedouin villages. Karmel settlement started in the early 1980s. In 1964 Sheik Suleiman’s father had purchased the land there and has documentary evidence of the sale and contract. The settlement continues to take more of the grazing land belonging to the Bedouin.
There are many problems for the Palestinians trying to continue their existence in this region. The chief amongst them are the near impossibility of obtaining legal building permits for homes and infrastructure, lack of access to water, settler harassment and regular demolitions and evictions.
According to a 2003 survey,
The average water supply to Palestinians in the West Bank is 63 litres per capita per day.
In 43 out of the 708 Palestinian communities the per capita daily supply is less than 30 litres.
The World Health organisation recommends a per capita minimum of 100 litres.
These figures relate to those communities connected to a supply – 69% of the population of the West Bank only. The rest rely on rain harvesting, springs, wells and water purchased from private suppliers.
Palestinians generally pay 5 times as much as Israelis for the water they do receive
Land and building
Some 70 per cent of Area C is off limits to Palestinians, as it is placed within the jurisdictional boundaries of the settlements’ regional and local councils. Palestinians are not allowed to construct on State land, in military firing zones, nature reserves, the buffer zone around the wall and alongside major roads, leaving them with only 30 per cent of Area C where construction is not a priori prohibited. In order to get legal permission build a master plan must be drawn up and then submitted to the court. This is expensive, and even when Palestinians do manage to do it, only 1% of applications are approved.
So of course expanding families and communities are forced to build illegally, and face regular orders for demolitions, most of which are carried out. Israeli settlers who build illegal outposts also receive demolition orders but only 7% are ever carried out. When they are settlers operate what they call their “price tag” policy, which means they attack Palestinians in retaliation. Many Israeli and international human rights organisation help to rebuild demolished houses, but they are really only buying time. Some villages, like Susiya, and many of the Jordan Valley villages, suffer demolitions several times a year.
The people Um Al Kheir said they have some old friends amongst the nearby settlers who try to help them when others cause problems. It is the young radical settlers, many who have come from outside Israel, who cause most of the problems – throwing stones, attacking children on their way to school, attacking goatherds, burning olive trees – and one older couple in Susiya were so badly beaten they had to be hospitalised.
In 1929 there were Arab riots throughout the then British mandate of Palestine. The Arabs had been promised independence after the 1st world war by the British, and were alarmed by the numbers of Jewish immigrants and the favour they were seen as receiving. 69 Jews in Hebron were massacred, and 19 local Arab families, including the Abu Ayeshas and Abu Heikels of Tel Rumeida sheltered Jews to protect them. Jews left the area after that. In 1968 radical Jews began to come back to Hebron which they saw as an ancient Hebrew city. These were not the original families from 1929, who disapproved of the move. They began to form a settlement in the heart of the old city. In 1993 one of these settlers, Baruch Goldstein, shot and killed 29 and injured 100 Palestinians at prayer in the Ibrahim mosque. For fear of reprisals, the army moved in and shut the whole of the centre of the city to Palestinians. The markets and shops shut down. The people whose houses opened onto the main street, Shuhada Street, had their front doors welded shut and had to leave their houses by climbing over the roofs. The area became a ghost town.
Over 1000 Palestinian housing units have been abandoned. 1,830 (77%) of Palestinian businesses are closed. Palestinians are forbidden to walk or drive on the main streets. The army and police are there to protect the settlers and Palestinians have little recourse to protection or justice. Between 2000 and 2007 Palestinians killed 5 Israelis, whilst Israeli security forces killed 88 Palestinians, 46 of whom, including 9 minors, were not taking part in hostilities at the time.
It is no wonder that an old Israeli lady from one of the Israeli human rights organisations, Machsom Watch, said, “If you think you’ve been bad and are going to hell, and want to find out what it’s like, go to Hebron.”
After I wrote this the following email arrived from one of our delegation:
In days, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will decide whether to destroy 40% of the Palestinian village of Susya, leaving a hundred people homeless. 
Urge Secretary of State John Kerry to make clear the U.S. won’t tolerate the demolition of Susya by signing our petition at MoveOn.
Susya residents live on their agricultural lands, having been expelled from their original homes after an Israeli settlement was established nearby. Systematically denied building permits for decades, the families live in constant fear of demolitions. Parts of their village were bulldozed in 2001, 2006 and 2011.
In July 2015, envoys from every EU state visited the village in solidarity. A month later, the U.S. expressed strong opposition to “any demolitions in the village.” But apparently, these statements have not been enough to make sure these families don’t see their homes destroyed again.
Urge Secretary Kerry to use the full influence of the United States to prevent the demolition of Susya by signing and sharing our petition.
Thanks for all you do to help make U.S. foreign policy more just,
We just launched an emergency call to action for a “Global Shabbat Against Demolition” this coming Friday, August 12th. Read the full call to action in the link (or in the attached PDF) but the idea is to have simultaneous Shabbat solidarity demonstrations around the world in support of Susiya, Um Il-Khier, Umm El-Hiran, and Al Araqib.
I know this is quick but we are counting on our communities to mobilize in this emergency situation and stand with our Palestinian partners. Awdah from Um Il-Khier contacted me yesterday very worried and told me that the settler organization Regavim has been appealing for the demolition of the village since we were there.
Let’s show our friends we’re with them! Please circulate this as far as possible on social media, in your networks/communities, and to anyone you think would be interested in hosting a solidarity Shabbat anywhere in the world. We can use this thread to touch base, coordinate our work, or come up with ideas/content for the demonstrations (for example, T’ruah, who has signed on to this call, suggested incorporating this Torah text study about Bedouin rights or reading one of our blog posts from Susiya out loud).