Village Life in the South Hebron Hills
7th December 2007
It was a Thursday night in central Susiya and Iman and Abed were strutting their stuff. Beautiful, 21-year-old Iman twirled her hands and shimmied her hips in the classic Arabic tradition while Abed, 14, swivelled and kicked with perhaps more exuberance than style.
Click to enlarge all photographs
Their disco music came from a small, tinny-sounding radio, their light from a single, long life bulb, powered by a makeshift wind and solar unit outside. And central Susiya was the middle tent in a cluster of six clinging to a dusty hillside at the southern end of the West Bank.
Two from our team spend one or two nights a week in Susiya and we crawled out of our tent at 5.30am the next morning to watch Iman cooking that day's bread directly on hot stones in a pit oven. Then, as dawn broke we joined Abed as he took out his family's sheep to graze.
For at the top of the far slope sat the white houses with red roofs of the Israeli settlement which has also taken the name of Susiya, and his every move was being watched by a soldier standing guard.
He could not venture far to the right either because there lay an 'outpost' of container homes set up about six months ago by settlers, and to the left there was an army watchtower and land which has been appropriated from the local farmers and planted by settlers.
There is yet a third Susiya, an ancient city lying on the other side of the hill from Iman and Abed's family's tents. Between the 4th and the 9th centuries it was a Jewish city but the most recent inhabitants were Palestinians who lived in dry, roomy caves and simple stone houses.
In 1985 the Israeli authorities decided to excavate and preserve the historic site, which includes an ancient synagogue with a mosaic floor, and declared it a National Park. And the following year they sent the bulldozers to demolish the Palestinians' houses and block up their caves.
Refusing to give up their simple way of life based on their herds of around 2,000 sheep, the 24 families of old Susiya moved into 13 clusters of tents spread over the adjacent hills. And there they have been, clinging to an increasingly precarious existence, for the last 21 years.
A report just out from Israeli NGO Peace Now shows that the IDF's Civil Administration in the West Bank has enforced only 107 out of 3449 (about 3%) of its own orders against illegal settler construction in the last ten years. It says that, in contrast, orders are regularly and vigorously enforced against buildings which are constructed by Palestinians without permits.
Susiya is one of 50 communities under similar pressure in the area. Encircled by settlements, they have suffered extensive harassment by the IDF and numerous physical assaults by fanatical settlers determined to grab their land.
The Palestinians have been unable to use the road past Ma'on Farm - the shortest route between Tuwani and Tuba - or the fields nearby for ten years because of this appalling aggression. So on Saturday, December 1, we joined a protest march organised with the aim of 'reclaiming the land.' Three coachloads of Israeli peace activists from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, including distinguished authors, film makers and academics, came to walk with Palestinian peace workers and internationals - over 200 people in total - to protect a couple of farmers from Tuba as they ploughed their land with donkeys.
After a couple of hours, they succeeded. The IDF announced that the farmers had to bring a map to prove ownership of their fields before they could continue. So we all repaired to Tuba for a welcome cup of tea then retraced the route while settlers scurried through the woods beside us.
"It hasn't happened before partly because it took us a long time to grasp that, if we didn't come here to defend the Palestinians against settlers, no-one else would. We had assumed the police and the army would do it, but they don't."
Though the day was inspiring, I left with a feeling of foreboding. What would happen to the poor, defenceless cave dwellers after the coaches had driven away?
"We thought a hundred times about that," David told me.
"We know that, the minute we go home, the settlers will come
down and people could well be wounded.
"But the villagers of Tuwani and Tuba were 100% in favour of the march and insisted we go ahead. Their life is hell anyway, and this is a moment of hope for them.
"Today is a small skirmish in a long war. We have to keep on plugging away, responding to every provocation and using the media to inform the world about what is going on here. We will never give up and abandon these people to their fate."