Gill Swain photograph

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

Iman dancing in the tent that is her home

Abed having fun dancing

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.

At 7.30 pm the light suddenly went out and the radio died as that day's electricity supply came to an end.
But Iman and Abed, both members of the Nawaja'a family, were still smiling as they rolled out their sleeping mats.
The evening was as exciting as life gets in Susiya and they went to bed happy.

The tiny windmill and solar panel providing the village's only source of power,
installed by the Arab-Jewish ngo, Ta'ayush

Hamoudi, aged three, playing peek-a-boo

Iman making the family's bread at dawn

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.

The sheep obediently followed him down the slope from the tents into the valley and up the other side, nibbling on sparse dry grass and bushes as they went. Half way up the far slope, he stopped. There was much better grazing to be had further up, but Abed dared not go on.

Abed with his sheep

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.

Village patriarch, Mohamed Nawaj'ah, with his sons and grandsons outside his home.
The Israeli settlement of Susiya is in the distance, spacious white houses with red roofs

The third Susiya - the archaeological site, with the remains of the demolished Palestinian village behind and the new settler outpost on the top of the hill

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.

They don't choose to live in tents. They would prefer to build a new village as cosy and smart as the Israeli settlement that was established in 1983. But Susiya is in Area C of the West Bank, under the control of the Israeli Defence Force, and Palestinians in Area C are virtually never given permits to build.

Even their tents were demolished in 2001 which prompted Israeli peace activists and lawyers to help them launch a legal battle. This is still going on but the reality is that the people could be cleared off the land at any time. Meanwhile, settlers have erected a couple of illegal outposts on the site of old Susiya, without any interference from the IDF.

A child born in a tent in Susiya

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.

Sameera, aged seven, at the village of Tuwani

Women preparing the evening meal in a cave in Tuba

In nearby Tuwani, a village of humble stone dwellings many of them under demolition orders, and Tuba, where the people live in caves, settlers from the notorious illegal outpost of Ma'on Farm have poisoned water cisterns, poisoned and stabbed sheep and beaten up farmers, their children and internationals who tried to protect them - all attacks documented by Israeli peace groups such as B'Tselem and Ta'ayush.

Homework time in a cave in Tuba

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.

The march of Palestinian and Israeli peace activists to protect the two farmers ploughing with a donkey, December 2007

Jewish settlers from Ma'on trying to persuade the Israeli Defence Force to stop the march

Six army and four police vehicles arrived and around 50 security personnel spread along the route while 15 or 20 settlers ran out of the forest which hides the cabin dwellings of Ma'on Farm to remonstrate with the soldiers and try to get the ploughing stopped.


A Jewish peace activist passionately arguing with a settler

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.

The situation was tense, farcical, and heartbreaking: so much human energy and resources expended over a couple of poor farmers tilling a patch of dust with donkeys. But it was highly significant too, according to David Shulman, author of a new book called "Dark Hope" about the four years he spent as a peace activist in the area

"The truly amazing and crucial thing is that for the first time a large group of Palestinians marched together with Israelis up the same road in the face of settlers. This is the future," he said.

David Shulman (centre, carrying jacket), watched by settlers from Ma'on Farm, on the road where they attacked Palestinian children from Tuba on their way to school.

"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."

Mohamed Nawaj'ah with Susiya's olive trees, chopped down by settlers, December, 2007

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."

Report on settler violence in Susiya,
Settler_assault_shepherd_in_Khirbet_Susiya.asp Ta'ayush

Peace Now,
Christian Peacemaker Teams in Tuwani,
David Shulman's 'Dark Hope',