Nasser Nawaj’ah held Laith’s hand as, beside me, they walked down the dirt and pebble path of Old Susya. Nasser is 33 years old, his son 6. Nasser’s jaw was set and every few moments he glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone was approaching. Until Laith piped up with his question, the only sounds were our footsteps and the wind, against which Nasser was wearing a wool hat and a pleated brown jacket.
“Why did they take our home?” the little boy asked.
“Why did they take it? Good question,” replied Nasser, pausing to choose his words carefully. “They don’t want Palestinians. They don’t want us here.”
Laith was, in fact, asking about something that had happened 29 years ago when his father was a young boy. But he could just as well have been referring to the imminent threat of expulsion facing his family and his community today.
I had spent the previous night with Nasser and his family in their tent on their farmland in Khirbet Susya in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank. Since 1986, they have have lived there, one-third of a mile from their old home, which is now an Israeli archeological park. Perched on the hill above us is an Israeli settlement built on land occupied by Israel in 1967. That settlement, which is considered illegal under international law, was established in 1983 and is also called Susya. Where we now are, a few hundred meters away across the road, was once Old Susya, the former village of Nasser’s family.
I had mentioned to Nasser earlier that morning that I wanted to see Old Susya. As a foreigner, I could purchase a ticket to the archaeological site and enter without any problem. For Nasser, a Palestinian, it was a different story. He had tried twice to visit the site of the village and cave where he was born without much success, but decided to try again with me. This time he would bring along his 6-year old son.
Nasser’s parents were born in El-Jaretain, a village in the Naqab desert in what is now Israel. They were pushed out of their home in 1948, during the mass displacement accompanying the founding of that country. After their expulsion from El-Jaretain, they joined relatives who had lived for decades in the ancient caves of Old Susya. A Palestinian village had existed there since at least 1830, when it was first mentioned in written records.
Though his family’s origin is in El-Jaretain, Old Susya is home for Nasser.
“Our village resides in our memory, and I want it to be in our children’s memory, the memory of the children of Susya,” Nasser said, explaining why he decided to bring Laith with him today. “This is their village, their real village, from which they were expelled in 1986. They have to see it, feel it, remember it, know its features. This is our heritage.”
Nasser first attempted to return to Old Susya several years ago, accompanied by his father and an Israeli friend from the human rights organization B’Tselem for which Nasser works. The Israeli army kicked them out, but not before his father was able to show him the cisterns where he had watered his sheep and the cave in which Nasser had been born. A few weeks before my visit, he tried a second time, buying tickets to the archaeological park and briefly getting in. Once again, he told me, Israeli soldiers wouldn’t let him stay. “They told us Palestinians were not allowed in, that this is a closed area, and kicked us out.”
Nasser fully expected to be ejected again, but for some reason, the soldiers stayed in their jeep at the entrance to the site and left us alone.
“Where is our home?” Laith asked as soon as we were inside.
“You want to see our home? Okay, I’ll show you,” Nasser replied, taking his young son by the hand and guiding him deeper into the village.
“Is this our house?” Laith asked again moments later with the persistence only a 6-year-old can muster.
“We’re coming to it, hold on.”
Nasser pointed out the cistern from which their family used to draw water, now covered with iron bars and filled with pigeons. Laith peered inside. “Are these pigeons ours?”
“No, pigeons belong to God.”
Nasser stopped walking and stood looking at one particular cave.
“Here?” Laith asked, tugging his father’s arm.
Nasser was silent for a moment before replying, “Here.”
He led his son down stone steps and through a rectangular entrance hewn from white and pink rock. “Here it is,” he said, pausing before entering the dark, damp underground structure. “This is our cave. My mother gave birth to me here.”
Laith wanted to know if water dripped from the ceiling back then as it does now, if the entrance had been open then, and if there had been electricity in the cave when Nasser was a child. But he had an even more pressing question, one he kept asking throughout the day: “Why did they take it from us, Daddy?”
Expelled for Life
Nasser was only 4 years old in June 1986 when, after the remains of an ancient synagogue were discovered in Old Susya, Israel’s Civil Administration—the military body through which it manages the Occupied Palestinian Territories—declared the village an archaeological site and expropriated it. Nasser doesn’t remember being driven out of the cave in which he was born, but his 70-year-old mother, Um Jihad, recalls it vividly.
Each summer during the harvest, the villagers would travel to their agricultural lands to pick figs, olives, and grapes. At the end of the harvest, they would return to Old Susya. One summer, when they tried to go back, she remembers, they found that “the Israeli army had fenced off the village and locked us out.” Bulldozers had blocked the caves and destroyed their homes.
Um Jihad was determined to retrieve her possessions. She approached the new gate just then being erected. Bedouin Arabs were working on it. “Ma’am, you better leave,” she remembers one of them warning her. “They are going to beat you up.”
Um Jihad knew who “they” meant. Israelis from the settlement of Susya, backed by the Israeli military, had already taken over the village.
“I will get my belongings even if they shoot me dead,” she replied and returned to her cave, wrapped her possessions in bundles, and carried them one by one back to the gate. By the time she had wrapped her last bundle, the gate was closed and locked and the Bedouin workers had left. She was trapped inside Old Susya with hostile settlers and soldiers. Undaunted, Um Jihad climbed atop a small hill next to the gate and tossed the bundles over one by one. Then she dug a hole beneath the fence and crawled out just as a soldier ran towards her, rifle in hand.
“I was young and fearless back then,” she said with a laugh. “Now, I scare easily.”
Along with many of the other 25 families from Old Susya, Um Jihad refused to abandon her land. Instead of moving to the nearby town of Yatta, they settled on their farming and grazing lands, building rough houses or shacks there or moving into caves on that land, and they continued to call their community Susya, or Khirbet Susya.
But Um Jihad’s problems and those of the rest of her community had only begun. “From then on, we lived in constant suffering and harassment,” she told me. “That Susya settlement is the mother of all our troubles. They keep uprooting our trees. Once one of their bulldozers almost ran me over while flattening the land.”
She describes several violent incidents the villagers endured at the hands of the settlers. About 15 years ago, she tells me, her cousin Mahmoud, a father of 12, was shot and killed by settlers.
Nasser has been beaten up multiple times—by soldiers as well as settlers. Um Jihad recalls one such incident from 2001 after Yair Har-Sinai, an Israeli settler from the Susya settlement, was murdered by a Palestinian. Though Har-Sinai’s killer was not a resident of Khirbet Susya, many left the village in fear of the retaliation that was sure to come. Um Jihad’s daughters, however, wanted to stay and the teenaged Nasser refused to leave his sisters. “The settlers caught Nasser, kicked and punched him,” his mother said. “He was bleeding from the ears and nose. He was bedridden for two months.”
In another incident, Nasser (who was by then a well-known activist) was at the top of the hill near the Susya settlement when settlers started shouting “Nasser Nawaj’ah, we are going to slaughter you!” and shooting at him. “He rolled down all the way to the valley. He rolled until he reached the olive groves and ran away,” Um Jihad told me.
In addition to settlers physically assaulting villagers, sabotaging their water cisterns, destroying their caves, cutting down their trees, and vandalizing their fields, Susya and associated illegal outposts (unauthorized Israeli settlements) have seized approximately 740 acres of the villagers’ land, preventing them from accessing it to graze their sheep. On top of this, the Israeli military has repeatedly attempted to expel the already displaced villagers from Old Susya from their present homes.
In 1990, soldiers loaded many of the villagers onto trucks, drove them 15 kilometers north of Khirbet Susya, and then dumped them on the side of the road by a landfill. They returned to their agricultural lands, however, and rebuilt.
In 2001, after the murder of Yair Har-Sinai, soldiers accompanied by settlers violently and without warning expelled the community. Trees were uprooted, livestock slaughtered, wells and caves destroyed, and villagers beaten and arrested.
An interim decision by the Israeli High Court permitted the villagers to return, but Israel’s Civil Administration has routinely denied them permits to build homes or pens for their livestock, and they have not been able to repair their caves. When temporary structures are built, they are declared illegal and some are demolished.
Um Jihad’s voice took on an edge of defiance as she summarized her community’s plight: “They demolish and we rebuild.”
“If I Lose This, I Lose My Life As Well”
The residents of Khirbet Susya have not been alone in their struggle. For protection and as witnesses, Israeli activists from organizations like Ta’ayush, a grassroots movement challenging racism and inequality between Jews and Arabs, have accompanied the village’s shepherds when they graze their sheep close to Israeli settlements. And Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) has played a central role in the village’s legal battles since the 2001 expulsion.
The villagers’ situation deteriorated further in 2012 when the Susya settlement teamed up with the right-wing Israeli organization Regavim, which promotes an openly Zionist agenda to “protect national lands and properties,” and filed a petition with the High Court of Justice. The petition demanded the demolition of all structures in Khirbet Susya. Ironically, it described the village as an “illegal outpost” and a “security risk” to the Susya settlers. Incidents of violence and destruction against the Palestinian community soon intensified.
Late that year, the lawyers of RHR submitted a proposed master plan on behalf of Khirbet Susya to the Civil Administration. Its response, released in October 2013, read, in part: “We see the current plan as yet another attempt to keep a poor, downtrodden population from advancing.… It is an attempt to prevent the Palestinian woman from breaking the cycle of poverty and depriving her of educational and professional opportunities. Similarly, by sentencing the Palestinian child to life in a small, stultified village with no means for development, the plan keeps the child from being aware of all the opportunities available to any other person. It is our recommendation that the plan be rejected out of hand.” The Civil Administration recommended that the villagers move closer to the nearby town of Yatta.
Nasser was not fooled by such protestations of concern. The Civil Administration’s moves, he told me, have nothing to do with conditions’ not being good enough for the villagers. If that truly were their concern, then they would permit Khirbet Susya to develop. “This is the master plan for the Susya settlement: they need this land without Palestinians in order to expand the settlement.”
In February 2015, RHR petitioned the High Court of Justice, appealing the rejection of the village’s master plan and requesting that an interim injunction be issued to prevent further demolition until a ruling on the petition is made. On May 5, the court refused to issue the injunction, giving the Israeli military the green light to proceed with demolition even while a ruling is still pending. Five days later, an inspector from the Civil Administration came to Khirbet Susya and took photographs and measurements of the village’s structures. Nasser and his family have every reason to believe that expulsion from their homes is imminent.
The villagers and their supporters quickly mobilized, organizing large demonstrations and erecting an international tent where solidarity activists from all over the world are keeping up a 24-hour presence. Nasser himself is determined to fight on. “This is my land. My mother gave birth to me in Susya. My father is a refugee from 1948, and I am a refugee from 1986. I don’t want my children to be refugees in 2015. This is my place. My life is here; the land, the olive trees, the grapes. If I lose this, I lose my life as well.”
Um Jihad agrees. “We suffered and lived our entire lives in Susya, from the day we left El-Jaretain to the day we arrived in Susya. Our sheep and land are in Susya, and we’re staying in our land to protect it. If we die, we’ll die steadfast in our land.”
Um Jihad sitting in her family’s tent in Khirbet Susya. Photo Credit: Nasser Nawaj’ah
Standing in his birth-cave, Nasser told Laith to hold still for a photo and then handed him the camera, so that the boy could record his heritage.
I asked Nasser how it felt to show his son the place of his birth. “I feel something, but there are no words for it,” he replied. He struggled for a moment to articulate his emotions, but broke off in mid-sentence, took Laith’s hand, and walked with him towards the cave’s exit. Father and son climbed the stairs out into the brightness of the cold winter day, where they would continue to explore Old Susya, before returning to their current home in Khirbet Susya—another home from which they may be expelled at any moment.