Al-Jazeera / September 21, 2023
The Palestinian Bedouin village of Khirbet Susiya has long been under Israeli threat of demolition. Young Palestinians are learning how to fight back.
Khirbet Susiya, occupied West Bank – Heyam Nawajah never knows what to tell her daughter when she asks why they don’t have a home.
“My daughter keeps asking: ‘Why don’t we have a house? Why can’t we build a house? Why can’t I have my own room?’” the Palestinian Bedouin mother of six said.
According to the 31-year-old Heyam, the Nawajahs have lived in Khirbet Susiya since the early 19th century.
Khirbet Susiya, like the other Palestinian Bedouin villages located south of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, is home to small groups of families organized into kinship networks that make a living tending their olive trees and their herds of sheep.
While other villages south of Hebron – known collectively as Masafer Yatta – are located in what Israel labels “Firing Zone 918”, which it has used to justify the destruction of permanent structures and the expulsion of residents living in the villages, Khirbet Susiya’s history follows a series of complex legal mandates by the Israeli government, all of which have been used to justify the same destruction and expulsion.
According to Heyam, her four daughters and two sons have lived their whole lives with the threat that, one day, their home may be demolished.
Khirbet Susiya, in addition to its fertile land and vast stands of olive trees, is home to a number of important archaeological sites. In 1986, the Israeli government used the sites as justification for confiscating the villagers’ land “for public purposes”.
After that, with the help of Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli NGO, the residents of Khirbet Susiya filed numerous petitions with the Israeli Supreme Court seeking to halt the demolition of their homes and other structures.
However, on May 4, 2015, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Civil Administration’s Supreme Planning Council, allowing the demolition of structures in Khirbet Susiya to continue, with the caveat that the Council provide 15 days’ notice to the Palestinian villagers before initiating a demolition.
Since then, demolitions have taken place, and a prefabricated school building was also confiscated in 2020.
Khirbet Susiya remains in a state of limbo. While international attention waned after the 2015 ruling, the Council has the Supreme Court’s green light to proceed with the demolition of all permanent structures in the village. Khirbet Susiya remains at the whim of the Council’s discretion, and, any day, the village could be demolished for good.
The Council has given various reasons for its past demolition orders and for rejecting a proposed master plan for the village, including that Palestinian villages in wider area are too scattered, leading to higher expenses for the administration – despite, as the Israeli NGO B’Tselem points out, no problem with support for the many scattered Jewish settlements in the area and across the occupied West Bank.
Every level of life in Khirbet Susiya is defined by the occupation. The village is not allowed to drill a well for water, so residents are forced to rely on the services of the Israeli government, which are not only expensive but unreliable.
And while Khirbet Susiya’s school is equipped to teach students until the 10th grade, older children are forced to walk to a neighbouring village for their studies. However, in doing so, they pass directly by an illegal settlement, Susya, and have frequently been attacked with stones.
“So they [the Palestinian children] start using different ways, walking through the olive fields to come home. And in the winter, it’s muddy, so it makes their shoes and clothes dirty,” Heyam said.
When asked if any of the Jewish settlers had been able to injure the children, Fatima, one of Heyam’s cousins, became defensive.
As a leader in the village, she views it as her responsibility to ensure the safety of all the children in Khirbet Susiya, not just her own.
“We won’t let the kids be alone,” she said. “The settlers can’t approach the kids. We won’t give them the chance.”
But the thought of leaving their village, their land, their culture, and their home behind for the Israelis to take is unthinkable. To them, Khirbet Susiya will always be home.
“I knew a woman that left [Khirbet Susiya] for five days. She couldn’t sleep. She prefers to be here,” Heyam recalled. She then added, “Here is still better for raising children. It’s clean, clean air and clean water.”
While daily life in the villages south of Hebron is always at the will of the occupation, the young women of Khirbet Susiya are as concerned about getting married, attending university, and what they’ll be doing with their holidays, as any other teenager in the West Bank.
Twelve-year-old Jenan Nawajah wants to be a doctor, and so does Ritell Nawajah. One young woman, Eliaf Nawajah, had a different answer. She wants to study psychology at Al-Quds Open University in Yatta, located 32km (20 miles) north of Khirbet Susiya, and would like to eventually be a social worker just like Fatima.
Eliaf has witnessed firsthand the occupation’s effects on the wellbeing of the children living in Khirbet Susiya.
“Some kids can’t sleep, and others wet their beds,” she added. As Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) corroborated in a recent report, “the increasingly coercive and oppressive measures enforced by Israeli authorities [affects] the physical and mental health of residents in Masafer Yatta. “It’s connected to what the kids suffer from,” Eilaf said, which is why studying psychology is so appealing to her.
“They’re always first in line. Men usually go to work [in the fields and hills outside the village], and who stays at home and in the villages? Women and their children who are facing the attacks,” said Sameeha Huriani, co-founder of local NGO Youth of Sumud.
In Huriani’s village, At-Tuwani, and in Khirbet Susiya, where shepherding is the dominant occupation, the men typically leave for the fields during the day, while the women and children remain at home, preparing food and occasionally tending to their livestock.
Huriani, who is currently studying English at Al-Quds Open University in Yatta, is spearheading a variety of initiatives in the wider south Hebron region to protect the women and children, who in her view, bear the brunt of the occupation.
Huriani says that due to the gendered division of labour in the occupied West Bank, and especially in the villages south of Hebron/Al-Khalil, when the settlers enter the villages to attack the Palestinians, it is the women and children who are left to defend themselves.
Along with her brother Sami, Sameeha founded the Youth of Sumud in 2017 to promote non-violent resistance as a means of countering the Israeli occupation. Like Youth Against Settlements, which Palestinian activist Issa Amro founded in 2008, Youth of Sumud works to support community resilience in the face of occupation.
Huriani’s village, At-Tuwani, is located just one kilometre from Ma’on and Havat Ma’on, settlements constructed in 1982 and 2001 respectively. At-Tuwani is frequently the subject of international media coverage due to attacks by Israeli settlers. As the settlements have grown, so too have the attacks.
“Here, they’re controlling every single detail of our life. Even our homes, our freedom of movement, and access to our land,” Huriani said. With the Palestinians fighting for their right to the land, the settlers have learned to target the villagers’ livelihoods.
In 2019, settlers painted “death to Arabs [Palestinians]” on stones outside the village and cut down 15 olive trees. The Israeli army frequently destroys farmers’ crops during military exercises, and in 2004 and 2005, locals say that both their barley and their wells were poisoned by settlers.
Like in At-Tuwani, the families of Khirbet Susiya have learned that in order to protect their children from settlers, all villagers must take part in the defence of their community.
Funded and built by the NGO Save the Children in 2021, Khirbet Susiya’s playground is in its second iteration.
After being demolished by the Israeli army in 2015, under the pretence that it was an illegal structure, Fatima and other community leaders worked to secure funding to replace what the Israeli government destroyed. It has yet again become a staple of life in the community.
“They all come to play on Fridays and Saturdays in the springtime. You can see the playground full of kids playing. Locals from the village sometimes don’t have space to play,” Heyam said.
But as the villagers of Khirbet Susiya have learned, whenever they find a way to survive the brutal occupation and standing demolition orders, another obstacle is put in their way.
On November 6th, 2021, Israeli soldiers were filmed escorting settlers as they entered the village’s playground.
But this time, as Fatima described, “The [children] were scared the settlers were going to break their toys. So they went to confront them.”
According to her, a video published of the incident by the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem was actually filmed by the children using the strategies her brother taught them.
Reflecting on the incident, Fatima added, “When they are one, they can defend themselves, and their toys.”
She is currently working to find the funding to install a security camera system in the village so that in case the settlers were to attack when adults were not present to defend the children, she would have proof. “There’s no privacy here,” she concluded.
Ideally for Fatima, the children would be free to play without supervision, walk to school by themselves, and enjoy the freedom of adolescence, but instead, she and her fellow parents have no choice but to restrict their movement.
Fatima has worked with European and American NGOs to host parenting classes in the village’s community centre, hosted self-defence workshops for the village’s children, and has done what she can to protect her village from demolition.
She says that the Israeli justice system presumes Palestinians to be guilty until proven innocent, and without any evidence to the contrary, they risk becoming one of the thousands of Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli jails.
“The young people aren’t educated and don’t know their rights – what they have to do, what they can do, and what they cannot do. If they don’t know, it’s easier for the soldier to keep attacking,” Huriani said.
So, Huriani has worked with Youth Against Settlements, the Youth of Sumud, and the elders of At-Tawani to teach the village’s children how to react if they were to be arrested, how to film settlers and soldiers, and what to do if they are attacked.
“They have enough power to stop all the activism that we can do. They can kill us. They can arrest us. We believe in non-violent resistance because we believe in peace,” Huriani said.
As the Nawajahs live their lives in legal limbo, awaiting the arrival of either Jewish settlers or the Israeli military that could spell the end of their village, children, like Jenan and Ritell, still find space for joy amid uncertainty.
The reality of life in Khirbet Susiya is not lost on them, but they choose to keep resisting, even if playing at the playground is all they can muster.
Theia Chatelle is a freelance journalist based in New Haven, Connecticut