The Truth About Palestinian Susya

The issue of Palestinian Susya has become a major flashpoint for Israel in global politics. According to one narrative, Israel’s plan to destroy the homes and other buildings in the village of Susya — and expel the residents — is an example of brutal discrimination which severely violates the dignity and basic rights of the people who live there. According to another narrative, we have to put “Palestinian Susya” in scare quotes, because Susya is an imaginary village, a fabrication cooked up by the Palestinian Authority and the EU to take over state land in Area C. I want to tell you what I think is the truth about Palestinian Susya.

Where I’m Coming From
We all know that nobody is objective. Everybody has their particular perspective. Mine is that I am a religious Jew and a Zionist. I made aliyah to Israel from the U.S. in 1988 because I believed then, as I do now, in the importance of Jewish national life in Eretz Yisrael. For me, that meant making aliyah, serving as a soldier and an officer in the I.D.F, and making my life here. Over the last decades I’ve lived in Jerusalem with my wife and three sons. Two of them are presently serving in the I.D.F. I see myself as part of Jewish national life and, as a religious Jew, I believe that our national life in the Land carries special religious significance.

If you’re familiar with the cultural landscape of Israel, you already know that I share a lot with the world of Israeli settlers. I even resonate with some of the religious Zionist messages expressed in the stories told to justify the destruction of Palestinian Susya. One such story appears in a report by the Yesha Council, in partnership with the NGO Regavim, called Susiya – The Palestinian Lie [See SPL in the bibliography below]. They claim that how we behave towards Palestinian Susya is “a national test for Israel” [SPL 8]. I would expand and argue that Susya is a test not only of Jewish nationality, but also of Judaism as culture and religion. What we do in Susya reflects, and partially determines, who we are as a people and what our relationship to Eretz Yisrael is about. These are issues at the core of religious Zionist theology.

But another integral part of my religious Zionist world view involves human rights. I see in the global human rights movement the first cooperative attempt of the human species to fulfill the Noachide commandment of Dinim: God’s commandment that all humans be protected by just law. The Rabbis teach (Sanhedrin 56a) that all human beings are required to establish “dinim” or laws. Ramban, the medieval sage, explains that these laws are necessary “for the life of humanity, through establishing civilized communities and peace among human beings …” [See bibliography: Ramban]. International human rights law is the closest our species has come to turning this ideal — vital for dignified human life everywhere — into reality. I believe that the struggle for human rights is a divine imperative at the core of what Avodat Hashem – service to God – means in our generation.

I know that for some readers the idea that modern international law is an attempt to fulfill a Biblical Commandment per the Babylonian Talmud seems bizarre. But exactly that thesis was championed by pioneers of religious Zionist thought such as Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn, Rabbi Moshe Kalfon Hacohen, and Rabbi Chaim David Halevi [see bibliography: Rabbis]. These rabbis taught not only that protecting all people through international law was a divine imperative, but that it is core to the historical mission of the People Israel. One reason why rebuilding Jewish national life in Eretz Yisrael was so important in their eyes was so that we, as a modern state, help establish international law. Now, I admit that these views were not influential for religious Zionism. But this movement has badly lost its way. I believe that now is the time for us to internalize the alternative vision laid out by these rabbis regarding what the fusion of Judaism and Israel should mean for the world.

These elements taken together — the religious meaning of Jewish national life in Eretz Yisrael and the centrality of human rights to the mission of the People Israel — set a spotlight on Palestinian Susya. First and foremost, what’s at stake here is the fate of Susya’s residents. But their fate is also a testimony to the meaning of Israel and Judaism for today’s world. What happens to the Palestinians of Susya is the ultimate test for Rabbis Hirschensohn, Kalfon, and Halevi. Is the State of Israel a force for the protection of all people through the just rule of law? Or have we betrayed this core element of our mission? I believe that no one who cares about Israel or Judaism can remain indifferent to Israeli policy in Susya.

A Brief History of Susya
I will now present an overview of the story as I see it. I assume that you are doubtful about the truth of my claims. Therefore, after I present the overview, I will present evidence that my claims are true. The evidence will consist of Israeli government documents and testimony by Israeli experts.

In the Southern Hebron hills lie the lands upon which sit Palestinian Susya, Jewish Susya, and the ruins of ancient Susya. What are these places? The ruins of ancient Susya are today an archeological site (as we will see, it is the original location of the Palestinian village before they were expelled). The Israeli settlement Susya was established a little more than a kilometer southeast of the ruins. Palestinian Susya is a village that lies between the archeological site and settlement Susya, about half a kilometer (as the crow flies) from the ruins on one side and from the settlement on the other. (Here’s a link to the archeological site on google maps. You can see the settlement of Susya to the south. If you look carefully in satellite mode, you can see Palestinian Susya in between.)

Now, I want you to imagine what was in these lands (all three places that I mentioned: the ancient site, the Palestinian village, and the Jewish settlement) in 1982. As we will see below, this year is of particular importance because it was then that Pliah Albeck, writing for the Israeli government, recorded her expert opinion that there was a Palestinian village sitting on privately owned Palestinian land around the ruins of ancient Susya. Now, the Jewish settlement of Susya was founded in 1983, so they weren’t there yet. So how should we imagine these lands back in 1982? There was one small village, whose population consisted only of Palestinians living on privately owned Palestinian land, tilling the soil and tending their flocks. Nobody else lived there.

But that was not for long. As mentioned above, in 1983, the settlement Susya was established and populated by Israeli Jews who, unlike their Palestinian neighbors, did not own any land in the area. The State of Israel and partners provided the settlement with land, adequate planning, the necessary building permits, and the necessities of dignified life such as roads, sewage, electricity, and water. The Jewish settlement of Susya has flourished and grown from only ten families in 1983 to 150 families today [JSO].

In parallel, the State of Israel has moved to destroy Palestinian Susya and expel its inhabitants. In 1986, Israel expropriated the land upon which sits the ruins of ancient Susya and expelled the residents [SPL 5,12]. After being expelled from the village, the residents established new homes on their privately owned agricultural land nearby. Since that time and until today, Israel has refused to issue building permits, failed to provide basic services such as roads, sewage, electricity, and water, and has repeatedly demolished their homes and destroyed their property. Today, almost all the buildings of Palestinian Susya are slated for destruction [B&R].

And so, while the Israel-Palestine conflict is complex, Israeli policy in Susya is simple: Destroy Palestinian Susya through the dispossession and expulsion of her residents, and in parallel establish Jewish Susya, populated with Israeli Jews. I’ll address the significance of this policy later. For now, I’ll present the evidence that my claims are true.

The evidence is in two parts: Part One: They own the land. And Part Two: They were there.

The Facts – Part One: They Own the Land

Israeli Expert #1: Pliah Albeck
We know beyond reasonable doubt that the land of Palestinian Susya is privately owned by Palestinians. Two Israeli experts, working for the government, have checked the official records and made it clear – in writing – that this is their conclusion. This was true of the site of ancient Susya until it was expropriated by Israel in 1986. And it is still true in regard to today’s Palestinian Susya: they are sitting on private Palestinian land.

The first expert is Pliah Albeck, a senior government lawyer known as “The Mother of the Settlements” for her efforts to find land for Jewish settlements on the West Bank. In her learned opinion, submitted to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories on June 10, 1982, she writes as follows:

The [ancient] synagogue is located in an area that is known as the lands of Khirbet Susya, and around it is an Arab village between the ancient ruins. There is a formal registration on the land of Khirbet Susya with the Land Registry, according to which this land, amounting to approximately 3000 dunam [741 acres], is privately held by many Arab owners. Therefore, the area proximal to the [ancient] synagogue is in all regards privately owned. [PA 1]

So, we have an expert opinion given by an Israeli government official who is known for her commitment to building Jewish settlements, and she says there was a Palestinian village in Susya and they sat on privately owned Palestinian land. That’s rock-solid evidence. I can imagine why you might doubt a U.N. report claiming that the land was privately owned by Palestinians. But not Pliah Albeck.

Israeli Expert #2: Moshe Meiri
We learn of Moshe Meiri’s expert opinion from an article that appeared in Haaretz on July 26, 2015. (The English language Haartez version of the article is much less detailed. Below you’ll find my translation of the Hebrew version). Here are selections from the article:

An internal report of the Civil Administration has determined that the lands of the Palestinian Village Susya, that the state plans to destroy soon, are privately owned lands owned by the Palestinian residents who are working them. The internal report, a copy of which has been obtained by Haaretz, is based on the Ottoman Kushan [=ownership deed] from 1881. Until now, the Civil Administration has rejected ownership claims made by the residents…

The Village of Susya lies in the South Hebron mountains, near the city of Yatta, and about 40 families live inside it… The residents claim ownership and present a Kushan [=ownership deed] from the Ottoman period that allegedly proves they own land consisting of 3,000 Dunam. But the Civil Administration, as said above, has denied their claim…

Now it has become clear, based on the new report of the Civil Administration that was distributed about a week ago, that the land in question is owned by the Palestinian residents…

Moshe Meiri, who is responsible for managing land administration for the Civil Administration, checked the Kushan in the context of an appeal and determined that it is valid and recognized. The Kushan is also mentioned in an internal report by Pliah Albeck [see above]. The difficulty regarding the Kushan was that the borders of the property were unclear – following canyons and wadis and difficult to locate precisely. However, Meiri checked the Kushan in detail and states that the area included inside it includes the property of the Jabor family, and also the Nawaja family.

And so, we find that yet another Israeli government expert checked the Palestinian claims of ownership and found them to be true. Meiri further revealed that specific families whose homes in todays’ Palestinian Susya are slated for destruction, such as the Nawaja family, are listed in valid ownership deeds. Thus we’ve found that two Israeli experts, working for the government, have verified Palestinian ownership claims.

The Facts — Part Two: They Were There

Before presenting the evidence that the Palestinians of Susya not only owned the land but also lived on it, I need to debunk two absurd arguments often enlisted to claim “Palestinian Susya never existed” [See SPL]. The first claim is that aerial photographs prove that there was no Palestinian Susya. This claim is absurd because both the Palestinian residents of Susya, and the Israeli experts (including those quoted in the report “Palestinian Susya Never Existed”, see SPL 4,11), testify that the population lived in caves. Obviously, since they did not build free standing housings, such houses will not be seen in aerial photographs. The photographs do reveal, however, that the residents worked the land (see the obvious markings of crops, and previously worked fallow land, in the aerial photographs supplied by in the same report, SPL 6).

The second absurd claim is that since the residents of Susya (allegedly) spent part of the year away from Susya, their village is not a village and their property is forfeit. Since we’re talking about privately owned homes on privately owned land, even if they were there only a minority of the year, the idea that their property is forfeit due to their time away is ridiculous. The claim is even more absurd because the testimony brought in favor of the idea that they were only part-time residents specifically states that the Palestinian residents of Susya lived in their Susya homes most of the year, 6-8 months, from October-November to April-May [SPL 11]. That same testimony emphasizes that the same families would return to the same caves. And since these are their homes, that makes perfect sense. If in fact these families spent the minority of the year away from Susya (and that’s not clear because the residents say otherwise), that does not make one iota of difference.

And now to the evidence that they were there. Several Israeli experts have testified that the Palestinians lived in their homes in Susya until they were expelled by Israel in 1986.

The first expert is David Grossman, a professor emeritus of geography at Bar Ilan University. He writes [DG 226]:

In 1986 one could still find about 25 families who lived in the caves of Khirbet Susya, but they were evicted when a tourism site was developed in that place. At the time of Susya eviction, many inhabited caves were in nearby territories. About 16 families lived in caves at Khirbet al-Fauqa, and a smaller number in other khirbahs, such as Shuyukha and Khirbet Zanuta, which was a large cave settlement in the early 19th century.

Another testimony is that of Gideon Sulimani, who participated in the excavation of the archeological site in the 1980′s. Here is part of his affidavit [GS]:

I remember that in the ancient site of Susya there was an organized and orderly village in which lived a number of Palestinian families. Between the years 1982-1987 I worked and was part of a research team from Tel Aviv University under the directorship of Dr. Avi Ofer. The team directed an archeological study and archeological excavations from Bethlehem to Southern Hebron…

During these years I visited a number of times, in different periods, in the archeological site of Susya and the area. These visits always included meetings with the local community who lived in the caves in the archeological site and around it. Until 1986 the families continued to live in the site alongside the excavations. The residents were forbidden from entering the excavated area and later a fence was built around the khirbeh and a gate was established for entering and exiting the site. The residents were warned not to damage the site. In 1986… the Palestinian residents were forbidden from living in their caves… [Even today] inside the caves can be seen the division into living areas, cooking areas, areas for animals and also the soot on the roofs of the caves from the domestic cooking inside. Outside the caves can be seen the remnants of the pens used for the flocks and also areas for social gatherings.

Another expert is Yaakov Habakuk, who lived among the local population in the 1980s. It is clear from his testimony to the court (quoted in SPL 11) what his agenda is, but he actually testifies that they lived there for most of the year. If any of their homes were “temporary” (according to that bizarre logic), it was the other residence.

I, the undersigned, Yaakov Habakuk, expert in Eastern Studies and Anthropology…hereby contribute the information that I possess, information gathered and learned during extracurricular research that I performed in the Sothern Hebron hills 1977-1981 and somewhat during 1982.

As someone who moved around the territory during these times, I can state, that in Khirbet Susya [the ancient ruins], no one lived in the caves permanently, and in the area of the ruins, walking distance, there were caves used as homes by shepherds that arrived from the villages of Yatta and Samoa…

And I request to quote from my book, Life in the Caves of Hebron (Ministry of Security Publishing, Tel Aviv, 1985, pg. 56), “One who visits the South Hebron area even today, during the writing of this book, in the beginning of 1984…in the area of Khirbet Susya and the likes will discover that every year, during the grazing season, particular families of shepherds inhabit the caves in these ruins, the same family of shepherds always lives in the same cave that they lived in during the last season.

The grazing season – it is important to make clear – is parallel to the winter months, and it usually starts in the months of October-November, with the first rain, and continues into the end of April and the beginning of May…

So, yes, as Habakuk testifies, for most of the year the families of Susya lived in their cave homes (which we know, based on the evidence above, was in the private ownership of their families).

Additional testimony brought against Palestinian Susya apparently due to the assumption that if a community lives away from their homes part of the year they have no property rights there, is that of Dr. Akiva London (SPL 4). He also testifies that Palestinian families lived in caves in Susya during the 1970s.

In conclusion, based on numerous testimonies offered by Israelis who researched the area (Pliah Albeck, David Grossman, Gideon Sulimani, Yaakov Habakuk, and Akiva London) we can be sure, beyond reasonable doubt, that not only is Palestinian Susya private Palestinian land, but they also lived there.

Watch Out for Misinformation!
Another absurd claim heard [SPL 3] is that we can deduce that Susya never existed because the Israeli population registry lists the residents of Susya as living in Yatta (a nearby city). This claim would be comical, if it was not being used as a ruse to dispossess innocent people of their property and to drive them from their homes. Why doesn’t the Israeli registry list the residents as living in Susya? Because Israel does not recognize Palestinian Susya. Israel’s policy is to destroy Susya and expel her inhabitants. Would you deduce that Jewish Susya does not exist if it was missing from the Palestinian Authority’s official registry?

In another place, Amutat Regavim claims that on that June 7, 2012, the Supreme Court determined that Palestinian Susya is on state land. If you read the court decision, using this link courtesy of Regavim, you will find that this is not the case. The court never determined any such thing. In fact, it would be difficult to make that particular determination, given that the land is privately owned by Palestinians, as we have seen.

Conclusion
As stated above, the Israel-Palestine conflict is complex, but Israeli policy in Susya is simple: It consists of destroying Palestinian Susya by dispossessing and expelling her residents, and in parallel building Jewish Susya, populated by Israeli Jews. I believe you’ve seen compelling evidence that this is the truth.

First, it is clear that this is not legitimate government. Why do we respect the authority of the state to plan our shared spaces? Because as citizens we can equally participate in the state’s decision making process and because the state is responsible for our wellbeing. But the Palestinians of Susya do not live in the State of Israel and are not Israeli citizens. They are denied any role in state decisions regarding them. And the state does not seek their wellbeing but rather to destroy their village and build a settlement for Israeli Jews in almost the same spot. This is not legitimate government but a form of organized crime. To argue that the homes of Palestinian Susya are “illegal”, because our discriminatory regime authorizes building for Jews but prohibits it for Palestinians, is a mockery of the idea of law.

When I say that our policies are “crimes,” I refer not to modern criminal law but to our prophetic tradition: “Thus saith the LORD: For three crimes [פשעים] of Israel, Yea, for four, I will not reverse it… That [they] pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, And turn aside the way of the humble.” (Amos 2:6-7). Or as Isaiah said it (1:13-15; following the JPS 1999 translation): “When you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime.” What the prophets mean by crime is the abuse of official power to victimize vulnerable populations. In my opinion, that is an accurate description of Israeli policy in Susya.

And so, one of Yesha Council’s claims is true: Susya is a national test for Israel. I believe that anyone who cares about Israel or Judaism must help us break out of this immoral and self-destructive cycle. We need you to take a stand. Destroying Susya will cause terrible suffering, unjust and unnecessary, and endangers the lives of us all. If you care about Israel, this is the time to raise your voice in protest – and wake up your community to do the same – before our bulldozers are sent to destroy the homes of the defenseless residents of Palestinian Susya.

Links to Get Involved:
The Four Villages Campaign

 Bibliography:
The numbers that appear after the source abbreviations in the body of the text above are page numbers.

B&R = B’tselem and Regavim. The fact that Israel has not recognized Palestinian Susya in any way (and thus not provided building permits or other services) is agreed upon by both sides. See B’Tselem’s page on Khirbet Susya here and Regavim’s petition to the High Court to destroy Susya here (Hebrew).

DG = Grossman, David (1994). Expansion and Desertion: The Arab Village and Its Offshoots in Ottoman Palestine. Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi.

GS = Gideon Sulimani, Affidavit, submitted by Adv. Quamar Mishirqi-Assad and Adv. Avital Sharon in Bagatz 1420/14.

JSO = Jewish Susya’s Official Site. Link.

PA = Pliah Albeck’s professional testimony. You can see photocopies of selections from the text at Rabbis for Human Rights: Here in Hebrew and Here in English. The translation is by Rabbi for Human Rights.

Rabbis = Here are some links to learn more about the “human rights Rabbis”, Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn, Rabbi Moshe Kalfon Hacohen and Rabbi Chaim David Halevi. Start with this article (Hebrew) written by Dr. Amos Israel and myself. There are more sources about Rabbi Hirschensohn here and the full text of my doctoral research about him is here. See Amos Israel’s articles on these thinkers here, here and here. See Israel’s full doctoral research on Halacha and International Law (including chapters on Hirschensohn, Hacohen and Halevi) here.

Ramban = Nachmanides’ commentary to Breshit 34:13 and Vayikra 18:4-5.

SPL = Susya – The Palestinian Lie: The Village Which Did Not Exist. Research Department at Moetzet Yesha (note dated) Link. (Hebrew)

Note: The views in this article are the author’s own and do not represent any institution. 

Shaiya Rothberg lives in Jerusalem and teaches Bible, Jewish Thought, and Kabbalah at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is also the chairperson of the Israeli Human Rights NGO Haqel — Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights. Shaiya holds a PhD from Hebrew University in Jewish Thought and a B.A. in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Bar-Ilan. He made aliyah in 1988 and served as a soldier and officer in the I.D.F. from 1990-1993.
 
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