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Fate of Hebron Hills village likely to be decided by Israeli defense minister

Aug. 1, 2016 7:04 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 2, 2016 2:25 P.M.)
A Palestinian man sits outside his tent in the southern West Bank village of Susiya. (AFP/Hazem Bader, File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- In the latest development in a decades-long legal battle by Palestinian residents of the village of Susiya in the southern Hebron Hills to remain in their ancestral lands, an Israeli supreme court hearing confirmed on Monday that a decision regarding the fate of the threatened village could likely be decided by ultra-right Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The hearing was set to decide whether to accept the state of Israel’s request to immediately and without prior notice demolish 40 percent of the occupied West Bank village where some 100 people live, according to Israeli NGO Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR).

Two weeks ago, Israeli authorities abruptly halted months of dialog with Susiya’s residents, who had appealed to the court with a master plan with the support of RHR, over the possibility of legalizing the village.

Any future agreement on the legality of the village would now be the responsibility of the defense minister, Israeli authorities told the residents.

The Israeli Supreme Court’s hearing decided that Lieberman would determine his position in two week’s time.

During the hearing, Israel Supreme Court President Miriam Naor expressed frustration over the Israeli government's lack of clarity regarding its position int he case, as well as the position of Susiya’s residents and their lawyers presenting the appeal.

“I don't understand the petitioners. I don't understand the state. I don't understand anything,” Naor was quoted as saying by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which was live Tweeting from the court.

“The state's position is not clear. I have difficulty with the fact that the state comes to court with one file after another and says we haven't decided,” she continued.

In a press release on Tuesday, RHR said that before dialogue was severed, “discussions with senior members of the (Israeli Civil) Administration gave rise to suspicions that the village was under the increasing threat of immediate demolitions.”

“These indications, in addition to the demolition of structures in the general area of Susiya over the Ramadan holiday -- a rare move made by the army -- set a dangerous precedent and raise concerns that political considerations have been introduced into the professional planning process,” RHR continued.

“All of this is to the detriment of the local Palestinian population, already suffering under a discriminatory planning system.”

Since Israel’s Civil Administration declared the village land an “archaeological site” in 1986, its Palestinian residents have been expelled from their homes several times, relocating to caves, tents, and temporary wooden shelters in the area, according to B'Tselem.

While Israeli authorities have routinely declared that Susiya’s residents lack the appropriate permits to reside there, villagers say authorities have systematically denied their right to build for years.

Over the years, “Residents have raised large amounts of money, hired experts, and submitted outline plans to the army," all which, along with years-long attempts to obtain building permits have been rejected by Israel, according to RHR.

Israel’s Civil Administration rejected in 2013 a petition by RHR for a master plan, on the grounds that they failed to meet the necessary criteria, and recommended that the community relocate from Area C -- under full Israeli military control and where most illegal Israeli settlements are built -- to Palestinian Authority-controlled Yatta, in Area A.

RHR and B’Tselem have criticized the Civil Administration’s rejection as discriminatory, noting that numerous illegal Israeli outposts and settlements in the occupied West Bank fail to meet the same criteria, but do not face demolitions.

In May 2015, the Israeli Supreme Court refused to freeze the demolition orders threatening the village, meaning that Susiya’s residents faced “imminent demolition of their homes, structures for public use, and agricultural facilities,” according to B’Tselem.

The decision sparked international outrage, with the US State Department warning that demolitions in the village would be "harmful and provocative." Several US lawmakers have since voiced their support for the village.

Susiya residents and RHR have been able to prove the village inhabitants’ ties to the land with land documents dating back to the Ottoman era.

They argue that Israel’s motivations to destroy the village, despite clearly being located on private Palestinian land, are due to its location as the only obstacle between two Israeli-controlled areas -- an illegal Israeli settlement going by the same name, Susiya, and an archaeological site north of the Palestinian village.

The latest setback in Susiya’s battle for legal recognition comes after B’Tselem released a report last week revealing that Israeli authorities have demolished more Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank in the first six months of 2016 as they did in all of 2015, in what rights groups argue is a worrying indicator that Israel intends to annex the entirety of Area C.
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