In May 2015, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the Civil Administration—the Israeli governing body in the West Bank—could proceed with its planned demolition of parts of Susiya, a Palestinian village in the south Hebron Hills region.
The long-running legal battle over this village has been a recurring issue in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and the impending demolition threatens to intensify the already heightened tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Knocking down the structures on the site and removing the Palestinian occupants is opposed by the United States and Europe, and so also has the potential to increase international pressure on Israel.
A bit of history
The site of a circa fifth to eighth century synagogue and Jewish town, Susiya was subsequently the location of a mosque and, later, home to Palestinian farmers.
In 1983, as part of the expanded Israeli settlement scheme in the West Bank under Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a Jewish settlement named Susya was established near the archaeological site on land determined by Israel to be ‘state land’.
During the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, under which Israel gradually drew down its military and political control of Palestinian population centres, most of Susiya became part of what is known as ‘Area C’: those parts of the Palestinian territories remaining under full Israeli military and political control. This means that in order to build, Palestinians need approval from the Israeli Civil Administration. The Palestinian families in Susiya are living in tents and other non-permanent structures without such approval, meaning their homes are illegally constructed under Israeli law, and therefore liable for demolition.
Aside from the above, and as with many facets of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, simple (and recent) historic facts can be difficult to determine.
Pro-Palestinian groups and some Israeli human rights organisations claim that Susiya’s residents have been expelled on numerous occasions and from a couple of different sites in the area—initially in 1986 when the ruins were confirmed as an ancient synagogue, then in 1990, and again in 2001. They also claim that the Palestinian village of Susiya has existed since at least the 1830s. They argue that Israel rarely grants Palestinians permission to build in Area C—citing figures which indicate that between 2000–08, just five per cent of Palestinian building permits were approved in Area C—while regularly permitting Israeli settlement construction. Palestinian residents and their supporters claim they have land deeds dating back to 1881, and that they have submitted numerous ‘town plans’ to the Israeli authorities in order to have their village recognised. They suggest that Israel is removing the Palestinian occupants to make way for more Israeli settlers, making it less likely the area will ever form part of a Palestinian state.
Pro-Israel and pro-settler groups, conversely, state that no Palestinian ‘village’ has ever existed in Susiya, that Israeli courts have found no formal Palestinian title to the land, and that the campaign to prevent the demolition of the Palestinian ‘village’ is a foreign-funded campaign to delegitimise Israel. These groups and individuals regularly refer to Palestinian-Susiya as an ‘illegal Arab settlement’, language similar to that used internationally to refer to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
The Australian connection
Australian Official Development Assistance, through ActionAid Australia, has been provided to the Palestinian village of Susiya over the past four years. Reportedly, two of the structures slated for demolition—a health clinic and a pre-school, both operating out of tents—were set up using Australian aid funding. According to a response to a Question on Notice in October 2012, AusAID funded the two tents through a $2,500 grant to ActionAid Australia in 2011, under the Australia NGO Cooperation Program. At that time the pre-school catered for 35 children, and the health clinic provided 60 medical consultations per week for women and the elderly.
The Australian division of ActionAid has received Australian Government funding for a number of projects in the Palestinian territories, including the $6 million Neighbourhood Corners Project in the Hebron region (2009–14) and the three-year Empowering Women in the Hebron Governorate project.
No representatives of the current Australian Government have publicly commented on Susiya. However, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement to Fairfax media in late July that Australia was concerned that the Israeli Government was seeking to proceed with the demolition, and that ‘we have raised these concerns with Israeli authorities’. This is similar to a statement made by former Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who said in October 2012:
Australia has expressed concern to the Israeli authorities about the proposed demolitions and is committed to working with the Israeli authorities to find a solution which avoids demolition of these structures.