SUSIYA, West Bank – Residents of this dusty village are bracing for Israeli bulldozers to come and knock down their makeshift homes of tarp, wood and wire any day now.
But as they wait for the military order to be carried out, villagers are rallying support from Western governments. Israeli authorities say Susiya's structures are unlicensed and must come down. Residents and their supporters say Israel refuses to grant building permits to Palestinians, even while allowing Israeli settlements to thrive next door.
"The people are afraid," said Nasser Nawajah, a leading activist among Susiya's residents. He said his children will not sleep alone at night. During the day, Nawajah said, the children are constantly on edge that any group approaching could be Israeli soldiers.
Susiya, a rocky hamlet of several hundred people, is one of more than a dozen Palestinian herding communities in the southern West Bank unrecognized by Israel. Consisting mostly of tents, and without running water or electricity, the village has nonetheless risen to international prominence in recent weeks as it braces for a round of decisive demolitions after three decades of legal battles with the Israeli government.
At the heart of the matter is the struggle over the 62 percent of the West Bank that was placed under full Israeli control under interim peace accords two decades ago. This land, called Area C, is home to more than 350,000 Jewish settlers, more than double the number of Palestinians living there. Critics say Israel has blocked virtually all Palestinian development in Area C, while expanding the Jewish settlements there — a charge Israel denies.
Susiya is flanked by a Jewish settlement and the ruins of a centuries-old Jewish town of the same name.
Susiya's residents lived in the area of the ruins until Israel declared it an archaeological site in the 1980s, forcing them to leave. Some left for other Palestinian communities, while others settled a few hundred meters (yards) away, on land Nawajah says is privately owned by him and his relatives.
Since Israel did not recognize the relocated Palestinian Susiya, it was not hooked up to electrical or water grids. The nearby Israeli settlement of Susiya and several unauthorized Jewish outposts in the area receive such services. The international community considers West Bank settlements, built on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war, to be illegal or illegitimate. The Palestinians claim the West Bank as part of a future independent state.
Susiya's situation escalated in May, when Israel's high court stopped a temporary injunction on demolitions. Then in July, the Israeli defense body that oversees Palestinian civilian affairs, known as COGAT, announced the demolitions and evictions would take place sometime before Aug. 3. COGAT also provided residents with a map of 32 structures it planned to demolish first.
With their options dwindling, residents, backed by a series of advocacy groups, have drawn attention to their plight, receiving support from some powerful quarters. The U.S. State Department has said that demolishing parts of the village and evicting Palestinians would be "harmful and provocative" and undermine prospects for reviving peace talks, which broke down more than a year ago.
The European Union has also condemned the demolition plan. The EU and several European countries have funded projects in Susiya, including solar panels from Germany and a playground from Austria.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday expressed his concerns as well. His spokeswoman, Vannina Maestracci, said he hoped a dialogue between Israeli authorities and the community would resolve the matter.
The international pressure seems to be working. COGAT said it has not yet decided whether to carry out the demolitions, and said it recently opened a dialogue with villagers in search of a solution. Israel has offered to relocate the residents to Yatta, a nearby West Bank town under Palestinian Authority control.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry insisted Israel was acting within its rights in accordance with long-standing agreements with Palestinian authorities. Yet an official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations, acknowledged that the international pressure is "certainly" a factor in the decision-making.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli non-governmental organization working on Susiya's legal cases, dismissed Israel's overtures as only "vague promises." He praised international efforts to raise awareness about Susiya's situation, but conceded that the village's future still remains on the brink because of pressure from settler groups.
"It's like a bad light bulb joke," Ascherman said. "How many NGOs does it take to save a village?"
On Tuesday, a dozen delegates from the European Parliament's Green Party joined the ranks of international supporters passing through Susiya.
"I think if they do this (demolition) here, it will be absurd," said Margrete Auken, a former member of the Danish parliament. She added, "We will make it very clear that if they (Israeli lawmakers) should care for their friends in Europe and their own future, then we have to have real action to turn Israel into the democracy they want to be, a decent democracy, and that means end the occupation."
Samiha Nawajah, a 40-year-old mother of eight, appeared unfazed by all of the commotion. On Tuesday afternoon, she sat cleaning meat in her kitchen, a half-finished cement and tarp structure. Both the kitchen and a separate room — where she and the children sleep separated by a cloth — are on the list to be demolished, she said.
A relative of the activist, Nasser Nawajah, she appeared angry and tired, but if the bulldozers end up coming, she said the family will again build on what they believe is their land.
"Even if they demolish our house, we will rebuild it, we will stay here in our lands," she said. "They cheated us before and we left our lands because they used the antiquities as an excuse to expel us from our lands. We will stay here and our lands have registration papers and we won't leave it."