According to Ha’aretz, Bezalel Smotrich is “the new poster boy of Israel’s far right.” A settler, recently elected to the Knesset on the roster of the nationalist religious party, Habayit Hayehudi, he serves as deputy speaker. Recently, in a speech to his fellow members, invoking Genesis, he declared, “There is no such thing as Palestinians.” As opposition members yelled at him, he responded: “What, my friends, what have I said that is making you upset? My friends in the opposition, we will annex [the West Bank], whether you want it or not. This is our Land of Israel. It was given to us by God.”
There is a counterweight to this kind of rhetoric: Israeli human rights groups such as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence call for an end to the occupation and respect for the rights of the Palestinians. One major focal point of the dispute is the South Hebron Hills in Area C, where the Israel Defense Forces exercise complete control. This is the southernmost part of the occupied West Bank. It’s a rugged, barren and rocky land. People there are shepherds and farmers. For hundreds of years, they lived in caves. After the IDF bulldozed the caves shut, they began living in tents. They have dug cisterns to collect rainwater, which they use to drink, irrigate their crops and water their flocks. But for some time now, their way of life has been in jeopardy. The IDF has declared that large parts of their land are closed military areas to be used, for example, as firing ranges. To accomplish this, the IDF issues demolition orders and destroys homes, hoping to persuade villagers to move to the nearby town of Yatta.
Recently, international attention has focused on the threatened demolition of the village of Susiya, and the issue came before Israel’s High Court last week. Depending on how the court rules, the village will either survive or be demolished. There could be a decision within the next couple of weeks.
This is the latest development in a long history of abuse. Originally, many of the residents of Susiya were refugees, expelled from the village of Gerityan. A few years later, they were evicted from their cave homes. They then moved to their agricultural land, about 500 meters from an Israeli settlement. The settlers didn’t like that and, accordingly, the villagers were expelled again. But they returned again.
The abuse continues, and not only from the IDF. Arab families in the South Hebron Hills live under a constant threat ofsettler violence. This includes burning their crops, killing their livestock (kicking sheep in the head is common technique), and attacking them if they get too close to the settlements. There is really no enforcement mechanism against such acts. There are civilian police in Yatta, but they are too far away. They cannot be called in time to be effective.
As I walked around Susiya on a recent visit, it seemed to consist of a group of tents, clinging to the rocky landscape. Old tires were hung on their sides to keep them from blowing away. A resident showed me a cistern. In 2011, the IDF had demolished it, filling it with dirt and crushing the frame of a Subaru into it to make sure it could no longer be used. Other cisterns are off limits, because they are too close to the nearby settlement. Consequently, the villagers are forced to buy water in Yatta.
For the time being, Susiya survives, pending further “dialogue” and review by the High Court. This is due largely to the international attention generated by B’Tselem and other organizations. But the future of villages like Susiya remains in doubt.
Demolitions in Area C have continued since the beginning of 2016. And as bad as the situation is, it could get worse. While MK Smotrich can rightly be called a radical, he is not alone in his views on the future of the West Bank. For example, the prominent leader of his party, Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, advocates the outright annexation of Area C, which contains many villages like Susiya. If that happens, wholesale demolitions will be all but certain. So it goes in the South Hebron Hills.
Paul M. Schneider is an attorney who lives in Bethesda. He serves on the board of B’Tselem USA.