What I've witnessed in Susiya
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I have accompanied the Palestinians of the South Hebron Hills since 700 were expelled in 1999 and returned home by Israel's High Court. Rabbis For Human Rights lawyers currently represent Palestinian Susya against the High Court petition by the Susya settlement and "Regavim" to demolish Palestinian Susya. Because those of us who love Israel tend to discredit the messenger, I will add that RHR received the Speaker of the Knesset's Prize for contributions to Israeli society, defends the human rights of Jews and non-Jews alike, and is endorsed by hundreds of rabbis and rabbinical organizations around the world.
Documentation shows that South Hebron Hills Palestinians arrived at least 180 years ago, creating the city of Yatta and satellite cave communities like Susya. Some live in caves part of the year, and others for the entire year. Often adults live in the caves while schoolchildren and the elderly are in Yatta for most of the week. Today's Susya residents owned lands on both sides of the 1948 border, but were pushed out of Israel and joined their families in Susya. In 1983 the Susya settlement was founded. Today there are many additional settler outposts unauthorized by Israel.
Settlers take over more land each year. We sometimes prevent them. Four years after Moshe Deutsch planted a vineyard on Hushiya family land, the IDF returned the family. Elsewhere, despite a 1997 letter from Israel's Defense Minister declaring lands between the Susya settlement and Palestinian Susya as private Palestinian land, there are today vast settler fields… We have personally witnessed or intervened to prevent countless acts of violence and encroachment. I have watched security forces stand by as settlers and their flocks entered Palestinian lands, even when there were orders to keep them out. I have seen Israeli children hike through Palestinian Susya as if it didn't exist, and stood between a settler and the unarmed elderly Palestinian at whose feet he was shooting. Police complaints rarely help.
In 1986 even Plia Albeck, known for declaring Palestinian land as State land, acknowledged that Susya was a Palestinian village. She therefore had Susya expropriated because of the ancient synagogue. The expelled residents moved to their agricultural lands. Although ownership was acknowledged, army committees without Palestinian representation almost never approve Palestinian building plans. Susya residents never had a fair chance to build legally. After a settler was murdered in 2001, and although the murderer didn't come from Susya, Palestinians were expelled, their caves demolished, and cisterns filled in. We condemn murder, but nobody suggested similar collective punishment when a resident of Palestinian Susya was murdered. Again, Israel's High Court sent the Palestinians home. However, their caves were unusable and anything they built was "Illegal." On April 28th, the Israeli High Court responded to an RHR petition by declaring that the discriminatory planning and zoning system for Palestinians in Area C is unacceptable, giving the State 90 days to come up with a remedy.
These facts are painful but we must not hide them
Israeli security forces accompany A-Tawane schoolchildren daily because they were being attacked with baseball bats by Israelis coming from the Maon settlement's forest. When forces fail to show up, internationals accompany the children. However, without security forces, there can be violent attacks and injuries.
As a rabbi, an Israeli Jew and a Zionist, these facts are painful.
I am proud when we achieve justice through the Israeli system. We cooperate with Palestinians to utilize the democracy we enjoy and they do not, standing against the State's might intent on removing Palestinians from their lands. For, as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught, when those with power appropriate for themselves the "responsibility" of acting justly towards those not sitting at the table, it "Borders on criminality."
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "In a democracy, some are guilty, but all are responsible." When pained by things we would not want to believe possible in the country we love, we neither hide our heads in the sand, claim that two wrongs make a right, nor reject our country. We let our pain push us forward to try to effect tikun olam.
Arik Ascherman is president and senior rabbi of Rabbis for Human Rights