By Ron Taylor
"White satin curtains flowed from the roof of the canopy, with attached golden sunflowers giving a most poignant backdrop as the sun sank slowly into the rocky, barren hills of Hebron …The groom’s family lives in Susiya, the bride did her national service there. They met, they fell in love, and that evening the ancient and the new joined together to create this glorious wedding … The story of Israel – from destruction to re-establishment – was reflected in the glowing faces of our young bride and groom."
So wrote Rachel Saperstein in an article published last week on the Israeli news website Arutz Sheva – the voice of the settler movement in Israel /Palestine. The recent wedding in the Jewish settlement of Susiya obviously captured her imagination. But there is another Susiya, one that found itself on the BBC news two weeks ago. This other Susiya is an ancient but impoverished Palestinian farming community crouched next to the settlement where “the glorious wedding” took place. It is a community under military occupation and the threat of extinction. Every structure is subject to a demolition order.
Thanks to B’tselem, the anti-occupation Israeli human rights group, and the BBC, its plight has at last been exposed on mainstream western media. Last year B’tselem established the Shooting Back project which provides Palestinians with video cameras, allowing them to capture on film the harassment and attacks regularly meted out by settlers. The footage shown on BBC was of a brutal baseball-bat assault by four masked men on a shepherd and his family. The attackers are believed to be from the Susiya settlement. It was by no means the first attack of its kind.
Many who saw the BBC video have been shocked, but for those who know this part of Palestine the only shock is that it has been shown at all. For some years international and Israeli human rights groups have been supporting Palestinian farmers and their families in the South Hebron Hills. Their presence is designed to discourage the sort of incident captured on the tape. Through press releases and internet websites they have tried to inform the outside world of what is happening there, of the process of silent transfer – Palestinians being forced from their land to make way for settlement expansion and a Greater Israel. But most of their efforts have been in vain; the world’s media has largely ignored them, concentrating on Gaza, the Hamas-Fatah divide and the latest peace process. As Jamal, from the nearby village of At-Tuwani, also under constant threat, says, “The problem for us is the media. They don’t tell our story. They think all Palestinians are terrorists. But for us here, the real terrorists are the settlers and the Israeli soldiers.”
The Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT), together with the Italian peace group Operation Dove, has maintained a full-time presence in the area since 2004. It answered a desperate call from Palestinians whose lives were being made unbearable by settler attacks. With almost complete impunity settlers have beaten shepherds and farmers, wells and springs have been poisoned, crops burned , livestock killed and children from nearby communities attacked on their way to school.
Yet, even though detailed information and photographs are easily available, the problems faced by villages such as Susiya, At-Tuwani and Qawawis have never troubled the major media outlets in the West. Until, that is, the Israeli human rights group B’tselem managed to persuade the BBC to broadcast the footage of the Susiya attack. What a difference a moving picture makes; arrests have been made and, according to the Palestinian news website, IMEMC, the matter is now to be discussed in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
Will members of the Knesset and the Israeli government be shocked by what they have seen? They shouldn’t be. The Israeli authorities are well aware of what goes on in this part of occupied Palestine. In 2004 the issue of attacks on school-children was raised in the Knesset and eventually the Israeli army was ordered to provide a daily military escort to and from school – this continues to this day, albeit haphazardly.
Two years later the Israeli Civil Administration was forced to demolish a mini security wall which had deprived these communities of access to the rest of the West Bank. It was a rare victory for Palestinians in the Israeli High Court, although they had to wait seven months for the order to be carried out. The army, however, subverts the court’s decision by blocking the only vehicle access from Susiya and At-Tuwani to the nearby Palestinian town of Yatta, the economic hub for this most southerly part of the West Bank.
It would be naïve to think the video shown two weeks ago will change Israeli policy in this part of the West Bank. Some would-be attackers may be deterred and the hard-pressed Palestinians may enjoy a little respite for a time; there may even be some prosecutions. But it is clear the settler movement wants the land and will stop at nothing. Ms Saperstein, for one, longs for more Jewish weddings in places like Susiya. “How exquisite it is to watch our young men and women demanding to be married in places where once our forefathers trod. The past and the present, the ancient the new,” she gushes, “There are those who say we have no claim to these lands. Our young people with their traditional lifestyles are the proud Jews who reclaim that which is ours.”
Indeed, Rachel, there are many. One is Thamam Al-Nawaja, a 58-year-old Palestinian woman from Susiya, who was seriously injured in the attack. “They don’t want us to stay on our land,” she told B’tselem, “But we won’t leave. We’ll die here. It’s ours.”
– Ron Taylor contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.