West Bank hamlets share name, not fate

SUSIYA, West Bank Wed Jun 27, 2012 1:59pm IST

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SUSIYA, West Bank (Reuters) - Susiya the Israeli settlement enjoys well-watered lawns, humming electricity, and the protection of a mighty state. One rocky hill away, Susiya the Palestinian village is parched and doomed.

The cluster of around 50 breezeblock hovels and tents, erected without the elusive building permission of Israel's occupying authorities in the West Bank, has been condemned by the Jewish state's high court. It faces imminent demolition.

Little but a name and mutual contempt bind the 1,200 conservative Jewish and 350 Bedouin neighbors, their imminent divorce reflecting the mismatched strength and the despair for coexistence in a divided land.

"They're thieves and aggressors, living on stolen ground with the help of a criminal government," said Muhammad Ahmed Nuwajah, a greying goat herder in flowing robes and white headress who prides himself on being older than the state of Israel.

Nuwajah and his kin used to roam freely with their flocks and pick olives even after Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and slowly began to sow Jewish communities there.

But after the Susiya settlement was founded a quarter century ago, he says settlers began attacking the Bedouin as they went about their daily work, and the Israeli army, citing security reasons, limited their olive harvest to one day a year.

His calloused finger traced the path of power lines which rise high above the village's cacti and bypass it completely on their way toward the settlement.

"Where could we go after they destroy our homes? We'll stay here and build, even if they demolish it a thousand times," he said.

In Jewish Susiya, Camembert cheese and tofu chill on the shelves of the main supermarket. Young Israeli soldiers peruse the potato chip shelves, rifles dangling at their hips.

Describing village life as pleasant and safe, store owner Elan Ofir, sporting a long beard and skullcap, said: "We're the ones rebuilding Susiya. After 1,300 years, we're just coming back home."

Ofir moved to the newly constructed settlement in 1987, a year after Bedouins were first evacuated from the area to clear the way for excavating an ancient synagogue nearby. He has since watched the devout community build and fill several local schools and tend to lush vineyards which spill down the hills.

"It's better for the Arabs if they move away from here," he added nonchalantly. "Anyway, they've only been around for the last few years, and they're only a few families."

The U.N.'s International Court of Justice and most governments deem Jewish settlements in the West Bank illegal. Citing Biblical and historical links to the land, the Israeli government disputes this.

"WORD OR DEED"

Local elders gathered on the floor of a Bedouin tent during a correspondent's visit, anxiously laying out the community's concerns just before a rare visit by Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad.

Expectations were low. Interim peace agreements allotted around two thirds of the West Bank to full Israeli military and administrative control, putting Susiya and neighboring villages also facing demolition orders beyond the writ of the Palestinian Authority.

"We're poor people with no resources, no strategy and no help," Mohammed Yusri Nuwajah, chief of the local council in Susiya, told the group. "We suffer, with so little help in word or deed from the Palestinian Authority."

When the Palestinian prime minister and his motorcade arrive, their Israeli police escort leaves little doubt who holds sovereignty in the area.

Calling on foreign powers to exert diplomatic pressure where his authority cannot, Fayyad said: "The world is obligated to take a serious stance on what's happening in occupied Palestinian lands. Statements of condemnation and disapproval are not enough."

But few countries appear willing to take Israel to task over settlements. After failing to convince Israel to halt building to ease the way for Israeli-Palestinian talks in 2010, the United States has retreated from calling for an outright freeze. The issue is now blocking a serious re-engagement in the peace process.

ILLEGAL BUILDING

The relationship between the communities is rendered more delicate by the profusion of sustainable energy projects in the Arab village funded by European Union nations, chiefly Germany, an ally of Israel.

While diplomats from donor countries have protested gently, and usually in the form of quiet demarches with Israeli counterparts, a high-profile demolition could turn local acrimony into international embarrassment for the state.

Israel's right-wing government is already under domestic strain after a Supreme Court ruling vindicated the petition of an anti-settler group claiming that five settler apartment houses in the northern West Bank were built on private Palestinian land and must be evacuated.

Learning from such successes, right-wing settler advocacy group Regavim petitioned the same court on Jewish Susiya's behalf to act on demolition orders for the Arab Susiya and clear the land of Bedouin homes.

Amir Fisher, a lawyer for the organisation, decribed the decision as historic.

"We are happy that the Supreme Court gives verdicts not only against Israeli settlements, but this time the law also is applied to the Palestinians," Fisher told Reuters.

"Of course it's a pity they can't just live together. But it's the reality of the Middle East. Settlers have to live in fear of stone-throwers or getting shot, and there's no logic or reason for the Arab outpost there."

(Reporting By Noah Browning; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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