South Hebron Hills with Breaking the Silence

 Reports from Fact-Finding trip participants--

South Hebron Hills and Susiya
Breaking the Silence
A visit by Sabeel-Colorado

On Thursday, June 7, 2012, the Colorado Sabeel group led by Joy Lapp and Arnie Voigt toured the South Hebron Hills and visited the village of Susiya with representatives of Breaking the Silence (BTS).  BTS is composed of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers who are now out of the military and speak out because they realize that what they were asked to do as they served was immoral. 

Our tour was led by Avihai Stollar, who as a sergeant in the IDF served his three year tour in the South Hebron Hills.  What follows is a transcript of a recording made by one of our group, Peter Miller. This first section is Stollar’s commentary while we were driving to the Palestinian village of Susiya which is now at risk of demolition (fifty houses, a kindergarten school, a medical clinic, solar panels which provide the only electricity for the village).

Part I: Avihai Stollar describing the history of Susiya:

There are four Susiyas today: the archeological site of Susiya, the military base of Susiya, the [Israeli] settlement of Susiya, and the Palestinian village of Susiya. In 1948, Palestinians [during the Nakba] left their village, [moved] into the West Bank, went back when evicted by Israeli army [from the West Bank] and built a new village on grazing land [which was] theirs from the 19th century until 1986. 

The village was placed on an archeological site, and in 1986 the Israeli army along with the Antiquities Department came to the villagers and told them, “You have to leave because civilians are not allowed to live on an archeological site.” So they were evicted in '86 and the Israeli government started excavating there; they found an ancient synagogue there, also actually an ancient mosque.  But actually very quickly after they were evicted from [the archeological site], three settler families moved in and until today they have a business there, they have their house there. And basically Palestinian civilians were evicted because when they say “civilians are not allowed in an archeological site,” they only mean Palestinian civilians.

Now after they were evicted in '86, the village of Susiya ceased to exist.  Each family from the families that made up this village moved to what they personally owned.  Each family had its own, that they had the deeds for, they could prove ownership, trying to avoid any further evictions, each family just went and built their house, or actually their tent, and basically built their houses over what was again their agricultural areas. But this really didn't help because in '91 the military came and said you have no right being here, and evicted them.

They were evicted, they came back, and then one year later in '92, this happened again. And actually during the 1990s till 2001, very much like the people that live in the firing zone, they were evicted five times.  Actually, in 2001 with the help of human rights organizations they appealed to the [Israeli] Supreme Court and said "Listen, we have deeds, we have papers, proving from the Ottoman time that we have ownership here, so how can you evict us saying this is not our land?"  And the Supreme Court ruled that they are right and they cannot be evicted on the claim that they have no ownership rights here. And one week after, they were evicted again.

So it got back to the Supreme Court, and the military had an interesting justification: the military said that there was a mistake, that an officer, a low rank officer decided by himself that, for security reasons, he has to evict them because they are a security threat.  And then the low rank officer said, "I have the jurisdiction, I can evict them" and evicted them.  And the paper that he was using, you know the military order, the general military order was fake.  It was made by the settlers who also took part in the eviction here.

So again it got back to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said that they should not be evicted and from 2001 until today it is in many ways like the same stories in the area of the "firing zone."  There are no like massive complete evictions, but every time they try to build a house here, the Civil Administration Office comes and says, "Ah, maybe you have the right to be here, but you do not have the right to build here because in order to build you need a permit" and they're not getting this.  And again the same story: if they want to be recognized they need to bring a plan (community development plan). And actually here in Susiya, they tried to get a plan. They got lawyers and they got the funding because it is quite expensive to get a plan.  [Note: the Civil Administration Office administers Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories.]

And they went to the Civil Administration Office that sits in the settlement of Bet El and told them, "Here, that's a plan, a plan for the entire village," and it was turned down on technical reasons.  For example, the Civil Administration Office said, “Well your corral for the sheep is too close to the houses, it has to be at least 50 meters away, so for ‘health reasons’ we are not giving you the permits." They were concerned about the health of the people who lived there, at least officially.

So they [the Palestinians in Susiya] are basically still in this legal limbo until today.  And actually yesterday was the first time that the Supreme Court had to deal with an appeal that was filed by a right wing organization called Regavim.  Regavim is like a legal branch of the settlers committee here.  And they appealed to the Supreme Court, they actually opposed the Civil Administration Office demanding that they tear down all the houses because there is not one tent here, actually there are no houses, just tents because they don't have any permits.

And this [Regavim] committee, this NGO, are demanding that the government would demolish all the houses, all the tents, and actually yesterday was the first ruling of the Supreme Court. So it will be interesting to hear what will be the final resolution.

For an update since this visit: 


Part 2 (of 3)This second section is a talk by one of the leaders of the Susiya community, Mohammed Nawaja.  We gathered in a village tent, sat on cushions, and conversed with Mohammed. This is a transcript of Mohammed’s comments as translated by Avihai and recorded by a member of our group, Peter Miller. 


Welcome.  Thank you for coming to see how we live. I'm from the village of Susiya. I was born in the old Susiya; I was living there my first four years until we were evicted and then we left the village there and came here.  We've been living here, but we've been living here with a lot of problems, with the settlers, with the army, that was always the case here, but we are still here.

After 15 years there was the first demolition here.  As the result of the settlers' pressure, the land that we could use was constantly getting smaller and smaller.  A lot of people here, not one, not two, a lot of people were attacked by the settlers, you know, getting beaten up here, getting beaten up there.

In '93, a site from another eviction, one of the family members of the Janna family was killed by a settler from Susiya. Even after the story of the Palestinian getting killed, a lot of the people here gave up and left a few years [but] after when Tayush and other human rights organizations started coming here and providing legal aid, then people starting coming back to the village.  Most families didn't come back because they were afraid of the settlers, but something like 4 or 5 families did come back.  The family for example whose son was killed by settlers, they didn't come back. I mean their house was demolished; the family left and today there is nothing left where they used to live.

Slowly, slowly, more families were coming back. For example the Nawaja family consists of 10 smaller families, 10-12 families, they came back and now live here.

Well today, the families grew, you know people were born here now have their own families but still they have only two houses, for example, for two families, but those two families grew and they had their children and now four separate families that branched out from their parents.

We are constantly afraid here, afraid of the settlers, afraid of the army, we are constantly afraid.  A lot of the occasions, I sleep with my shoes on because I am afraid that the settlers will come in the middle of the night so I will be able to jump up in the middle of the night and protect my children.

Avihai: If you have any questions then Mahmoud will be happy to address them.

Q: How many people are living here? [The village looked quite small from where we were]

300 people and more than half the people here are children.

Avihai: Its scattered, you have houses here you have houses on the other side of the road you can't actually see from here, because again it is not one community it is scattered, each family sits on their own land, the unity was basically destroyed after the eviction of 1986. Now it is each family and their own piece of land.

Q: How do the children get schooling?

They just opened an elementary school here, it is actually in tents, and by the way the school also has a demolition order. So there is an elementary school from first grade through fourth grade here

And then for like junior high they go to another village called Al-Tawani, there are buses that take them now, that take the children to this junior high, it used to be funded, the buses, by human rights organizations but today its funded by the PA. And the last two years of high school, there is a high school in Yatta. And university studies is a college in Yatta, there is a technical university in Hebron.

Q: What does he see as the solution?

If God is willing, it will come from God, but basically with the settlers and the army and everything that goes on what can the Palestinians do in any ways it’s up to God.

Q: What is the economy like? Do they work and go to the main village and get most of their stuff or how does that work?

Life is hard here, if you are lucky and have work permit to work in Israel then you can work in Israel otherwise you can live off the land as shepherds and farm animals that bring food to your mouth but it is still hard.

Q: [couldn't hear, but probably about getting permission to work in Israel]?

If you don't have any problems, if you've never been arrested by the Israeli police, if you are over 30, then you have a chance to work. It is enough that a settler says that you give him troubles somehow.  Then they're not going to give you a permit.  Half the people here are denied permits by the secret service because the settlers file complaints against them, so they get trouble by the police so then they are just shepherds.

Q: [couldn't hear but probably asking how their situation compares to other Palestinians]?

There are problems but different problems in every place.  In refugee camps they have problems but, you know, they have electricity and we don't. Unlike the camps here they are trying to get rid of us, they want the land just without the people. And therefore we constantly have different hardships, you have to fight for every time you want to go to tend your sheep because they don't want us here.

Q: What are the usual complaints by the settlers, what are they saying the Palestinians are doing?

It is because in the end it is the military who judges who is right and who is wrong. A settler can come and attack me and then I'll get arrested and I'll have to pay the police station bail to go out. Because in the end when the military comes he is not going to arrest the settler even if he attacked me and then in the end I get arrested and the settlers sits, as we say, leg over leg in his house.

Q: [Couldn't hear]?

He was looking for where they could live but in the end here is the only place where they have land.

For example somebody, one family, went to Yatta because they have a small piece of land there, they went there they were waiting there and once it was possible to come back they came back.

Another family went somewhere, bought a piece of land, they were there for some time trying to build up their lives there but once they realized they can come back they came back.

Each family went somewhere else but for example again this feeling of uncertainty still exists today, like there was this discussion in the courts yesterday and it’s going to take 3 days until before the court is going to make any kind of decision and they said they don't know, there is a chance they are going to demolish the village.

Q: What do they think of the Palestinian Authority?

The Palestinian policeman, the Palestinian Authority, they can't really help. First of all they are there, I don't know, in Yatta but in the end they are basically working for the Israeli government. They care about making a living, about surviving, about getting their salaries, and in reality they just do what the Israeli army tells them, they are powerless here in this area and therefore they can't really help.

The Palestinian Authority is too weak, they can't do anything because in the end they are doing what the Israelis tell them, in the end if the Israelis want, there will be no Palestinian policemen in two hours, in two hours there won't be any Palestinian policemen from Yatta all the way up to Jenin in the north.

In the end, even when it comes to getting help from the Palestinian Authority, I called for example a Palestinian police officer so that a fire truck would come here the last time that a settler burned down a tent here behind where we are sitting. The firefighters, the Palestinian police, they actually called Kiryat Arba [a right wing settlement], the settlement next to Hebron asking them so they would send a firefighter because they knew that they can come here, so they are powerless and they do what the Israelis say and in the end they can't really help us here.

Q: [couldn't hear]?

It's a bit better than it used to be, I only studied two years in school because [there wasn't school] but today there are different organizations that operate here, organizations like B'Tselem and Tayush that provide humanitarian work here, they established the school, they put, an NGO here put a solar panel  that you can see outside so there is a  bit of electricity. It helps it definitely helps and it is definitely more than what it used to be.

Q: How come you speak Hebrew so well?

Half the Palestinians speak Hebrew actually. I was working in Israel since I was 16 when the times were better and it was possible to work in Israel so that is why I speak Hebrew.

And actually a lot of people want to speak Hebrew because again that allows them to make a living and to communicate with the law, the different officers here and actually half the Palestinians speak Hebrew.

Q: I was asking because they don't learn [Hebrew] in school

They don't teach it in school but I learned it from speaking with people from working and they do teach English for example in school but I didn't finish school so I never studied but I do speak a bit of English because I was speaking with people who come here and that is the best way to learn.

We Palestinians don't know where we're going to be, where we're going to live so we're going to catch everything we can that will allow us to survive.

Q: [Couldn't hear]?

I wasn't sure, you asked about the source of income right?

He says that first of all he is a shepherd so he has sheep and he also has a small garden where they grow their own vegetables but that's basically it, that's his source of income.

He said, look at the settlers here, here over the tent, they are connected to the power grid, they have running water, they just came here a few years ago. He says and look at me, I've been living here since the day that I was born and I can't even build a house. I want to live in a house, I don't want to live like this, but if I build a house they immediately come and tear it down.  And there is no running water even though I was born here and I've been living here all of my life.

The settler wants to live, I also want to live.  As long as he doesn't bother me and I don't bother him I don't see why there should be a problem. He lives there, I want to live here!  That's the only thing here, people live and people die and the land stays and in the end we only want to live like normal people.

Thank you very much.

Avihai: First of all I want to thank Mahmoud for find the time to sit and speak with us and we're going to take a few minutes if anybody is interested ... there is also a small shop here that they have had made things that the women make, so if you're interested and I'll show you where the shop is and that’s it.


Part 3 (of 3)

Avihai Stollar describes military duty in the South Hebron Hills


In this third section Avihai shares as we move toward Susiya.  He describes how IDF soldiers behaved during their tour of duty in the South Hebron Hills.

 . . . . They went to Palestinian Susiya in the middle of the night to raid, to do like a search operation.

Now every now and then, like I said the boring routine of driving back and forth in a jeep on the roads we are looking for ways to pass the time.  Now one thing that we used to do was to go inside villages like Susiya.  Now just the four soldiers in the jeep. Again to search the tents, that was a way for us, you know, to pass another hour of our shift. Now we wouldn't go inside Yatta or al-Tawani or the big Palestinian towns where there were actually militias and so on, because, unlike small villages like Susiya, in Yatta, in towns like Yatta, you usually don't go with just one jeep, you go with a row of jeeps and APCs and whatever because you know there is actually a chance that they would shoot at you or something. 

So actually in the places that there is no chance that anything is going to happen, like Susiya, that's the places that we go inside all the time, again without any reason.  So there is the reality that the villages that suffered the most are the villages that are not a security threat in anyway.  And that's actually the reason you allow yourselves to go inside there all the time because you know that in the end that nothing will happen there.  But, obviously things were still happening, there were attacks on the military or civilians or the roads here.  In fact in 2001 and 2002 every second week here we would have infiltrations inside the settlements.  So how do you actually deal with it?  Because in the end you don't know where the gunmen are coming from.  So actually the main thing the military uses is in many ways collective punishment and I'll give an example:  The day that I got here to active duty for the first time there was an attack. Palestinian militia shot at an Israeli car killing four settlers one of them was a three years old child and the response of the military was to close down Yatta, the big Palestinian town here, because the gunmen were coming from Yatta.  Now Yatta like I mentioned before is quite big, there are 70,000 people living there.  And we were a very small unit at the time, somewhere in the area of 70 combat soldiers.  So closing down the town the size of Yatta was basically impossible with the manpower that we had. So what did we do?

We went inside town, driving inside the APCs the armored vehicles using the megaphones to shout "All of Yatta, movement is prohibited."  We stopped in the center of town, jumped out of the APCs and closed down two streets. On those two streets it was complete curfew.  We closed down all the shops, nobody was allowed to walk, nobody was allowed to be in the street. But around those two streets life kept on going pretty much as usual, so the curfew in the first place was completely ineffective.  Now, once we were running there, you know, making all this noise, children started coming, stared coming and throwing stones at us.  Now the minute that the children started throwing stones at us gave us an excuse to retaliate. So we started shooting.  Rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, anti-protester grenades which are basically metal cans full of little metal balls covered with rubber, you shoot it in front of you and it sprays all over.  If you hit somebody with this from less than 50 meters it can be fatal but even at close (sic) distances it can be quite dangerous.  And that was the reality for us actually it was quite exciting.  Running, shooting.  I mean at some point one of our commanders came to us and told us that he saw a child dancing on one of the rooftops, so he aimed his gun at him, but the child wouldn't move so he shot him with a rubber bullet and then he saw the child fall down.  And then he got nervous, I mean this soldier, this commander.  Because he was afraid that maybe he accidentally killed the child.  And with everything that I am telling you here it is important to emphasize that if you kill a child or if you kill a civilian there is a good chance that you will be interrogated or even court martialed by the military police.  There is a chance that you wouldn't but there is also a good chance that you will, especially if it’s a child.   But after a minute he saw this child getting up, holding his stomach in pain and then he calmed down because he knew that "well maybe I injured him, but he's not dead, so I'm not going to get in trouble."  Now when he was telling us this story he was quite amused and to be honest so were we, we thought it was a funny story.

Now, at night time, the children would go home and in order to keep us on our toes our officers would take us around the area of the curfew to shoot down street lights with the excuse that we can't have light over us because that might expose the soldiers and endanger us but actually it was just like a firing range, you know, they were giving us competitions, who could should down the light bulb in one shot.

That was the reality for two weeks, two weeks we were inside Yatta playing cat and mouse with the Palestinian children.  After two weeks, the general commander of the West Bank drove inside town, stopped next to our battalion commander they both looked at the maps and that's it in one second they told us to get back in our jeeps and had back to Susiya.  The curfew was over as quick as it started.  Now, every now and then, we would go inside Yatta or al-Tawani or any of those big towns to raid the town basically, drive around and show our presence.  In the briefings before that we were told that we need to create a feeling of uncertainty so the Palestinian population wouldn't feel safe anywhere and then they wouldn't dare attack us.  So every now and then you would go on these "show presence" missions, basically you drive around, you throw a stun grenade, children start throwing stones, you start shooting back and that’s it, you go outside of the town.

I can tell you like, in retrospective, that after I joined Breaking the Silence and became a researcher myself and started interviewing the other soldiers from other times and other units I realized that this concept of "showing presence" is an inseparable part of the reality here.  Almost every unit, even every soldier even knows the term. "To show presence" [then in Hebrew].   It is happening here in Yatta and it is happening in the north of the West Bank, every now and then soldiers raid towns and villages just so that the Palestinians there will see them.  Sometimes it just means walking in the village, sometimes it means to throw a stun grenade, sometimes it means to do a mapping mission, that you go inside a neighborhood and chose random houses that you go inside and then search them in the middle of the night and check who lives there and whatever and then go out again.

Basically a big part that you do like the "counter terrorism" mission is arbitrary, you know you go inside and search one hundred houses hoping that maybe in one house you'll find something when in reality what stands in the basis of this kind of missions is in the end to show Palestinians that the military is the one who controls this area, both within the big towns and the small towns, both in the cities and the villages, in the end is to maintain and internalize the control here.

Ok let us go down and speak about the settlers, the third part of this triangle, and try and summarize the whole story here.