Susiya: A Tale of Two Hills

Photo by Cate Brown, January 2020

Georges Seurat would have loved to paint the South Hebron Hills. The precision of color lends itself to pointillism: white sheep dotting a saffron slope, green olive groves brushed into a terrace, a broad stroke blue sky.

If he was patient, Seurat would have waited for evening. When the tea comes out and the flocks amble home. When the call to prayer asks worshippers for their faithful reply, and every hill in southern Palestine turns to gold.

As I walked into the village of Susia alongside fifty Columbia SIPA students, I considered what other colors he might need to paint Palestine today: red, to cloak the hilltops with new Israeli settlements. Slate gray for the security walls. And a fine brush for dust, as occupied olive groves remain untouched and unkempt, leaves graying with sand.

The historic village of Susiya goes by two names now: Susya and Susia. Susya denotes the Israeli settlement illegally installed on a hilltop near the ruins of a 4th century synagogue. Susia describes the razed Palestinian village that once stood in the neighboring valley. The residents of Susya and Susia live so close you could paint them in a single frame. But our host Fatima Najma insists that the two communities live worlds apart.

“I apologize that we’re standing outside,” said Fatima nonchalantly, as she began her hour-long tour for our Columbia student group. “Our tent collapsed in the rain.”

January bites in Susia. There’s nothing warm or soft about living in flooded tents.

I burrowed into a classmate’s shoulder as the talk began. This was the seventh day of a student-led policy trip to Palestine, and our visit to Susia was part of a broader conversation on land rights, settlement growth and resource confiscation in the West Bank. As international policy students, the specter of Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ hung low overhead. If enacted, settlements like the one in Susya would be legally annexed to the State of Israel, prohibiting Palestinian villagers from ever reclaiming their land. We gathered on the eastern edge of the village and looked across the contested valley.

“An Israeli mother in Susya has a modern life,” Fatima explains, stepping over two bulldozer tracks frozen into the mud. “She has water and electricity in her home. She has time to play with her children or do what she loves. But here in Susia,” Fatima continues, motioning to the kitchen appliances scattered violently across her yard, “Palestinian women really face a hard life. When a home is demolished, the mother must prepare her home again. She must carry water in one hand while she carries her children in the other. She doesn’t have time to sit or help her children with their homework: Her life is constant work.” I watch Fatima’s eyes pass between the naked rebar demarcating a former Palestinian home and the towering walls of the Israeli settlement fortified on the neighboring hill.

“When we compare our lives to their lives, we find that everything between us is far away.”

Our group nods solemnly as a toddler peaks out from between Fatima’s legs. I remind myself that we are students: we are just here to witness her story. We may be fifty-strong, but listening hardly seems like enough. I take off my gloves and write faster.

Israel first expelled Susiya’s residents in 1986 in order to begin construction on the ideological Jewish settlement and adjacent archeological site. Since this time, Fatima’s makeshift village has been completely demolished seven times. Settler groups have sealed off natural water cisterns, vandalized Palestinian pastures, and subjected local families to violent physical and verbal abuse.

I was accidentally caught in a volley of settler abuse in 2011. I was a college student studying abroad in Palestine and on one particular Friday afternoon, I found myself playing hide-and-go-seek with eight children from the village of the Susia. Their parents were nearby, and we scampered down the slope between Susia and Susya to wedge ourselves beneath a large outcropping of rock, piled like sticky puppies, and invisible to our seekers. As we lay in wait, two Israeli settlers released a flock of sheep into the grove of Palestinian olive trees separating Susia and Susya. It was a provocation: a reminder that the Israeli sheep could harvest what the Palestinian villagers could not. Within moments, teenage boys began to launch rocks over our heads in defense of their trees, the settlers cocked their guns and the sheep continued to feast. I lifted my head into view and spread my arms like a mother goose, two children tucked under each sweaty elbow, my plain Jane American face in sight. Violence rarely escalates when there are outside eyes watching, and soon the adults turned for home.

The story of Susia is not only about loss. It’s also a story of ingenuity and grit. As we walk past the flooded tent and into Fatima’s backyard the mood lightens. She shows us a biomass digester that transforms the methane from sheep waste into electricity. She parades us past a field of solar panels, a generator bank, and a row of blue tanks for rainwater catchment. These provisions have allowed Susia’s 350 residents to maintain control over their basic needs, like accessing clean water or charging a mobile phone, even as Israeli demolitions have disconnected their homes from national water and electricity services.

Today, every standing structure in Susia has an active demolition order against it. Although each family has submitted 8–10 building requests to the Israeli authorities, Fatima reports that 99% of their permits have been refused. “There’s no justice for the Palestinians here,” says Fatima, raising her voice above the wind. “So we stopped submitting permit applications in 2011. We were just spending money in order to be refused.” Now women like Fatima just raise their families day by day, learning to find strength and resources from what’s left of their land.

As I walk back up the hill, I hear goats bleating, but there are no animals in sight. Fatima turns to me and smiles. She lifts a tarp to reveal a cave below the surface of the slope, a tribe of goats nestled safely beneath the rock. I return Fatima’s smile, amused at the villagers’ ingenuity. Caves can’t be demolished. And neither can the strength of Susia’s spirit.