On a cold and blustery Sunday morning in February I visited Susiya, a Palestinian village in the hills outside Hebron. Today I heard that the homes of the villagers are likely to be demolished. The plan they presented to secure the future of their properties and the right to develop has been ruled to lack feasibility, while the existing development falls foul of planning standards. According to an Israeli NGO, Rabbis for Human Rights, there is an imminent risk that the villagers’ houses will be demolished and they will be left without anywhere to live. This is the latest stage in a long running story of a poor community on the receiving end of a planning regime rooted in military occupation.
The origins of today’s tented breeze-block village of Susiya go back at least to the 19th century. Until the 1980s the village was Susiya Al-Qadime,and the villagers made a living by grazing sheep and goats and growing olives on their lands. By then it was in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and in 1983 development of an Israeli settlement began on land nearby. Such settlements are illegal under international law.
In 1986, the land of the Palestinian village was declared to be an archaeological site and was expropriated. Then the land was transferred to the council of the Israeli settlement, meaning that Palestinians cannot enter it. Villagers lost their homes, land and property. They moved 500 metres and began to live in caves and shacks.
A second expulsion followed in 1990, to a site 15 kms away. However, families returned to live on their plots of land and in the caves. The Israeli settlers expanded their own agricultural area. There were tensions and shootings. In 2001 a settler was murdered while herding sheep. Revenge attacks followed then a violent, third, expulsion of the Palestinians. Rabbis for Human Rights say “Caves were destroyed, wells were blocked, fields were vandalized and animals killed.” There were beatings and settler violence. It was a history related to me by villager leaders as I sat amongst them that morning in February.
There has been a protracted series of court cases and plan-making in an attempt to secure for these very poor people the right to live in their own village. Nevertheless, demolition orders have been served on the properties, as they are not part of any approved development plan.
A land use lay-out plan – locally called a “masterplan” – produced by a Palestinian consultant was rejected by the planning authority, the Israeli Civil Administration, in May 2013. Further demolition orders were issued. At this point Rabbis for Human Rights petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice, challenging the reasonableness of the decision of the planning authority to reject the plan. They also sought court action to freeze the demolitions until the petition could be heard.
Usually, Israel accepts the case for such a delay, but not this time. The State argued that a Palestinian village never existed at Susiya Al-Qadime, just a few seasonal houses used by herder families. Furthermore, the State’s case was made on planning grounds. It argued that the submitted plan lacked feasibility in relation to costs for construction and infrastructure provision. At the same time the existing development fails to meet planning standards. An alternative site at a nearby town, Yata, had been suggested.
Rabbis for Human Rights countered that demolitions would leave the people homeless during the inevitable delay in developing an alternative site. Furthermore, they said that the planning grounds put forward were discriminatory – similar enforcement actions are not taken on informal development by Israeli settlers on sites that they have occupied.
This week the judge rejected this rabbis’ case. The villagers are facing the prospect of once more seeing their homes bulldozed. Demolition and forced relocation have been legalised, on planning grounds.
In a couple of weeks I will be back in Palestine to launch the report of an International Advisory Board of experienced planners, who have looked at the planning in villages such as Susiya in the rural part of the West Bank. The news that planning is again being used as a justification for forced evictions is depressing. The view of the Board that I led is that demolition should be a last resort, as it is in most, if not all, other planning systems. In contrast, the number of demolitions implemented by the Israeli Civil Administration in this part of Palestine massively outstrips the number across the whole of the UK.
Our Board’s report calls for planning in rural Palestine to become an inclusive and enabling process, and one that recognises the development needs of villagers such as those in Susiya. An equitable approach to planning is a necessary part of peace-building in conflict and post-conflict zones such as this. The decision from the High Court of Justice is a step backwards. To read my earlier blogs about planning in Palestine click here and then here.
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