One morning a green Land Rover with a Union Jack on its antenna pulled up to a group of Palestinian shacks and hovels in the windswept hills of the southern West Bank. Two British diplomats stepped out and entered an office in a white caravan perched alongside a fly-blown enclosure where residents keep sheep, goats and geese.
The foreign delegation was one of several to trek to Sussiya recently, an encampment of impoverished Palestinian herders who have been fighting for the right to remain there for years. The long-running dispute has resurfaced as a focus of the frozen Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the US and Europe warning Israel not to bow to Jewish settlers who want villagers’ makeshift shelters demolished and the area cleared.
It comes amid what non-governmental organisations say is an unprecedented spate of Israeli demolitions of Palestinian dwellings and structures — some of them EU-funded — in Area C, the stretch of the West Bank containing settlements that Israel directly controls. According to the UN, Israeli authorities have demolished 625 Palestinian structures in Area C so far this year and displaced 941 people, more than the whole of 2015.
Palestinians in Sussiya were evicted from their nearby homes in 1986 to make way for an archaeological site that contains the ruins of a synagogue. They say their sprawling encampment has been destroyed entirely twice and partially seven times since the 1990s, even as the Jewish settlement of the same name — recognised under Israeli law but deemed illegal by the international community, like other settlements — has expanded.
In July, John Kirby, a US State Department spokesman, warned that demolishing the village “would set a damaging standard for displacement and land confiscation, particularly given settlement-related activity in the area”.
The EU said the demolitions were “steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution” and raising questions about Israel’s long-term intentions.
Meanwhile Regavim, a pro-settler Israeli group, is pressing Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition — which includes the pro-settler Jewish Home party and other pro-settlement politicians — to have the villagers, who it calls “illegal squatters”, removed.
In a sign of the dispute’s international sensitivity, Mr Netanyahu has taken over responsibility for the issue from Avigdor Lieberman, his far-right defence minister.
For Palestinians, the ordeal of Sussiya, whose residents are among the West Bank’s poorest, is emblematic of the latest stage of the conflict, as they push for Israeli permission to build in Area C.
“Our hope is that the Europeans, the British, or the Americans will give things their correct name,” Nasser Nawager, a villager, told Tony Kay, Britain’s deputy ambassador in Tel Aviv, last week. “It’s not a question of demolishing houses — this is ethnic cleansing; it’s evicting people from their place of residence.”
Later, Mr Kay toured the area with Arik Ascherman, an Israeli religious human rights activist, who pointed out caves demolished by the Israeli army — among the improvised homes Palestinians used after being forced out of their village, because they could not secure permission to build.
“We’ve made this point to the Israelis repeatedly,” Mr Kay said. “They criticise the Palestinians for building illegally, but they’re not giving them a legal route to build.”
European aid agencies and NGOs have rallied on the villagers’ behalf over the years. The caravan they use for meetings was funded by Italy, and Sussiya has a Spanish-funded school and an Irish-funded water tank. The encampment, which because it is unrecognised does not have direct access to Israeli power, water or sewage infrastructure, relies on solar panels.
The foreign interventions in the West Bank have angered conservative Israelis.
“Regavim is encouraging the government to stand up to the pressure, to stand up to the anti-Israel NGOs, and to stand up to the EU, which is funding this illegal building,” says Josh Hasten, international director for the group.
Human rights activists say the demolitions are part of a broader policy to limit the population of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
“Israeli government policy is to try to maintain as much restriction as they can on Palestinians in Area C to keep as much land as possible for settlement expansion, so they can cynically manipulate the planning regime,” says Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem, a human rights group.
At Sussiya, Mr Nawager pointed out the window at the Jewish settlement and its livestock enclosure: “The Israeli rightwing organisations are supporting settlers. Evicting villages like Sussiya is a part of expanding the settlement plan.”
Jihad Nawager, a village leader, urged the British visitors to act. “It’s time for the superpowers — the US and the UK — to take a stand on this,” he said. The British, he said, “are why this country was divided” — a reference to the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
Get alerts on Arab-Israel conflict when a new story is published