Just outside of Hebron there are two places that share the same name, but life for the communities within them could not be more different.
It was a hot summer day in 2012 when I headed to the Palestinian village of Susiya for the first time. ActionAid had already been working there a year and my assignment was to set up a women’s group. But I was already plagued with doubts.
I had never been to Susiya, but I had learned from colleagues and friends that it was not a nice place to be in – not because of the people but because of all the troubles surrounding it. I knew it was a small village with a population of just over 300 people. I knew that it was under continuous demolition threat and that its neighbour was an illegal Israeli settlement.
When I eventually got there it was not what I had pictured. No one can picture such misery in one place. It was nothing but a number of tents and sheds. It was not a place where people could easily live and thrive, not a place where parents would choose to raise children and build a life.
It also offered a stark contrast to the nearby Israeli settlement, which carries the same name but not the same status. Its residents have brick houses, electricity supply and an abundance of clean and flowing water. There are telecommunication networks, paved roads, health clinics and more.
Back in the village I was about to start my work in, my doubts continued to grow. The people welcomed us in with smiles but were cynical about whether we could achieve any real change. One woman summed up the general feeling of hopelessness when I asked her what she knew about her rights. “You mean inheritance? Forget about it.”
Looking around me, I could see her point. How do you get a project off the ground in a community where people fear that the bulldozers might come at any moment. They had been evicted from areas nearby not once but twice, first in 1948 and the second time a couple of decades ago, when the Israelis said they had discovered an old synagogue in their area. The more I talked to people there, the more I grew uncertain of my purpose in the village, a mission that seemed destined to fail before it had even started.
Despite the difficult circumstances, over the next few years we renovated some of the existing water cisterns to increase the supply of clean water, set up a kindergarten and opened a clinic in cooperation with Palestine Medical Relief Society.
But I only realised the value of our work to the community when Samiha, a 43-year-old member of the women’s group, came to a meeting with broken ribs and a bruised eye. A settler had attacked her the day before and demanded that she and her kin leave Susiya and never come back. But that did not break her will, it did not break her spirit. It made her more resolute to learn and grow.
It was a moment when I found the courage that I had lost somewhere between my doubts about the place and what I believed to be a hopeless venture. It struck me that if Samiha had the strength to come to a meeting despite her condition then there is hope. There is hope as long as the villagers believe there is, and I am going to do what I can do to help them. If they want to grow, then I will grow with them and learn from them. I became more determined than ever.
By this point demolition orders had already been issued by the Israeli authorities and, despite repeated appeals, in May this year Israel’s high court of justice upheld its decision to order the village’s destruction.
So far, Israeli authorities have maintained the status quo and not taken any steps to destroy structures. But despite the international support that Susiya has received, destruction of the village and expulsion of its people remains a very real possibility. The villagers were supposed to meet with representatives of the Israeli Civil Administration to discuss the future of the village in October but the meeting was postponed to November, and then postponed again.
Asked about the future of the village a member of the community said there were three possible scenarios: “Leaving us alone, which is highly unlikely. Demolishing the whole village, which I think is far-fetched because of the backlash it will cause, and, the most probable thing, is that the Israelis will destroy pieces of the village over a long period of time till there is no longer a Susiya.”
Some people might say this is inevitable – and why would I actively choose to work somewhere where it’s constantly one step forward, three steps back? Where the infrastructure my NGO has helped strengthen could be rubble next week?
But the resilience of the people of Susiya is admirable in every way. I have learned so much from working in this village and from the strength of the people there. I feel proud of working with such a group of women and I am happy to see them change and transform, to be able to take their own decisions, have more control over their lives and become more able to participate in decisions about their village.
They are no longer marginalised but a group to be reckoned with. I do not even consider it work any more. I feel that part of me belongs in Susiya and I am as anxious as anyone about the fate of this tiny village in Palestine.
Noor Jaber, Programme Officer at ActionAid
As told to Amr Owaineh, Advocacy and Communications officer at ActionAid.
published in the Guardian on November 20, 2015