A Student Mission to Halt Demolitions

The continued demolition of Palestinian villages poses a serious obstacle to peace between Israel and Palestine.

By Naomi Rosen

For the past year and a half, UChicago students, including myself, have worked to support the Palestinian village of Susya as part of J Street U’s Stop Demolitions, Build Peace campaign. We’ve signed national petitions to the State Department. We’ve staged days of action, teach-ins, and phone banks. We’ve sent targeted letters to our political representatives and hosted events across Chicago. Despite my role in these efforts, I did not truly understand the political stakes until this past July, when I visited Area C of the West Bank and saw two neighboring communities, both called Susya: a Palestinian village and an Israeli settlement. But, despite their proximity and shared name, the two communities could not have been more different. 

The trip was organized by J Street U, a nationwide student organization that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has a chapter at UChicago. Our first stop was at the Israeli settlement of Susya. Looking around, I noticed that even though the Israeli Susya is illegal under international law, there was lush greenery, working irrigation, and fully constructed houses hooked up to Israel’s electrical grid. Seeing this made it clear that the community was not in need of basic resources—they had powerful allies in the Israeli government who could get them what they needed. 

When we finished hearing from Aryel Tsion, a tour guide and international spokesperson for Israeli Susya, we loaded back onto the bus and made our way to the Palestinian Susya. It took me a minute to realize we had arrived, because, unlike the suburbia of the Israeli settlement, the Palestinian village was composed of only simple concrete structures. Nasser Nawaj’ah, the village’s international spokesperson, welcomed us into one of the homes and told us his story. His family had lived there for generations. In the 1980s, the Israeli Ministry of Defense forced Nasser’s family to relocate from their residential property to their agricultural land due to a state-sponsored archaeological dig. Though they thought this would only be temporary, Nasser’s family returned to their homes to find Israeli settlers living in them.  

For 30 years, Palestinians in Susya have been plagued by the possibility of their homes being demolished. Residents were not granted building permits for these structures, built out of necessity on their agricultural lands. Threats to demolish Susya over the past 30 years are part of the right-wing Israeli settler movement’s long-term agenda to annex the West Bank. They intentionally expand settlements, while subjecting Palestinians in the villages next door to effectively unlivable conditions. Replacing Palestinian villages with Israeli settlements renders any prospect of a two-state solution impossible. Creeping annexation, as this strategy is called, is an attempt to prevent a contiguous Palestinian state. These efforts are destroying any possibility of a Jewish, democratic state existing side by side with an autonomous Palestinian state. 

We know that when students speak up, influential leaders listen. The contributions of hundreds of UChicago students to the Stop Demolitions, Build Peace campaign have already led to change. In September, dozens of students called the Israeli Consulate of the Midwest to urge them to oppose the demolition of Susya. This prompted the Consulate to pass our message on to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel. J Street’s work with UChicago students was part of a larger effort around the world, which resulted in the postponement of the decision date. 

We’ve also seen Illinois politicians speak out. Senator Dick Durbin, along with nine other Senators, signed a letter opposing the demolition of Susya and Khan al-Ahmar, another village in Area C, after a J Street U advocacy effort. Our politicians know where the next generation stands. J Street U at UChicago recently formed a partnership with the University of Chicago Democrats on the Stop Demolitions, Build Peace campaign, and we hope other groups will follow our lead.  

Continued advocacy is all the more important now, because the situation in Susya has only become more urgent. On February 1, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled to allow immediate demolition of seven structures in the village, home to over 40 people. This past week, Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL 9) publicly stated her opposition to these pending demolitions

In order to halt these demolitions, students who support a two-state solution must be loud enough to make our representatives listen. Those who support a peaceful future for both Israelis and Palestinians must continue to stand with Susya and other villages under threat of demolition.  

Naomi Rosen is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.