Palestinian village facing demolition awaits its fate

Faris Samamri and his family of 20 scrape a living grazing sheep from a tin hut on a West Bank hillside but at a hearing that opens Wednesday the Israeli Supreme Court may order it destroyed.

It is the climax of a six-year legal battle for Samamri and the other 26 Palestinian families who call the village of Zanuta in the far south of the occupied West Bank home.

With the support of human rights groups, they have been battling demolition orders issued by the Israeli government for virtually the entire village in 2007, on the grounds that it was built without construction permits -- almost impossible to obtain -- and on an archaeological site.

Before Israel occupied the West Bank in the Six-Day War of 1967, the villagers lived in caves but several of the caves collapsed in the 1980s and they moved to makeshift dwellings out in the open, the dwellings that Israel wants to raze.

Samamri ensures that the few visitors who make the off-road drive to the village from a non-descript junction south of Hebron are plied with tea and coffee, served in small china cups by his children.

He says he will attend Wednesday's opening of the court hearing in Jerusalem which will decide the village's fate, but is fatalistic about what it will spell for him, his two wives and 18 children.

"If they rule against us and then come and knock down our houses, we'll just have to stay here, with or without shelter," he said.

"Where else can we go?"

Zanuta has no electricity, mains water or sewerage.

Residents burn most of their waste, get electricity from generators they use sparingly because of high fuel costs, and pay over the odds for trucked-in water which they store in cisterns that are also slated for demolition.

"The winter here is difficult, and we struggle to stay warm. We have no municipality to look after us," Samamri told AFP.

Human Rights Watch says that as an occupier, Israel is required by international humanitarian law "to ensure that the residents of Zanuta have enough food, water (and) shelter."

And forced displacement of civilian populations in occupied territory amounts to a "prosecutable war crime," the New York-based watchdog said.

The Association of Civil Rights for Israel, which has petitioned the Supreme Court, says Zanuta's case stands out among the hundreds of demolitions planned by Israel across the occupied West Bank.

"What makes Zanuta different from most other West Bank cases is that it's the entire village that is being threatened," ACRI's Marc Grey told AFP.

ACRI's action has seen the courts temporarily freeze the demolitions since 2007, partly because the authorities have no plan for Zanuta's residents following any demolition.

But rightwing lobby group Regavim, whose stated aim is to "protect Israel's lands and national properties," revived the case last year.

Israel must now present a plan at Wednesday's hearing for the relocation of the families who face eviction.

Samamri says that without waiting for the court's decision on the future of their homes, the Israeli army has already taken swift action against any effort that villagers have made to improve their lot, bulldozing two toilet blocks they had built and blocking off the dirt road they used for their tractors.

The Civil Administration, which is responsible for coordinating the army's activities in the West Bank, says Zanuta's structures were built without permits, although such permits are rarely issued in Area C -- the 60 percent of the West Bank which is under full Israeli security and administrative control.

And, in a Catch-22 scenario typical of Israel's administration of the territory, it would be impossible to obtain building permits for Zanuta anyway, ACRI says.

For building permits to be issued, the structures must comply with Israeli planning rules for any given area of the West Bank.

And for the area where Zanuta is located, no such planning rules exist.

Israel also argues that Zanuta should be cleared because it stands on top of an archaeological site.

But in a letter to the court, archaeologist Dr Avi Ofer said Israel had constructed Jewish settlements on much more important sites in Hebron and Jerusalem, and Zanuta's existing homes posed no threat to the 2,800-year-old remains.

Samamri was incredulous as to why anyone would want to demolish his humble abode.

"We'll rely on God if they decide against us, and will stay here out in the open if they destroy our homes," he said.

"What difference would that even make? We're already living under a cardboard ceiling."

jad/hmw/kir