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June 5, 2016

Sawsan heard the rumbling of a bulldozer approaching, and she knew it was going to be no ordinary day. Her isolated community, Um Fagarah in the West Bank, is home to about 150 people, most of whom are farmers and shepherds. They rely on the land around them for grazing and fodder for their animals, and to make a living.

But Sawsan and her family are now forced to live in a cave. Not a basement or cellar – an actual cave.

In 2011, she was washing dishes when she heard the noise. Israeli bulldozers had arrived with a military escort and quickly started knocking down three houses and a mosque that had been for her and her extended family.

When she tried to intervene and asked to see the demolition order, the soldiers pushed her away. Seeing that her protests were falling on deaf ears, she asked to at least be able to collect her things from her house before it was destroyed. But her pleas were ignored.

Instead, Sawsan was arrested and taken away by the Israeli soldiers. For two days, her family received no news. They had no idea where she was.

In total, she was held for 10 days and was only released after paying a $1,300 fine. Upon her release, she was told that she couldn’t return to live in her community and wasn’t allowed to participate in any protests, even if they were nonviolent. The authorities told her that if she refused to comply with these rules, she would be sent directly to jail for 3 years and would have to pay an additional $20,000 in fines.

“Illegal structures”

The family’s homes were destroyed as they were deemed to be “illegal structures”. Their village sits within an area of the West Bank known as Area C. Although Palestinian land, everything is controlled by the Israeli forces. If they want to build on their land, Palestinian families are forced to get a building permit from the Israeli authorities, a process that is both expensive and extremely bureaucratic. So much so that in total, 97% of Palestinian requests for building permits are turned down every year.

Sawsan and her family applied for permission to build, but it was denied. They were told that the land had been declared part of a nature reserve. Yet in 2004, Israeli settlers moved onto a plot of land less than 500 yards from Sawsan’s village.

Within a matter of days, the settlers’ trailers were connected to mains electricity and running water, and a new road was built to their settlement.

Sawsan and her family thought that this would enable them to build a proper road to replace the bumpy track that leads to their community. They were also hopeful that they could connect their houses to the grid and have electricity in their homes.

This never happened. Instead, shepherds from the community started reporting that their sheep were dying and farmers reported that the crops they used for fodder were being poisoned by the settlers. The community had to stop eating all products made from sheep and for a while, food was scarce.

But Sawsan refuses to give up. She traveled the 7.5 miles to Al Quds University in Jerusalem each day, in a place with no public transport, working her way through the constant checkpoints and road closures, and graduated with a degree. She has become an activist within her community and has joined a women’s group supported by ActionAid that works to make sure people know their rights. In rural areas, where women are cut off from information and find it difficult to move around, the group’s work is especially important. They want to be able to protect their families and the homes they live in. As Sawsan says,

“We have rights, and that’s why we’re resisting.”