by Orly Noy
When the children of Beit Ta’mar, a village south-east of Bethlehem, left their improvised schoolhouse for winter vacation about two weeks ago, they did not know if the building would still be standing when they came back.
To call the building a school is to exaggerate. It is comprised of five concrete rooms on the top of a hill, constructed by the village’s residents, who also built the road to the school.
“Last August, we asked the army for permission to build a school for the children in the village,” Hassan Brigiah says on our way to the site. “We didn’t receive an answer, and after we talked with a lawyer, we decided to set up six caravans to serve as classrooms. The army came and dismantled the caravans. While they were doing this I said to them, ‘but you didn’t give us an answer at all!’ It didn’t help. We decided to build a few classrooms out of concrete, and in the meantime, a lawyer managed to get an order to prevent them from being demolished until the government gives us an answer.”
The army has since provided an answer—negative, as expected. The reasons, as always, are technical and bureaucratic. Ever since, the threat of demolition has hung over the improvised first through third-grade classrooms. The Palestinian Authority provided tables and chairs, which is noted on a plaque. “We’ll build the homeland with the power of knowledge,” is spray painted on one of the walls.
The school is located in Area C, but close to Area B, in the West Bank, under Palestinian civil control, and entirely on privately owned land, Birgiah says, adding that the construction was financed by the villagers themselves.
“We are very close to Tekoa and Noqdim, where [Defense Minister] Liberman lives,” Birgiah adds. “They have a lot of influence on the government. Nearly every day, the settlers stand on the hill overlooking the school and survey our children with binoculars. The army is also here all the time, walking around, taking pictures, and leaving. They want to show us that they’re here, so that we’ll continue to live in fear.”
In general, the sense is that schools and educational institutions have become a hot target for the army across the West Bank.
About a month ago, the army issued a demolition order against the fourth-grade classroom in a school in the community of A-Nawer, near the settlement of Maale Adumim. On October 7, 2017, the army confiscated the doors of the two schoolhouses there. According to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, last summer Israeli troops declared the school a closed military zone and confiscated the solar panels that powered the school.
A day before the first day of the school year in the West Bank this past year, soldiers demolished a school in the village of Job a-Dib , leaving 80 students with nowhere to learn. The school was comprised of six caravans, which the army dismantled and confiscated. As Eli Bitan reported, during the demolition the army used stun grenades against residents.
A day earlier, some 50 soldiers and police demolished a caravan that was intended as a kindergarten in of Du al-Baba, near Al-Azriah. The community’s 25 children between the ages of four and six have no other educational framework. The army also confiscated 10 tables, 30 chairs, two closets, and a blackboard, together worth tens of thousands of shekels. Around two weeks before that, the army confiscated solar panels that powered the school and kindergarten in Abu A-Nawar, which were donated by a humanitarian organization.
On December 22, the Israeli High Court rejected a petition from the residents of Al Muntar, a Bedouin community near the settlement of Maale Adumim, against the army’s plan to demolish a kindergarten and school in the community. As of February 1, the buildings can be turned to dust at any moment — buildings meant to provide an alternative to the long and dangerous walk students must make to schools in neighboring cities.
Between 1988 and April 2017, the Israeli army issued 16,789 demolition orders in Area C, about 40 of them against schools and other buildings used for educational purposes, according to data from planning organization Bimkom. “This whole area was planned for the first time during the days of the [British] mandate,” says architect Alon Cohen-Lipshitz, Bimkom’s West Bank program coordinator. “It was done in a framework of six districts: Haifa, the Galilee, Samaria (the northern West Bank), Jerusalem, Lod and Gaza.” He added, “though most of the land was recognized as agricultural land in the plan, building was permitted—agricultural buildings, schools, and so on.”
“After the occupation, in the 70s, there were about 2,500 requests for building permits a year, 97 percent of which were granted,” Cohen-Lipshitz explains. “Beginning in the 80s, that number decreased to 33 percent, and after the Oslo Accords shrank dramatically: between 2000 and 2008, just 5 percent of building requests were approved. Now the percentage is close to zero. Accordingly, the number of requests submitted by Palestinians has also gone down.”
One needs to look at a map of the where the demolition orders are issued to understand the Israeli plans for this area. “The areas where Palestinians can build legally constitute less than a percent of the area of Area C,” Cohen-Lipshitz says. “The area where settlements are is approximately 50 times larger. In practice this is a quiet population transfer: using the law to quietly push Palestinians to move into areas A and B.”
Regardless of Israel’s intentions, as the occupying power it is required under international law to provide Palestinian children access to education. This is all the more so in Area C, where under the Oslo Accords Israel has both civilian and military responsibility. The Palestinian Authority, though it provides some supplies to the schools in this area here and there, has no authority or ability or responsibility to establish schools; it is Israel’s obligation. Israel has shirked this obligation, instead adopting a draconian regime of building permits and demolitions, which in practice means the educational needs of the Palestinian children living in the area are not met.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 36 percent of communities in Area C (189 of 532) lack their own elementary schools. OCHA documented 31 communities where children have to cross military checkpoints to reach their schools. In 29 communities, the students faced harassment from settlers on their way to school.
Take, for example, four shepherding communities in the northern Jordan Valley: Makhhoul, Al-Hadidiah, Kirbet Samrah, and Kirbet Humsa, in total 500 people, all in Area C. The Israeli military planning authorities won’t allow the construction of a school in the area. In the 2010-2011 school year, 166 children from the four villages were forced to travel between 27 to 45 kilometers to reach their elementary schools. Half of them had to pass through one of the two checkpoints in the area. The residents, as well as the bus driver who drives the students to school, reported instances of abuse and humiliation by soldiers, who demanded that the students exit the bus to be searched and patted down.
It is hard to predict the future consequences of Israel’s policy towards Palestinian school children in the territory it occupies, but easy to understand the goal. The Israeli army is forcing Palestinians to make a cruel choice — between their land and their children’s futures.
We asked an Israeli army spokesperson for answers to the following questions:
Against how many Palestinian schools in Area C are there demolition orders? Is the army working to allow the construction of planned and permitted schools to meet the needs of the community in this area? Is the army keeping track of the number of Palestinians not enrolled in educational institutions? In cases where there is no school and the army does not allow the construction of a school, does the army provide transportation services for students to get to schools, as the law requires inside Israel?
The army spokesperson promised a response to these questions, which it delayed for days. Ultimately, the IDF’s Civil Administration, the military government responsible for every aspect of Palestinians’ lives in Area C, sent only the following, ignoring each of the questions we posed: “The Civil Administration appraises construction plans for educational institutions according to the planning laws. In every instance of unpermitted building or planning, the Civil Administration acts according to its authority to uphold the rule of law in every instance of illegal construction.”
Orly Noy is a political activist who has worked in the past through frameworks like the Women’s Coalition for Peace and the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow. This article first appeared in Hebrew at Local Call. Read it here. Reprinted, with permission, from +972 Magazine. Photo: Palestinian schoolchildren (courtesy Vento di Terra).