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Torn down: Palestinian schools destroyed by Israel at start of new year

Back to school for many means a fresh start, but for some Palestinian children it has meant a return to destruction and violence
Schoolchildren sit patiently as Palestinian activists set up a tent for them to attend class (MEE/ Chloé Benoist)

BETHLEHEM, Occupied West Bank - Scores of children from Jubbet al-Dhib and neighbouring villages in the southern occupied West Bank district of Bethlehem were expecting Wednesday to be the first day of school in a brand new primary school, funded by the European Union (EU).

On Tuesday evening, however, Israeli forces tore down six prefab classrooms and confiscated all the construction material, leaving behind only piles of children’s chairs on the bare concrete.

Children’s chairs discarded by Israeli forces during the demolition (MEE/ Chloé Benoist)
The residents of Jubbet al-Dhib are in shock. “They are not people at all, those who would demolish a school, they are not human at all,” Manal Zawahra, a resident of Jubbet al-Dhib, told journalists on Wednesday.

“We don’t do anything to their children, so why do they do this to ours? We want to live in peace, but they aren’t letting us," the mother of six added.

Students attend class in a cramped room in Hatin elementary school in the village of Beit Ta’mir (MEE/ Chloé Benoist)
Jubbet al-Dhib is the third Palestinian school to be demolished or see its infrastructure confiscated by Israeli forces since the beginning of the month. This includes the only kindergarten for the Jabal al-Baba Bedouin community and dismantling the solar panels - the only source of power - for a school in Abu Nuwar.

The EU missions in Jerusalem and Ramallah expressed "strong concern" in a statement on Thursday, following the confiscation of structures of Palestinian schools in the Bedouin communities.

Palestinian children sit in the tent set up to replace the prefabricated classrooms at Jubbet al-Dhib (MEE/ Chloé Benoist)
"Every child has the right to safe access to education and states have an obligation to protect, respect and fulfil this right, by ensuring that schools are inviolable safe spaces for children," the statement read, calling on Israel "to halt demolitions and confiscations of Palestinian houses and property in accordance with its obligations as an occupying power under international humanitarian law."

Act of defiance

Despite the demolition, primary school children showed up early on Wednesday morning at the school grounds and helped arrange the discarded chairs, as activists set up a tent shelter on the ruined foundations of the prefabricated classrooms.

Young boys sit on the cement foundations where the prefabricated classrooms of the Jubbet al-Dhib school stood hours earlier (MEE/ Chloé Benoist)
Some 60 children crammed inside the tent and sang the Palestinian national anthem, as teachers held classes on the site as a symbolic show of defiance against discriminatory Israeli policies against Palestinians.

Children and activists crowd inside the tent as class starts (MEE/ Chloé Benoist)
“This place does not represent any danger to anyone. It’s not dangerous for [Israeli] tanks or planes,” Sami Mroueh, the Palestinian Authority director of education in the Bethlehem district, told MEE. “The aggressive attack on this place is attacking human rights in general and children’s rights in particular.”

Jubbet al-Dhib mother Manal Zawahra peers inside the tent, which reads “Jubbet al-Dhib school, a thorn in the throat of the occupation. We read, we learn, we liberate… for return (MEE/ Chloé Benoist)
While Mroueh insisted that “we will stay here and we will continue teaching [the students] here,” NGO workers involved with the school said that the looming threat of further Israeli action, coupled with the difficulties of teaching in an overcrowded tent in inclement weather, made the option unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Psychological violence

Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem said in a statement issued on Wednesday, that 80 children were affected by the school’s demolition. It stated that the Israeli move “epitomises the administrative cruelty and systematic harassment by authorities designed to drive Palestinians from their land”.

Leftover sound bombs and casings for rubber-coated steel bullets fired by Israeli forces during the demolition (MEE/ Chloé Benoist)
A coordinator for a French NGO involved in building the school, who requested anonymity, told Middle East Eye that the demolition represented “psychological violence” against the young students.

“For children that age, something like this makes you understand overnight what your place is in the world,” he said.

'They are not people at all, those who would demolish a school, they are not human at all'

- Manal Zawahra, mother

The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli military agency in charge of implementing Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territory, justified the demolition, stating the lack of Israeli-issued construction permits.

“The building in Jib al-Dib [sic] was built illegally last weekend, a blunt violation of stop-work orders and without receiving the required permits,” a COGAT spokesperson told Middle East Eye.

While locals told MEE that the restroom facilities, which remained the only structure standing on Wednesday, had been the sole section of the school to have received a stop-work order, COGAT stated that the “caravan” classrooms had also received the order.

In July, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that Israeli restrictions in Area C – the two-thirds of the West Bank under full Israeli military control – had made it “virtually impossible” for Palestinians to obtain building permits there, unlike Israeli settlers, who were often granted building permits.

According to OCHA, as a result of such Israeli policies, more than a third of Palestinian communities in Area C lack primary schools, forcing children to travel long distances to obtain an education.

'For children that age, something like this makes you understand overnight what your place is in the world'

- coordinator, French NGO

In June, Israeli authorities had also confiscated around 60 solar panels - donated by the Dutch government - providing Jubbet al-Dhib with much needed electricity.

'What are the ethical, human, or even legal principles that could justify relentlessly targeting a community by denying them access to electricity, running water, and now a school?'

Coordinator, French NGO

B’Tselem reported a “record” number of demolitions of Palestinian homes in the West Bank in 2016.

Israeli authorities have moved forward plans for thousands of housing units in settlements in the West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem since the beginning of 2017, in direct contravention of international law.

Access to education

Living on the dusty hills southeast of Bethlehem city, the children of Jubbet al-Dhib must walk at least five kilometres to attend classes, through steep and hard-to-navigate terrain, at the risk of encountering wild dogs, Israeli soldiers, or residents of the adjacent illegal Israeli settlement of Nokdim – where Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman lives.

The site of the Jubbet al-Dhib school, located on a hillside in the southern occupied West Bank district of Bethlehem on 23 August, 2017 (MEE/ Chloé Benoist)
The difficult commute, combined with overcrowded classrooms and social stigma levied against impoverished children from Jubbet al-Dhib in schools in the area, have negatively affected the youngsters’ access to education for years.

The closest school to Jubbet al-Dhib, Hatin elementary school, located in the village of Beit Ta’mir, consists of a house partially rented out by the Palestinian Authority, which has been shoddily refurbished to host dozens of students in former garages, as well as the windowless basement.

A small classroom in Beit Ta’mir village’s Hatin elementary school, which would typically host 20 students (MEE/ Chloé Benoist)
While residents have long called for the creation of a school in Jubbet al-Dhib, it was only during the summer of 2016 that international organisations began working to establish a school on village lands, whose construction was only recently finalised, with funding from the EU.

“Are they underestimating the distances my children have to walk every day? It’s kilometres under the sun or the rain and there is no transportation,” said Zawahra.

“What are the ethical, human, or even legal principles that could justify relentlessly targeting a community by denying them access to electricity, running water, and now a school?” the French NGO coordinator asked. “What possible justifications, if not to rationalise the expansion of a nearby colony, which itself is truly illegal?"

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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