Southern West Bank: “We can teach anywhere”

By EA Penny

The tiny village school in Khirbet Zanuta in the South Hebron Hills has three classrooms for its 17 children. A roof has recently been added, and a further classroom will provide space for a kindergarten for ten children – once a teacher can be found.

Until March 2018 the children of Khirbet Zanuta had to walk 10km to another village for education. But with the support of the Ministry of Education the villagers built their own school. On 10 April 2018 it was demolished by the army, on the grounds that no building permit had been obtained. This is a common issue in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel controls all planning and construction. Fewer than two per cent of Palestinian building applications are granted. The Israeli human rights organisation B’TSelem notes that “without any possibility of receiving a permit and building legally, the needs of a growing population leave Palestinians no choice but to develop their communities and build without permits. This, in turn, forces them to live under the constant threat of seeing their homes and businesses demolished.”

When the school was demolished, much of its furniture was confiscated. The water system was also destroyed.

Through April and May the children were taught in tents provided by the Ministry of Education. These too were demolished, twice.

Over the summer holiday the community rebuilt the school. But the day before the start of the new school year a ‘stop work’ order was issued. This forbids any renovation or development, and is usually the precursor to a full demolition order, which is a written instruction of the Israeli military’s intention to demolish the building. So far, although a building permit has been refused, there is no demolition order.

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Ceremony for the start of term at the school with no roof – EAPPI/Penny

Fatima Slymia is the school’s headteacher. We first met her at the beginning of term. The classrooms had walls but no roof. She said: “We don’t expect to get a building permit, but we will build anyway.” The initial legal advice, however, suggested that any changes to the building would risk immediate demolition. As a temporary measure, teachers stretched tarpaulins over the classrooms to give some protection from the sun. As Fatima said: “Compared with two months ago this school is a palace.”

In late October 2018, we heard that the roof is now in place – with the rainy season coming this could not be further delayed. Urgent funding was found and the villagers can only hope that demolition does not soon follow.

Fatima is optimistic, and determined to fight for the right of these children to an education. She is highly qualified, a graduate of Al-Quds Open University. She has a master’s degree from Al-Quds University in Abu Dis. She is also a university lecturer. Before accepting the post at Zanuta, Fatima refused the headship of a larger school. The journey between her home and the school takes up to an hour, and she is often delayed at checkpoints. She says: “Here I can teach as well as be the head. Here we can change the situation, change the children, make them love education.” She goes on: “We can teach anywhere but the problem with the soldiers is that they prevent us from teaching.”

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Fatima Slymia in her office with a tarpaulin roof – EAPPI/Penny

Under Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – to which Israel is a signatory – every child has the right to education. Article 50 of the Fourth Geneva Convention – which details the duties of an occupying force to the civilian population and to which Israel is a signatory – states that “the occupying power shall… facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children.”

Meanwhile, Fatima and four committed teachers, one of whom is part-time, work hard to educate these children despite many difficulties (including a site with no toilets or running water). The site also has a room that should be a clinic for the whole village but, owing to the lack of water, it has not been used, meaning the village must rely on a mobile clinic, which visits twice a week.

Take action

Read what the UN has to say about the confiscation of classroom equipment and demolition of classrooms across the West Bank: www.ochaopt.org/content/right-education-1-million-palestinian-children-risk.

Please write to your elected representatives, asking them to take up these issues with the government. Ask the government to challenge Israel to protect the education of all children in occupied Palestine.