By EA John.
A Palestinian flag flies proudly over this little village school in the depths of the South Hebron Hills in the occupied West Bank. It is the start of the new school year and children are coming early to begin lessons, dressed smartly and with backpacks loaded with new brightly coloured text books, descending on the school from all parts of the village. The younger ones hold hands, the older ones chat companionably with each other. Their teachers are waiting for them, smiling. 47 children are being educated here, from Grades 1 – 9 (approximately ages 6 – 14), this academic year, supported by 6 teachers and a headteacher.
The headteacher, Mr Abou Seif*, talks to us about the history of the school, which opened in 2015. Previously children from the village had had a long walk to a neighbouring village or had to stay over in the nearest big town. He is clearly proud of its assets. The school has bright new sports equipment, good shading, sufficient classrooms and a spacious artificial grass play area – all in all it seems to an outsider an effective space to enable students to learn and a source of pride for this out-of-the way community.
Yet this school is under constant threat. Its new buildings and equipment have been served with ‘stop work orders’, which prohibit development and ‘demolition orders’ which formally express the intent of the Israeli military to demolish them in the future. The military state that have a right to halt development or demolish structures as they have been built without building permission, though this is near impossible for Palestinians to obtain.
“The odds of a Palestinian receiving a building permit in Area C – even on privately owned land – are slim to none. Given the futility of the effort, many Palestinians forgo requesting a permit altogether” (B’Tselem, Israeli human rights NGO).
For Mr Abou Seif and his pupils, this leads to overarching insecurity and uncertainty. A similar school nearby was demolished in December 2018 (see earlier eyewitness blog).
Meanwhile, despite their illegality under international law, Israeli settlements (Israeli only housing units in the occupied West Bank) continue to expand. The school’s science teacher, Mohammed*, says he is nervous about travelling on the main road because it is used by Israeli settlers and he faces possible assault by settlers and the accompanying Israeli military. He adds there are often military guarded checkpoints impeding his movement. Instead of a direct journey of ten minutes, it takes him 50 minutes from his home.
Both teachers spoke about how difficult life under occupation is for the children in the school and for their families. ‘Everything is illegal’ for the families: they can’t build proper homes and live in tents which are very unsuitable for living in. Mohammed told us children are unsettled and frightened by the nearby inhabitants of Israeli settlements, who have verbally abused and threatened them. Teachers sometimes had to accompany the more outlying children to their homes, we were told, because they were scared to go on their own.
We were told by Mr Abou Seif that the community has insufficient electricity to provide the school with the power it needs to run on a routine basis projectors, computers and other equipment. Israel does not authorise Palestinian villages in the South Hebron Hills to hook up to the electric power grids it installed for the Israeli settlements. There is also a problem with water – the community has insufficient water to provide for the school on a routine basis. The school had been without water for three days when we visited. Water pipelines pass near the Palestinian villages in the area but, with the exception of only one village, the military civil administration has not hooked up any other village to the water grid. Water comes to the village by road through tankers, which is both very expensive and provides less than the villagers need.
All these negative factors profoundly influence the lives of children at school and their understanding of the society in which they live. We discussed with the teachers of the village school how they spoke to their students about Palestine’s future. Mohammed replied that they did not feel they could, in all honesty, convey much hope for the future of Palestine to the children; they felt that the children would know they were lying if they attempted to do this. What Mohammed said they could do was to emphasise the importance of academic study to children, whose dreams might be to become a policeman, a doctor, an engineer and so forth. Palestinians active and able in these professions were best able, the teachers thought, to argue articulately for a brighter future for their people.
Issues like those faced by this small village school are being seen across the West Bank, and are impacting children’s safe access to education, according to UNOCHA. Incidents of interference in schools by the Israeli military, demolitions, threats of demolition, clashes on the way to school between students and the military, teachers stopped at checkpoints, and the violent actions of the Israeli military and settlers on some occasions, are impacting access to a safe learning environment and the right to quality education for thousands of Palestinian children. According to the international NGO, Human Rights Watch, over a third of Palestinian communities in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank where the Israeli military has exclusive control over building under the 1993 Oslo accords, currently do not have primary schools, and 10,000 children attend school in tents, shacks, or other structures without heating or air-conditioning. The long distances, and fear of harassment by settlers or Israeli military forces can lead some parents to take their children out of school. Often this particularly harms the education of girls.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which interprets the Convention on the Rights of the Child, has stated that Israel must respect and apply the convention in Palestine. Under the convention, Israel is obliged to respect the right to education of everyone in the territory and ensure primary and secondary education are available and accessible to every child.
Write to your MP/TD and ask them to raise the issue of the right of children in occupied Palestine to an education with the Foreign Office/DFA.
*Not their real names