Israel’s demolition surge: Schools become a primary target

The demolition of schools amounts to coercive transfer of families with children from their villages and homes.

kids sitting and writing their exams in a light blue classroom of an unrwa school
A teacher supervises Palestinian schoolchildren taking a final exam at the Hebron Boys School in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron [File: Nasser Nasser/AP]

Jubbet adh-Dibh, occupied West Bank – Ten-year-old Omar Salah could not go to school on Sunday because Israeli forces demolished it after no building permit was granted for the building.

Before 4am, Israeli soldiers were at the elementary school in Jubbet adh-Dhib with bulldozers, trucks and army vehicles. By the time Omar arrived in his school uniform, the school he knew was gone.

Parents and children woke to the sound of bulldozers and ran to the school, frantically trying to prevent the demolition, some throwing rocks to try to deter the bulldozers.

“The soldiers came to the village and started shooting the parents and kids with bullets, tear gas and sound bombs,” Omar said a few hours later, still in a daze.

Fifty villagers were injured, and one community member lost an eye to a rubber bullet. “Everybody’s upset,” Omar said later that morning. “My brothers and sisters were crying.”

Omar, listless, stared at where his school once stood. All that was left was mounds of dirt and pools of water from broken water pipes. Children wandered aimlessly as parents with bandages wrapped over rubber bullet wounds met to figure out what to do.

Musa Salah looking at razed land
Musa Salah examines what remains after the school at Jubbet abh-Dibh in the occupied West Bank was razed on May 7, 2023 [Steven Davidson/Al Jazeera]

“[Bezalel] Smotrich said he wants to wipe out Huwara; this is what wiping out means,” Musa Salah, Omar’s uncle, said, referring to Israel’s far-right finance minister. Smotrich runs the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA), which administers Area C, the area of the occupied West Bank under Israeli civil and security control. Ninety percent of Jubbet adh-Dhib is in this zone.

Salah and his family had donated seven dunums (0.7 hectares, or 1.73 acres) of land to the community to build a school. An earlier school there was demolished just before the start of the 2017 school year, but it was rebuilt with donations from several European Union countries so 66 first- to fourth-graders could get an education.

“This is a new tactic in which they want to erase us,” Salah said, gesturing at the cleared site. “They want to leave no trace.”

Demolishing 20 schools 36 times

According to a May 3 report from the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, 2.4 percent population growth among Palestinians means 600 new schools will be needed by 2025. But the number of school openings is lagging far behind that number. Encumbered by funding issues and the ICA, only 68 have been built since 2020 – and many of those subsequently faced demolition.

According to the UN, there have been 36 demolitions of 20 schools in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank since 2010.

In the past year, two schools have been demolished, and school building materials have been confiscated six times since 2020, according to the West Bank Protection Consortium, a partnership of nearly a dozen European states and several NGOs seeking to prevent the forcible transfer of Palestinians.

Individual cases vary, but a lack of building permits is often cited as the reason for school demolitions.

Building permits are nearly impossible for Palestinians to get in Area C, where there is only a 2 percent success rate. After the demolition at Jubbet adh-Dhib, there were 57 schools educating 6,550 children facing demolition in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Seven of them have exhausted legal avenues to delay their destruction.

Since Israel’s right-wing government took office at the end of 2022, demolitions have increased significantly. Recent UN statistics reveal a 42 percent increase in all demolitions this year compared with a similar time frame last year.

A closing window of protection

Even before the current Israeli government, changes in the administrative process and military law were making the process of carrying out demolitions in the West Bank easier and faster.

Wa’il Qut – a lawyer at the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, which is overseeing the cases of 21 schools slated for demolition – said a 2018 military order allows the ICA to demolish any new building within 96 hours.

Palestine school
Students enter a makeshift classroom in Jubbet adh-Dibh in August 2017 after the first demolition of their school [File: Nigel Wilson/Al Jazeera]

The building application process became even less likely to succeed when jurisdiction for demolition cases in the West Bank were shifted from the High Court of Justice to Jerusalem’s more partisan and right-leaning District Court.

This development and other recent military policy changes have led to building permit applications being rejected much more quickly, taking two or three weeks when it once could take months or more than a year, according to Qut.

“The window for providing legal protection is getting narrower day after day unfortunately,” Qut said.

While military policies preceding the current Israeli government set the stage, Qut said he has noticed changes in the ICA’s behaviour since Smotrich took over. Lawyers and community members also noted that the pro-settler group Regavim works more closely with ICA than ever before.

Smotrich co-founded Regavim, which targets Palestinian properties in the occupied West Bank for demolition.

“Even the composition of the committees working in the Israeli Civil Administration, it’s now made up of settlers who are living in illegal settlements in the West Bank,” said Qut, who noted a dramatic increase in the number of demolitions, work stoppages, evictions and confiscation orders this year compared with 2022.

Regavim sued the Israeli Civil Administration in 2018 to demolish the school at Jubbet adh-Dhib. Its efforts stalled, but shortly after Smotrich gained control of the ICA this year, the demolition orders went through.

“Smotrich was suing the government that he’s a member of, and then he approves the case,” Salah said.

Coercive transfer

Community and NGO leaders see another reason for the rise in school demolitions of late. While displaced Palestinians in Area C often rebuild their demolished homes with cheap materials like scrap metal, rebuilding a school is not such a simple task and poses an existential problem for poor, rural communities.

“We often see that once a school is removed, more than likely families don’t stay because there’s no way for their children to get an education,” said Jason Lee, Save the Children’s country director in the Palestinian territories.

An elementary school in Ein Samiya east of Ramallah, which is also donor-funded, opened in January 2022. The remote Bedouin herder population in Ein Samiya had decreased by 31 percent since 2000 because of the threat of expulsion and harassment from nearby settlers – many of whom live in outposts built without permits.

The new school has been a bright spot for the small community. According to head teacher Ghada Barakat, the school created a class for three girls aged 12 to 14 who had not gone to school before, teaching them basics like reading and writing alongside critical life skills.

INTERACTIVE Occupied West Bank Palestine Home demolitions 2022
(Al Jazeera)

But shortly after the school’s completion, demolition orders arrived. A year later and with all legal avenues exhausted, the demolition is expected any day now after the ICA surveyed the school last week. The demolition of remote schools like Ein Samiya particularly threatens the education of girls, who are at higher risk of dropping out or marrying early.

Before the school was built, students had to travel to either Ras el-Tin 9km (5.5 miles) away or to Kafr Malik, 15km (9 miles) away, both difficult to get to in the mountainous area. The students were also often attacked by soldiers and settlers on their way to and from school.

The children at Ein Samiya often ask their English teacher, Amani Salameh, if the school will be demolished, worried that they will have to drop out or go back to the dangerous trek to schools much farther away. “We tell the children it will not be demolished, so they can feel some safety here,” she said.

Khader Salam, who has three children at the Ein Samiya school, remembers having to take them to Kafr Malik every morning and pick them up in the afternoon before this school was built.

“Our only hope in this community is having kids go to school,” said Salam, who could not work when he was doing the trek to and from Kafr Malik. “With the demolition of the school, our children will drop out, and … it will affect the whole family structure.”

Muhammad Zawahara
Muhammad Zawaharah was beaten and pushed to the ground during the demolition in Jubbet adh-Dhib [Steven Davidson/Al Jazeera]

A call to action

Mohammad Zawaharah, 75, was tired but angry. He had been beaten and pushed to the ground the morning that soldiers demolished the school in Jubbet adh-Dhib. The military already demolished one of his homes in the village, and the other still faces demolition, along with nearly the entire village.

“They have no mercy. This is criminal. This is a school for little kids, my grandchildren,” Zawaharah said. “They do this so we will leave. But where do they want us to go? To Ukraine? This is my land, my home.”

Humanitarian workers and community members call for the international community to step in to end these demolitions, which are illegal under international law, and protect the right to education for children granted by 1991’s UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel is a signatory to.

Hearing of these imminent demolitions, caravans of diplomats and donors came to express their solidarity, departing after about an hour. Some diplomatic missions tweeted their urgent concerns about human rights violations, but little else is done publicly.

“We would like to see actions moving beyond condemnation towards tangible actions that will hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law,” said a spokesperson for the West Bank Protection Consortium who asked not to be identified.

Palestine school children walking over scrubby land to get to their temporary school
Students walk through Jubbet adh-Dibh to the village primary school, which has now been demolished twice [File: Nigel Wilson/Al Jazeera]

“That’s the imperative here – accountability from Israel – because it’s the culture of impunity that’s allowed this situation to flourish,” the spokesperson said.

Without significant pushback from the international community, nearly no one expects an ICA now led by far-right settler interests to stop its escalating demolitions of Palestinian schools and other buildings.

Even in the face of demolitions, communities are standing firm in their efforts to provide their children with an education. At the donor-funded Isfey School in Masafer Yatta last year, locals pitched tents to continue class after the school was demolished. The tents lasted a couple of weeks before being confiscated.

On Sunday night, the people of Jubbet adh-Dhib also put up tents where the school once stood to continue classes. Twenty-four hours after the demolition, the children were back in class and singing songs.

Omar refuses to give up on his education, even if his school no longer has a roof.

“We’re going to defend our land and our education,” he said. “We’re going to protect it.”

Source: Al Jazeera