KHIRBET TANA, June 30 (JMCC) - Nestled high in the hills of the Jordan Valley, east of the Palestinian city of Nablus
and the Israeli settlement
, lies the village of Khirbet Tana
. Home to 56 families, mostly farmers and herders, the village was almost completely razed by Israeli forces in mid-January this year. One hundred people, including 34 children, were left homeless. Now only 27 families remain.
“It was about six am,” Mohammad explains to me. “We had received demolition orders in previous years, but there was no warning for this. We heard tanks, jeeps, bulldozers in the night. They gave us five minutes to empty our houses and get out, and refused to tell us why they were doing this.”
The official reason behind the demolition of 15 residences (concrete rooms with a corrugated metal roof), 13 animal sheds, the only school in the village, and an orchard of fig trees, is security.
According to Israeli spokesman Lee Hiromoto, they had been built on a military training ground, and thus endangered the lives of those present. He also emphasized that the structures were built without the permission of the Israeli military authorities that control construction in the area.
Among the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank
, which has been occupied by Israel
since 1967, there is another explanation for these events. Area C, designated temporarily as under Israeli military and civil control in the Oslo Interim Agreement
of 1995, covers just over 60 percent of the occupied territory, including the entirety of the Jordan Valley.
Palestinian building is largely prohibited on 70 percent of this area, due to the creation of Israeli military zones, nature reserves, and extensive settlement council jurisdiction areas. On the remaining land, a permit is needed to build everything from another floor on an existing house, to an extra bathroom in a school.
These permits are only issued when a special plan is in place for the community or area in question. Out of a total of 149 villages and communities located entirely in Area C, home to roughly 47,360 Palestinians, only 18 have such special plans, effectively providing building opportunities for a maximum of 27.5 percent of nearly 50,000 residents. This does not account for villages split between Areas B and C.
Consequently, just over five percent of applications for building permits for Palestinian communities located in Area C submitted to the Israeli authorities between January 2000 and September 2007 were approved. Illegal building in Palestinian communities is, unsurprisingly, very common, but the threat of demolition is always present.
Forced displacement -- or its uglier sounding twin, ethnic cleansing -- is the effective result of such policies. Sadly, this is nothing new. What is new is the way in which educational facilities are being targeted.
EDUCATION IN DANGER
Out of the 40 children who used to attend the primary school in Khirbet Tana, only 17 still do so. They study in a small tent, with desks and a blackboard salvaged from the ruins of the old school. No education means no opportunities in the future, and consequentially most parents in the village, also facing repeated demolition of their homes, choose to move away.
The right to education is enshrined in the Article 50 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that, ‘The Occupying Power shall, with the cooperation of the national and local authorities, facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children.’
Last year, UNICEF called for an education cluster to deal with the growing crisis. Formed in perceived states of emergency, a cluster’s job is to bring together all the relevant organizations and coordinate relief action.
The original aim, according to OCHA Project Coordinator Ros Willey, was to rectify “the significant gap in knowledge about needs in Area C, and address those needs.” The result was the formation of several clusters, among them a cluster looking at water resources, a second for child protection, and a third on educational issues.
UNICEF estimates that out of a total of 217 schools in East Jerusalem and Area C, 26 in Area C currently face difficulties due to refused building permits, stop-work orders, or, at worst, demolition orders. Many of these orders also affect badly-needed sanitation facilities. Over 6,000 students attend these threatened schools, nearly all of whom also live in high risk areas below the poverty line.
The possibility of demolition is not the only problem facing such schools. Many children face harassment from settlers, either while traveling to and from schools, or while actually in the school itself. Students aged between five and 12 attending al-Tuwani
village school in Hebron
were targeted so heavily that the Knesset had to mandate the Israeli military to provide protection to them as they traveled to and from the school.
“We always knew that life was tough in these areas, but this new research has shown just how bad things are. Many families we spoke to were at breaking point,” says Salam Kanaan, country director for Save the Children UK in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. “Without a secure future, children's lives are blighted. Constant fear of upheaval, combined with a daily struggle for basics, has left children depressed and traumatized.”
As a result of all of this, the drop-out rate tends to be much greater in Area C than elsewhere in the West Bank. Achievement is also lower than in other areas.
“They are in an unsafe, unpleasant, uncomfortable environment,” says the coordinator of the education cluster. “Education is a very important tool to develop the human being. If you deny people of this, what will be the outcome, what kind of generation do you produce?”
MORE SCHOOLS THREATENED
The Jahalin Bedouin school in Khan al-Ahmar
is the next school up for demolition. The eco-friendly ‘Car Tires and Mud School’ was built in the village in April 2009 to provide education to 6-14 year olds from the Bedouin community, none of whom had access to education of any kind. Previously, the closest schools were in Jericho
and Abu Dis
, too far to walk to, and too expensive to reach by other means.
Although only big enough to cater to 70 of the 150 children in the surrounding community, the four-room building was to act as a center for community activities and as a mobile medical clinic. As its name suggests, the structure is made of vehicle tires and mud.
Israeli courts are demanding the school’s demolition, along with the village’s mosque, wells, and homes. While the Israeli high court previously ruled against the school’s demolition following numerous petitions by the villagers, now the nearby settlement of Maale Adumim
is demanding the building of a new road which would go straight through the school. As a result, the school again faces demolition.
“Their only announced reason is that it is an illegal construction,” explains the cluster coordinator, “but for us what is legal and illegal? This is a right and a humanitarian need for these children. They [Israeli officials] are the ones who approve the master plans, they issue the permits, and they give out the demolition orders. What can we do?”
For the Palestinian Authority
, too, the issue is a tricky one. Officially, it is supposed to provide educational and health services to Palestinians in Area C, but in practice, this is not so simple.
“In Area C, it is extremely difficult,” comments Minister of Education Lamis al-Alami. “It’s not easy to get permits for the construction of schools. There are so many excuses for not granting the permits. So either we deprive the children of education or we construct schools that risk being demolished.”
“The only way we can challenge their decisions,” adds Deputy Minister Basri Saleh, “is by insisting, using all the diplomatic channels available to us. We don’t have any direct communication with the Israelis.”
“Diplomatic channels” means international organizations. One school in Jiftlik
, for example, was eventually given building permission, despite earlier demolition orders from Israeli authorities. The Palestinian Authority says that USAID and UNESCO intervened.
A US consulate spokesperson, however, was unwilling to confirm or deny this idea, saying only that, “We are very pleased to have completed construction of one school in Area C so far. The US is working closely with the Israeli Authorities and the Palestinian Authority to develop and implement plans for additional social and economic development, including construction in Area C and throughout the West Bank.”
Most of the time, however, it goes the other way. The United Nations has been in negotiations with Israeli military authorities for seven months now seeking allowances for the 26 schools with the worst problems. So far, there has been little progress.
“They use the peace process as an excuse to not reply to the humanitarian needs or requests,” explains the cluster coordinator. “They say it will all be dealt with at final negotiations.”
For many, what this all comes down to is politics. “Having displaced people from Area C, who will the PA claim the land for?” the coordinator asks. “Who are they supposed to serve if it is empty? This is a very strong motive for the Israeli policy in Area C.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misrepresented the process of the creation of the education cluster. We apologize for the error.