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How to fight the demolition of a West Bank school? Start the year early

For years the Israeli government has tried to destroy Khan al-Ahmar’s eco-friendly school, along with the rest of the tiny West Bank hamlet. So the Palestinian Authority cut short the summer break and started the school year early. The students didn’t seem to mind.

By Oren Ziv

Palestinian leaders, including the PA minister of education and MK Ahmad Tibi, welcome the schoolchildren of Khan al-Ahmar on the first day of the school year, which was pushed back by a month and a half to stop the demolition of the village, July 16, 2018. (Oren Ziv)

Palestinian leaders, including the PA minister of education and MK Ahmad Tibi, welcome the schoolchildren of Khan al-Ahmar on the first day of the school year, which was pushed back by a month and a half to stop the demolition of the village, July 16, 2018. (Oren Ziv)

Dozens of schoolchildren welcomed the new school year in the West Bank hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar Monday morning, a month and a half before it officially starts, in an attempt to stop the impending demolition of the entire village.

Ever since Israel announced its intention to destroy Khan al-Ahmar and evict its residents, the village’s eco-school, which was built out of tires and mud with funding from an Italian NGO, has become the focal point of the demolition. After the High Court of Justice issued an injunction against the demolition last week, the state asked the court to exclude the school from its ruling, so it could demolish it and prevent the school year from starting early.

The Palestinian school year is officially set to begin on September 1st. The Palestinian Authority, however, had hoped to push back the start date, making it increasingly difficult for Israel to justify demolishing the school while the school year was already in session. Both sides understand the power of the school, which has turned Khan al-Ahmar into such a pressing political and diplomatic issue.

The impending destruction and displacement of Khan al-Ahmar, one of dozen Bedouin villages located in the E1 area between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, has been called a war crime by rights groups like B’Tselem and condemned by various foreign governments. In the past, pressure by American and European diplomats succeeding in staving off demolitions that seemed imminent. Ever since Israeli High Court gave its go-ahead for the village’s destruction in late May, Khan al-Ahmar has become a site of frenzied activity, including protests, press conferences, and Israeli and international activists and journalists driving up and down the unpaved road that leads to the village.

On Sunday, right-wing Israeli NGO Regavim petitioned the High Court, demanding it intervene and prevent the first day of school from proceeding as planned. The court refused to issue an injunction, instead ruling that Regavim’s petition will be combined with that of the village against the demolition, both of which will be discussed in a hearing set for mid-August.

Palestinian schoolgirls sit outside the school in Khan al-Ahmar, which held its first day of school a month and a half early in order to prevent its planned demolition, July 16, 2018. (Oren Ziv)

Palestinian schoolgirls sit outside the school in Khan al-Ahmar, which held its first day of school a month and a half early in order to prevent its planned demolition, July 16, 2018. (Oren Ziv)

“Today we declared the opening of the school year in order to stop the attempt by the occupation forces to demolish the school,” said Palestinian Education Minister Dr. Sabri Sidam, who arrived at the village for the opening ceremony. “Despite previous military decisions, the school is still standing. Last year we were forced to start two weeks early, and this year a month and a half earlier than the official start date. We want to show Israel that we will protect our school as we protect our communities. This school symbolizes the willpower of the Palestinian people.”

At the center of the school is a giant yard covered in artificial turf. Over the past few weeks, it has become a gathering spot for Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists fighting to prevent the demolition. At around 7 a.m. on Monday morning, the Palestinian activists who slept in the yard rolled up their mattresses and packed up their belongings, as students from various nearby Bedouin communities arrived in their school uniforms. Activists feared that the army and the police, who have been laying the groundwork for the demolition, would forbid students and teachers from entering the school. On Monday morning, however, security forces were nowhere to be found.

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Dozens of media outlets on hand to film the excited children who, despite having their summer break cut short, seemed happy to go back to school. “They want to destroy our school, but we want to learn,” said Sujud, 11, as she stood at the entrance to her classroom, surrounded by her fellow students running around the yard. “Today we came so that they don’t destroy it, I am happy to go back to school and meet my friends.”

As the teachers divided the students into classes by age, a group of Palestinian leaders, including Sidam and MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) held a press conference in the back of the school. “This is a symbolic yet practical step,” Tibi said. “There is a struggle here between two forces — the occupation and its bulldozers on one side, and on the other side a school made of tires.”

Palestinian schoolgirls seen inside Khan al-Ahmar's, which held its first day of school a month and a half early in order to prevent its planned demolition, July 16, 2018. (Oren Ziv)

Palestinian schoolgirls seen inside Khan al-Ahmar’s, which held its first day of school a month and a half early in order to prevent its planned demolition, July 16, 2018. (Oren Ziv)

Despite the media frenzy, the teachers tried to keep the students in their new classrooms, where they handed out schoolbooks. Representatives from the Palestinian Ministry of Education passed out new backpacks to the students, who seemed more interested in the photographers congregating in one of the small classrooms.

“I am so excited about the new school year, even if the army comes we will remain,” said principal Halima Zahaika. “We spoke to the students about the situation, and naturally they are aware of the decision to demolish the school, but it is important that they continue to learn. Of course there is a danger that they will put the village under closure once again, making it difficult for teachers and students to come in. We will hope they they will be able to reach the school even even if this happens.”

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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