Mohammad al-Kaabneh still remembers what it was like to walk to school for miles along muddy, dangerous highways, past speeding cars and Israeli soldiers. Because he grew up in the West Bank campsite of Ras al-Tin, the closest school was in the village of al-Mughayyer, over four miles away.
“We would walk along this little road in the hills, sometimes for hours. Sometimes there would be army patrols and settlers, or it would be raining and muddy, or fast cars. It was really hard for us as small children. When we arrived at school — if we made it — we’d be exhausted. When we got home, instead of studying, we’d go right to sleep,” said al-Kaabneh, who recently graduated from a teaching college in Ramallah.
After years of watching their children march to the neighboring village to get to school, community members in Ras al-Tin, a small hamlet of 280 Bedouin herders located in the central West Bank close to the settlement of Kochav Hashahar, decided to build their own.
They brought in €30,000 ($35,000) in funding from several European governments and erected a white schoolhouse for the town’s 50 students on a hill overlooking the main campsite.
But almost as soon as it began operating in early September 2020, the school was issued a demolition order by the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration for building without a permit. Ras al-Tin’s residents do not deny that they lack a permit. In fact, they did not even apply for one — but argue that Israel rarely issues permits for Palestinian construction.
The small school employs just five teachers, who are bused in daily by the Palestinian Authority Education Ministry from the villages around Ramallah. But local leader Salaymah al-Kaabneh said that without it, education for kids in the community was suffering.
“We would send our kids off to school and they’d come back without an education. Our educational situation here was bad for such a long time, so we built the school so we could improve our community,” al-Kaabneh said.
According to Nora al-Azhari, the school’s principal, the community’s girls suffered the most from not having a nearby school.
“Many girls, once they reached seventh or eighth grade, would no longer go to school. Fearing for their safety, their families would no longer want to send the girls to school. So the boys would continue going, and the girls would sit at home,” Al-Azhari said.
“If our young people had a proper education, our circumstances would be far better than they are now,” al-Kaabneh said. “This school is absolutely essential.”
Facts on the ground
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Israel has accelerated its demolition of illegally built Palestinian homes and infrastructure. Around 798 Palestinians have been rendered homeless by Israeli demolitions since January, a record high, according to the human rights group B’Tselem.
In ordering the demolition of the school, the Civil Administration argues that it is merely executing “enforcement procedures against offenses in planning and construction, as part of its duty to protect public order and the rule of law.”
The Civil Administration was never even asked for a permit, the government body said, and the school was built in the face of numerous orders to cease construction. According to the Civil Administration, the Ras al-Tin community is cynically attempting to buy time in the courts to firmly establish the school and make it harder to demolish.
“This is an illegal structure that has been built deliberately, in violation of several orders to cease construction. After parts of the structure were confiscated by the [Civil Administration], it was rebuilt even as the petitioners misused legal procedures… in an attempt to create facts on the ground,” the Civil Administration contended in court filings.
Some 52 West Bank Palestinian schools have outstanding demolition orders, according to the European Union.
The small campsite, which has been in the area for decades, is not registered with the Civil Administration, which rarely recognizes Bedouin communities. But unlike some well-known West Bank sites such as Khan al-Ahmar — which the state argues was built by squatters on public land — or Khirbet Humsa — which lies in areas the state has declared a military training zone — no sides dispute that the lands on which Ras al-Tin’s residents live are private and properly registered with Israeli authorities, nor is the village itself slated for demolition.
Ras al-Tin’s residents acknowledge that they did not get approval before commencing construction. While they did present a master plan for the hamlet to the Civil Administration for approval — which if passed would also legalize the school — it was only submitted after the school had been built.
However, even if they had applied for a permit, Israeli authorities rarely issue permits for Palestinian construction in Area C, where the community is located. The Civil Administration seems to take a more tolerant view toward construction in Israeli outposts in the West Bank, which are considered illegal under Israeli law.
Under the 1995 Oslo Accords, which divided the West Bank into three zones, Israel is responsible for administering all civilian issues in Area C, while the Palestinian Authority administers areas A and B.
According to the human rights group Bimkom, which advocates for equality in urban planning, the Civil Administration rejected 98.6 percent of Palestinian applications for Area C construction permits between 2016 and 2018. The price of applying for a permit varies but can run as high as thousands of shekels.
“Since the Oslo Accords, Israel has forced Palestinian communities to exist without permits. The chance of actually receiving one is practically zero,” said Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, a researcher at Bimkom.
In an opinion submitted to the courts, Cohen-Lifshitz said that the land on which the school is built, like the area on which they live, is privately owned and registered. Moreover, the area’s zoning as “agricultural land” does not preclude building a school, he claimed.
“The existing plan allows for the establishment of a school. But the Civil Administration is attempting to prevent any development by Palestinians in Area C,” Cohen-Lifshitz said.
The pro-settlement group Regavim has come out strongly against the Ras al-Tin school, which it asserted in a social media post was built “to create facts on the ground to prevent #Jewish contiguity in our ancestral homeland.” The organization argued that the school had been constructed in order to facilitate a “land grab” by residents and increase the likelihood that the area’s Palestinian occupants would remain.
The Palestinian Authority, has indeed designated the school a “challenge school,” meaning that it is placed specifically in a community deemed to be at risk as part of an effort to expand its services in Area C.
The site’s European funding is another source of controversy. Right-wing politicians and organizations have long accused the EU of aiding Palestinians in building illegal structures in an attempt to entrench the Palestinian presence in Area C, which many Israeli right-wing politicians hope to someday annex.
Regavim has also said that EU-funded structures in the West Bank — constructed in opposition to Israeli law — undermine Israeli sovereignty.
“Violation of the zoning and building laws in effect in the area by the EU constitutes… a gross violation of international law,” Regavim said in a 2012 report.
The EU, in turn, has condemned Israeli demolitions of illegally built Palestinian structures as “an impediment towards the two-state solution” and vowed to continue funding some of them.
“One hears certain voices in Israel saying that ‘these people are illegal, they shouldn’t be there,’ ‘You’re supporting these illegal Palestinians.’ These guys lived here for centuries!” said Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, the head of the EU’s mission to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Given that Israel occupies the West Bank, it does not have sovereignty over the area, Kuhn von Burgsdorff said, citing the Fourth Geneva Convention. According to Kuhn von Burgsdorff, the Convention obligates third parties like the EU to step in and provide humanitarian assistance to Palestinians living under occupation when Israel fails to do so.
“We are not violating sovereignty, we are maintaining international humanitarian standards,” Kuhn von Burgsdorff said.
Israel disputes the relevance of the Fourth Geneva Convention to its control of the West Bank, although it has said in the past that it seeks to comply voluntarily with the Convention’s humanitarian obligations.
The Civil Administration has further argued that the school is not fit for occupancy, and could even pose a risk to the hamlet’s students.
“The unfinished building is in the middle of construction. It is not possible to conduct studies within it, and it constitutes a security risk to any inside it,” the Civil Administration said, noting that an independent engineer had signed off on designating the building a “dangerous structure.”
Even local schoolteacher Sumud Be’erat, who strongly supports the school, acknowledged that when she first showed up to teach in early September, “[the school] was just concrete and a tin roof. It was kind of shocking. I went back to the Palestinian Authority Education Ministry and asked them to put me somewhere else…we were worried that the kids would fall on concrete and hurt themselves.”
Residents, however, contended in court filings that the Civil Administration actively made the building less appropriate for instruction: expropriating tables and school equipment, and at one point even removing and seizing the school’s roof.
Cohen-Lifshitz, the planning researcher, scoffed at the claim that the Civil Administration was opposing the project out of concern for the children’s safety, describing it as an attempt to pull the wool over the court’s eyes.
“Even though this is the only way for many students to access education, the Civil Administration is not attending to this need,” he said.
According to Cohen-Lifshitz, the same firm that signed off on the opinion deeming the building dangerous also conducts demolitions for the Civil Administration, which he called “a clear case of a conflict of interest.”
The Civil Administration declined to comment on the matter, saying that it would respond to Cohen-Lifshitz’s allegations in the courts.
For their part, Ras al-Tin’s residents say that the daily hike to the neighboring village is more dangerous for their children than the spare, concrete school. Be’erat, the teacher, said that students sometimes burst into tears if adults mentioned that the school could be destroyed.
“It would be catastrophic for the kids to have to go back to the way things were, when they had to walk back and forth every day. It’s not right that they should have to pay such a large price for their right to an education,” al-Azhari said. “This isn’t a luxury. They’re not asking for a plane or an airport. It’s a school.”