BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Israeli military jeeps came barreling down towards Jubbet al-Dhib’s first and only primary school late Tuesday night, terrifying locals who had been finishing preparations for the school’s grand opening set for the next morning. Soldiers shot tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets as they cleared the way for bulldozers and flatbed trucks brought in to take the school.
The school, located between four Palestinian villages on the outskirts of Bethlehem, was built with caravans on a concrete foundation by local authorities and international NGOs partnered with the European Union, hoping to mitigate the myriad of challenges facing students in the area.
Israeli soldiers quickly cleared the area with crowd control weapons, and within an hour of the soldier’s arrival the caravans had been loaded up and taken away along with the tables, desks, construction equipment and everything else other than the concrete foundation, bathrooms and tiny chairs brought for the seven-to-nine-year-olds that were expected to attend their first day of school the next morning.
The only other school in the area, Hateen Primary and Secondary School for Boys and Girls, located in the middle of Ta’amra village on the outskirts of Bethlehem city, is actually a shoddily refurbished home rented by the Palestinian Authority to serve the children of four local villages.
The landlord lives in a home on the upper floor.
If it was not for the faded cartoon paintings etched along the wall of Hateen School, one might think they were passing a car garage instead of the main educational institution in the area. The front of the school opens to three large garage-like doors. Each door takes up an entire wall of each room, leaving the children’s cramped classrooms exposed to the main street some meters away.
In the first room boys and girls sat nearly shoulder-to-shoulder on their very first day of kindergarten. These children live closest to the school, so they were given priority to attend class there. The rest of the children from the surrounding villages have to travel from up to six miles away.
There are no school buses and many people living in the rural village, not connected to electric grids or water mains, have no means of transportation and little money to afford daily trips to and from the school — leaving most of the children with no other choice but to walk.
The classrooms are not anywhere near large enough to hold the students it serves, which is only a small fraction of the children in the community.
Standing inside one of the classrooms in the basement of the home-turned-school, the principal, Nesreen Duwayb, explained that twenty students were supposed to be taught in the tiny room.
“It’s too hard to study in this kind of room, it makes it so the students aren’t able to focus very well, because look at the conditions,” she said, motioning to the small room around her, whose peeling walls were decorated from floor to ceiling in art and projects made by the children — an attempt to brighten the dreary room.
The new school, which would have served more than 60 children, was built to help relieve the situation for the students, but while the old school is located in Area B under joint Palestinian-Israeli control, the new school was located in Area C, which falls under full-Israeli control.
Any construction in Area C, which comprises more than 60 percent of the West Bank, requires a building permit, 98.5 percent of which are denied.
The European Union and the Palestinian Authority had hoped to get the school approved retroactively, as the two bodies have been pressuring Israeli authorities to approve a “master plan” for the villages, which would also allow them to be hooked up to electricity grids, water mains, garbage facilities and more.
A Palestinian employee with one of the NGOs involved in the project, who asked to remain anonymous, told Mondoweiss that building the school in Area C was a calculated plan.
“We are persuading the planning regime,” the employee explained, referring to the pressure put on Israel to approve the master plan. “We can’t leave Area C, this is the PA and EU’s policy, otherwise it’ll be confiscated later for settlement expansion. Having a school in Area C is a way further to support a master plan and to convince the community not to leave.”
A spokesperson with Israel’s Coordination for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the body charged with administering the occupied West Bank, said the school was confiscated after stop-work orders were issued days previously, however local activists said stop-work orders were only issued to the concrete bathrooms built next to the caravans. The bathrooms were left, while the caravans were confiscated.
The morning after the confiscation, the children still came. All 64 students who expected to start class at their new school gathered on the barren concrete foundation as part of a symbolic protest.
The children sang the national anthem to politicians, activists, parents and teachers before receiving brand new backpacks to take home with them.
For their second day of school, some of the children will return to the dilapidated school in the village, while most will continue taking the long walk to schools in other areas, where they are treated differently and made fun of, both for being from a rural area and for often showing up late in sweaty, dirty clothes from the long walk.
While very young, the children told Mondoweiss they understood very well what was happening around them.
“We came to school and found the school destroyed,” one young boy said. “It is the first day of school and we are just sad because the soldiers took our school, but we want to build it again and study here, we hope.”