Palestinian school razed after campaign by government-linked Jewish settler group

Yuval Abraham

+972 Magazine  /  May 8, 2023

The residents of Jib al-Dib lost their years-long fight to save their elementary school, leaving dozens of children without proper access to education.

On Sunday, the Israeli military demolished the elementary school in Jib al-Dib, an unrecognized village adjacent to a string of Jewish settlements in Area C of the occupied West Bank. Village residents reported that soldiers arrived at the building at around 5 a.m., prevented anyone from approaching the demolition site, forbade any documentation of the demolition, and then razed the school to the ground.

“They didn’t let anyone leave the village. They took a journalist’s camera equipment by force, and they didn’t let him through to take photos of the demolition,” said Fadia al-Wahash, a resident of Jib al-Dib. “They wouldn’t even let people out to go to work. Starting at 5 a.m., they blocked off the village. They declared [the area around the school] a closed military zone, there were drones flying in the air, and they destroyed our kids’ school.”

The school, which was attended by 40 children between the ages of 6 and 10, was built around six years ago, part of an initiative by the Palestinian Authority to construct schools in villages whose residents are at risk of expulsion by the Israeli military. According to the residents, before the school was built, the children in Jib al-Dib had to walk an hour each way to school. 

The right-wing organization Regavim, which was co-founded by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — who is also a minister in the Defense Ministry and oversees the Civil Administration, the bureaucratic arm of the occupation — spearheaded the legal fight against the school. Regavim focuses on petitioning for Palestinian structures built without permits to be demolished, and centers its fight on Area C, which is under full Israeli military and administrative control. Accordingly, the organization campaigned for the school to be torn down, first submitting a petition six years ago with the Jerusalem District Court. In a relatively unusual move — the court usually does not interfere with the Civil Administration’s decisions on what structures to demolish and when — the judge accepted the petition, apparently because of claims that the building was not safe for children.

The school building was constructed without the permission of the military, which rejects around 99 percent of the building permit requests submitted by Palestinians living in Area C. This policy of rejecting nearly all permit applications prevents the residents of villages like Jib al-Dib from legally building any structure, forcing them to live in substandard conditions. 

As a result, residents of unrecognized villages build all necessary structures quickly and cheaply — without pouring concrete, and by using materials like blocks and tin — for fear that the structure will be demolished by the military and their investment in it will have been a waste. These unsound structures can then be deemed “unsafe” by the military, making them a target for demolition. Villagers say that such claims around safety are a cynical move by Regavim, deployed only to achieve the organization’s goal of expelling the Palestinian villagers.

Regavim celebrated the school’s demolition online; next to “before and after” photos posted on its Facebook page, the organization wrote that “this is only one out of more than 100 illegal school buildings.” Right-wing outlets claimed that the Jib al-Dib school was built in the Herodion National Park, but this is incorrect: the school was not located within the borders of the park, but was in fact adjacent to it, between the villages of Jib al-Dib and Beit Ta’mir, and built on private Palestinian land that a local Palestinian family had donated for the children’s benefit.

The Civil Administration refuses to recognize Jib al-Dib, even though, according to satellite images, it existed before 1967, and residents say it was founded in the 1920s. With the help of planners from the International Peace and Cooperation Center (IPCC), a Palestinian urban planning and rights NGO, village residents invested heavily to prepare a proposal for the school’s construction, which they submitted to the Civil Administration in 2012. The proposal passed through all the relevant committees but was eventually held up with no explanation.

There is, according to Emil Mishriki, a lawyer with the Society of St. Yves, a Catholic human rights group that represents the village residents, “a massive shortage of classrooms in the area. And yet the Palestinians in Area C can’t build anything. No matter how hard they try to follow all the requirements to submit applications for building permits, their request will be denied. The residents have no choice.”

Aside from the effective ban on building schools and new homes, the residents are also not allowed to connect to the electrical grid. The electricity sometimes goes out and does not return until the following morning, al-Wahash said. “Everything we do has to be carefully calculated. In the summer we can’t use fans, because they use too much power, even though the heat here can be hellish. In the winter, if there’s no sun, we can’t use electricity to heat our homes.”

In response to a request for comment, the Civil Administration stated that “[s]ecurity forces evacuated a school building this morning that had been built illegally and without the approval of the relevant authorities, that was found to be unsafe for the students and others inside it, and that was designated for demolition by a court order.

“As part of the enforcement against illegal building, on April 19, 2017, an order to halt construction was filed against the owner of the building. Later, after the relevant committee heard his claims, a final demolition order was issued. In spite of the decision and the orders, the school continued to be used and was even expanded. Additionally, an engineering evaluation determined that the building is dangerous and unfit for habitation or use and was at constant risk of collapse due to climate change. 

“Prior to the enforcement of the order, numerous actions were taken against the owner of the building, among them attempts to negotiate and even granting advanced notice before the enforcement was carried out.”

Yuval Abraham is a journalist and activist based in Jerusalem