Mondoweiss / August 27, 2023
With the start of the new school year, Palestinian children in Masafer Yatta defy Israeli army and Jewish settler harassment to go to class in tents, since Israel demolished their school last year.
Every year, students around the world welcome a new school term with enthusiasm. Not so for students in Masafer Yatta.
Located in Palestine’s South Hebron Hills in the West Bank, Masafer Yatta is home to 215 Palestinian households, including about 1,150 people, 569 of whom are children. With the start of the new school year, those children had to prepare themselves not only for school but for the terror that would inevitably follow them during their long commute on foot all the way to class.
That terror is harassment from the Israeli army and from violent settlers.
In November of last year, Israeli forces demolished the Isfey al-Fauqa elementary school, and along with it the ambitions of its students, under the guise of it being in the middle of a “firing zone.” Israeli authorities claimed that the school, like the rest of the Palestinian herding villages in the area, did not fulfill the requirements for “permanent residency” — despite the fact that the families of Masafer Yatta produced paperwork showing their ownership of the land dating back to before 1967.
Residents of Masafer Yatta have been facing expulsion threats and demolition orders from the Israeli occupation since 1981 when the “firing zone” designation was first introduced. Then, in 1999, the occupation authorities issued eviction orders for approximately 700 Palestinian residents of Masafer Yatta, expelling most of them by force and destroying or confiscating their homes and property.
Since then, Israeli authorities have progressively tightened the noose on the Palestinian presence in Masafer Yatta. The demolition of the school in Isfey al-Fauqa was preceded by an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in May 2022, which greenlit the forcible expulsion of eight herding communities in the area.
“The Israeli May decision to eject eight Palestinian villages in the area to clear the way for military drills is another attempt to ethnically cleanse Palestinians,” Nasir Nawaj’a, a local activist, tells Mondoweiss.
According to OCHA, this eviction contradicted an existing Israeli military order that “stipulated that the restrictions regarding the firing zone would not be applied to existing residents of the area.”
The school in Isfey al-Fauqa had served dozens of students from nearby villages. According to the teachers, Israeli forces assaulted the students and confiscated the contents of the school, including stationery, tables, chairs, and bags, before leveling the school to the ground.
After Israeli forces demolished the school, locals erected two tents on top of the rubble, allowing the children to relocate there to pursue their education among the ruins. As if that wasn’t enough, in order for the students to get there, they had to walk 10 km to the makeshift school, because the Israeli army prevented any kind of vehicle from passing through the so-called “Firing Zone 918.”
Slow ethnic cleansing
This year, students are back to Isfey al-Fauqa to attend classes. They’re still learning in tents, but this time in the sweltering August heat.
Sanad Makhamreh, 13, sits in a tent on the grounds of the school. “It’s very hot and sometimes I barely hear the teacher’s voice,” he complains. “We arrive at school exhausted because there is no transportation, and the walk to it is so long.”
“Every day, I go home and tell my mother that tomorrow I am not going to school,” he tells Mondoweiss. “It’s sweltering under the tents.” Sanad tells me that most of the students’ families couldn’t afford to buy new clothes or backpacks for school.
Enduring the summer heat is the least of the students’ concerns, however. Nawaj’a explains that the Israeli occupation recently installed several military checkpoints between villages, and confiscated any working Palestinian car they found. “Teachers are afraid to drive to school. Even students with special needs have to go on foot,” Nawaj’a tells Mondoweiss.
Bisan al-Khaldy, a recent high school graduate, describes the draconian Israeli policies she has to endure as a student in Masafer Yatta’s secondary school, which is under threat of demolition.
“I graduated with an excellent 89% average, and only after overcoming several obstacles,” she tells Mondoweiss. “I always feel a sense of foreboding. At any time, the army can storm my school and demolish it on our heads. They’ve threatened to do so many times already.”
Bisan reports that this uncertainty has a negative impact on the mental health of students, whose future is left unclear. Added to that is the terror they experience at the hands of soldiers and settlers, who regularly assault or intimidate them. Soldiers stationed in military checkpoints often detain passing students or teachers for several hours under the sun without cause.
Bisan recalls seeing a 7-year-old boy who was made by the soldiers to stand at the checkpoint for over an hour until he fainted. Not only that — the soldiers obstructed the ambulance from reaching him, delaying the boy’s arrival to the hospital.
Yet Bisan is defiant, insisting that they will continue with their education and confront these atrocities, and questioning where the international community is in the face of these systematic violations of international humanitarian law.
A school teacher at Al-Fakhit Primary and Secondary Schools, who spoke with Mondoweiss on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the occupation, said that teachers are struggling to deal with the psychological toll that simply going to school has on their students. The Israeli army deliberately conducts military drills during class sessions, including explosions and low-flying planes that are constantly hovering overhead, the teacher said.
Parents are often forced to seek psychological help for their children to assist them in coping with the trauma, indicating that they face great difficulty in persuading their children to go to school. They usually say that they’re afraid of being exposed to violations by the occupation forces and settlers.
As for settler harassment, many students arrive late to school as a result of being accosted and regularly assaulted by militant settlers in the area. The students end up missing several lessons. Yet despite these difficulties, high school exam results in recent years have been as high as ever, with many going on to study at West Bank universities. Yet with an increase in food insecurity and a decreased income, more and more people are reliant on humanitarian aid. Nothing about the current status quo seems sustainable.
The constant exposure to settler violence and military drills fosters an environment of permanent terror, shaping the everyday lives of the people of Masafer Yatta. Nawaj’a asserts that these Israeli policies amount to forcible transfer. “Israeli occupation authorities have been putting extraordinary pressure on the Palestinians in Masafer Yatta to leave the area,” he asserts. “These brutal actions are violations of international humanitarian law.”
Yet the people of Masafer Yatta have chosen to respond to these circumstances by challenging Jewish settlers and the army.
“Apartheid Israel is wrong if it thinks that by demolishing our homes and assaulting our people it will discourage us from staying in our homeland,” Nawaj’a says. “We are staying here, herding our sheep and cultivating our land. Nothing will uproot us.”
Asem al-Jerjawi is a journalist and writer from Palestine and is part of the 16th October media group