Palestinian Bedouin school children walk towards their tents on September 15, 2010 at their Bedouin camp outside the Israeli West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumin. Israel does not recognize the Bedouins’ property claims and has demolished homes and schools in the area.
© 2010 Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images
(New York, April 25, 2018) – Israel has repeatedly denied Palestinians permits to build schools in the West Bank and demolished schools built without permits, making it more difficult or impossible for thousands of children to get an education, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 25, 2018, Israel’s high court will hold what may be the final hearing on the military’s plans to demolish a school in Khan al-Ahmar Ab al-Hilu, a Palestinian community. It is one of the 44 Palestinian schools at risk of full or partial demolition because Israeli authorities say they were built illegally.
The Israeli military refuses to permit most new Palestinian construction in the 60 percent of the West Bank where it has exclusive control over planning and building, even as the military facilitates settler construction. The military has enforced this discriminatory system by razing thousands of Palestinian properties, including schools, creating pressure on Palestinians to leave their communities. When Israeli authorities have demolished schools, they have not taken steps to ensure that children in the area have access to schools of at least the same quality.
“Israeli authorities have been getting away for years with demolishing primary schools and preschools in Palestinian communities,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Israeli military’s refusal to issue building permits and then knocking down schools without permits is discriminatory and violates children’s right to education.”
Israeli military authorities have demolished or confiscated Palestinian school buildings or property in the West Bank at least 16 times since 2010, with 12 incidents since 2016, repeatedly targeting some schools, Human Rights Watch found. Over a third of Palestinian communities in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank where the Israeli military has exclusive control over building under the 1993 Oslo accords, currently do not have primary schools, and 10,000 children attend school in tents, shacks, or other structures without heating or air-conditioning, according to the UN. About 1,700 children had to walk five or more kilometers to school due to road closures, lack of passable roads or transportation, or other problems, according to 2015 UN estimates. The long distances and fear of harassment by settlers or the military lead some parents to take their children out of school, with a disproportionate impact on girls.
“The school has become the lifeline for this and the five surrounding communities,” said a community leader in Khan al-Ahmar Ab al-Hilu, known as Abu Khamis, about a school under threat of demolition that was built with humanitarian aid. The school also offers literacy instruction for adults. He said that children previously had to travel 15 to 22 kilometers to school, but that now, “A child can go to school without risking accidents or dealing with [taxi drivers] and the city. Now all girls go to school.” He said that the international community had helped build the school and added, “Is the international community unable to protect it?”
Most West Bank schools at risk of demolition fall within Area C. Israel justifies its demolition of schools and other Palestinian property there not on security grounds, but rather on the grounds that they were built without permits from the military. However, the military refuses the vast majority of Palestinian building requests, and has zoned only 1 percent of Area C for Palestinian building, even as construction proceeds with few constraints in nearby Jewish settlements.
A Palestinian community leader in the Jordan Valley, Abu Sakker, told Human Rights Watch that Israeli restrictions had reduced three communities that had a total of 150 families in 1997 to 45 families in 2010. Haaretz reported in 2010 that Israeli demolitions and the de facto ban on construction had led 180 families – up to 1,000 people – to leave Jiftlik, the largest Palestinian community in Area C. A Palestinian refugee rights group, Badil, documented cases of forcible transfer in a 2017 report.
Schools in three Palestinian communities in Area C, east of Jerusalem, are at particular risk. Israeli authorities are trying to demolish trailers used as a preschool for 25 children in Jabal al-Baba that replaced a building the military dismantled in August 2017. Israeli settlers have repeatedly petitioned the courts to order the military to demolish the school in Khan al-Ahmar Ab al-Hilu, the only school accessible to 160 children from five villages in the area. The Israeli military is trying to move the residents to a different area over their strong objections. In al-Muntar, Israel’s high court has rejected a petition challenging a demolition order against the school and issued an injunction against using the school. A new petition, demanding that the military assesses a building plan submitted by the village’s residents, is still pending in court. The court temporarily enjoined the military from demolishing the school and scheduled a hearing for July 1.
The three communities are among 46 Palestinian communities that the UN considers at “high risk of forcible transfer” due to an Israeli “relocation” plan that would forcibly evict the entire communities.
The school demolitions are consistent with other actions that make communities unviable, such as home demolitions, and the refusal to zone the communities or grant them connections to utilities like water and electricity, Human Rights Watch said. Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office on March 31, 2009, Israeli forces have demolished 5,351 Palestinian buildings in the West Bank for lack of building permits, including East Jerusalem, displacing 7,988 people, including more than 4,100 children, based on UN data. Israel has not offered resettlement options or compensation to families whose homes were demolished during this period.
Israel’s destruction of Palestinian schools, and its failure to replace them, violates its obligation as an occupying power to “facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children,” and violates the prohibition on interfering with the activities of educational institutions or requisitioning their property. International law prohibits an occupying power from destroying property, including schools, unless “absolutely necessary” for “military operations.” The Fourth Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court prohibit widespread, unlawful destruction of property as a war crime.
The intentional forcible transfer of civilians within an occupied territory – the movement of people under duress to a place not of their choosing – is also a grave breach of the laws of war. The Rome Statute states that forcible transfer can occur “directly or indirectly,” through coercive circumstances as well as direct force. Israel’s demolitions of schools are part of a policy that has forced Palestinians to leave their communities.
Parties to the Geneva Conventions are obliged to “ensure respect” for the law of occupation, and to prosecute “grave breaches” – including the war crimes of wanton destruction and forcible transfer – regardless of the country in which the crimes took place. Countries should investigate individuals whom evidence suggests may be responsible for these crimes and prosecute those over whom they have jurisdiction. The International Criminal Court prosecutor should also examine the school demolitions as part of her ongoing preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine.
The European Union or its member states financially supported 21 of the 36 schools in Area C of the West Bank that are at risk of demolition. The other at-risk schools are in East Jerusalem. Hundreds of the structures Israel has demolished were financed by foreign donors, including 400 European-funded structures.
“Israeli officials should be on notice that razing dozens of Palestinian schools not only can block children from getting an education, but may be an international crime,” Van Esveld said. “As part of their efforts to support Palestinian schools, other countries should demand that those destroying schools should be held to account.”
For more details about the schools at risk of demolition, a timeline of recent school demolitions, and the applicable international law, see below.
Khan al-Ahmar Ab al-Hilu
About 180 people, including 90 children, live in Khan al-Ahmar Ab al-Hilu, a community east of Jerusalem established in the early 1950s – before Israel occupied the West Bank – by Bedouin Palestine refugees from the Negev desert. Israeli military planning documents do not recognize the community as a residential area, and allocate its land to the large, neighboring settlement of Maale Adumim. Israeli authorities have on many occasions since the 1980s confiscated land, demolished buildings, and expelled Palestinian residents from the Khan al-Ahmar area.
In 2016 Israeli authorities demolished 12 buildings in the community that were built without permits, leaving 60 people homeless, and in March 2017 issued demolition orders for every structure in Khan al-Ahmar Ab al-Hilu. The military is planning to forcibly relocate the residents to a site near a municipal garbage dump, which Israel calls “Jabal West,” Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman told journalists in August 2017. Residents are resisting because they were not consulted, the new site is on land taken from other Palestinians, and the plan would not be economically or socially viable due to their pastoral way of life.
Separately, associations from three Israeli settlements have repeatedly petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice to order the demolition of the Khan al-Ahmar Ab al-Hilu primary school, which a foreign nongovernmental group helped construct in 2009 using 2,200 tires and mud mixed with falafel oil. The school serves 160 children, including children from other Bedouin communities in the area. Before the school was built, children had to travel long distances to school in Jericho, or walk on a hazardous path next to a busy highway, Route 1, to get to school; two children from the community were fatally struck by cars.
The military issued a demolition order for the school upon its completion, and several times since, but has not carried them out. Nearby settlements have petitioned for the military to enforce the orders. Israel’s High Court will hear the settlers’ petition, which Israel’s state attorney supports, at the same time as it hears a petition by Khan al-Ahmar Ab al-Hilu’s residents against the military’s plans to demolish the village, and is expected to rule on both on April 25.
Israeli forces confiscated prefabricated classrooms and other infrastructure at the elementary school in the Bedouin refugee community of al-Muntar, in Area C east of Jerusalem, in August 2017. The community has about 100 school-age children. The school was intended to serve 70 children and currently has 33, ages 5 to 11. The others walk more than two kilometers each way over steep and rough desert terrain, to the nearest elementary school – in Wadi Abu Hindi – which also has a pending demolition order. Haaretz newspaper reported that although residents have lived in al-Muntar since before the state of Israel was established, the Israeli military never recognized it or zoned it for residential construction.
The lawyer representing the residents, Yotam Ben Hillel, told Human Rights Watch that in late 2016, the military issued stop-work orders against the school and a preschool next to it that had opened in 2013 on the grounds that they lacked building permits. The military subsequently rejected the community’s application for a building permit and ordered the school’s demolition. The community appealed to the High Court of Justice, saying the demolition would unduly harm the children’s right to an education.