(New York) – 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. 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 Abu 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.
“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 Abu al-Hilu
About 180 people, including 90 children, live in Khan al-Ahmar Abu 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 Abu al-Hilu’s residents against the military’s plans to demolish the village, and is expected to rule on both on April 25.
A number of settlers from Kfar Adumim have recently lobbied to support the Bedouin community. One of the judges who has held hearings on the case, Noam Sohlberg, lives in a different settlement.
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.
The High Court ordered a halt to construction work on the school and then dismissed the residents’ petition in December 2017, stating that the school had been built without authorization, construction had continued despite the stop-work order, and that the court’s temporary injunction against demolition would expire on February 1.
On January 25, the community submitted a detailed construction plan to the military, hoping it would finally lead to obtaining permits. The community also asked the court to extend the injunction against demolishing the school until the military replied. On March 28, the state attorney’s office asked the court to reject the community’s building plan for the school and lift the injunction on the demolition. The state attorney also asked the court to order the community to pay the government’s court expenses. The court did not lift the temporary injunction and scheduled a hearing for July 1.
Israeli authorities have issued demolition orders for every structure in the community. Israel’s state attorney has said in court that apart from the school, the demolition of other buildings in al-Muntar is not currently a “priority” and that residents could appeal future demolitions. However, the demolition orders remain valid, and no new structures may be built.
Timeline of Recent School Demolitions
Israeli forces have demolished or confiscated Palestinian classrooms, playgrounds, or school-related water and electricity infrastructure at least 16 times since 2010:
- On April 9, Israeli authorities confiscated trailers used as preschool and primary school classrooms for 42 children in Khirbet Zanuta, an isolated community in the southern West Bank. The school buildings were set up in March. The Israeli military is seeking to forcibly evict the village’s residents after it declared the area is an archaeological site.
- On April 11, Israeli authorities told residents of Jabal al-Baba, in the E1 area east of Jerusalem, that they would demolish a portable building built in late March as a preschool for 25 children. The community’s lawyer appealed to the Israeli military, and was told that if her appeal is denied the kindergarten will be demolished on April 22. Israeli forces had previously dismantled and confiscated a prefabricated classroom and classroom furniture at a kindergarten built by the community In August 2017.
- On February 4, Israel demolished two primary school classrooms in Abu Nuwar, east of Jerusalem – one of the 46 Palestinian villages in the West Bank targeted by the “relocation” plan. Israeli authorities have gone to the school as often as three times a week since January, often taking photographs or questioning residents. Since 2016, Israeli forces have confiscated or demolished donor-funded primary school classrooms and solar panels in Abu Nuwar eight times, and demolished the homes of 26 people. The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, told the Security Council that Israel has applied “steady pressure” on Abu Nuwar residents to move because their community “is in the strategic E1 area planned for the expansion of Ma’ale Adumim,” a large settlement. Khan al-Ahmar is also in the E1 area.
- In December, Israeli authorities notified the high court that they intend to demolish every structure in Khirbet Susya, in the southern West Bank, including its only school. Beginning in 1986, the military has repeatedly demolished residences, closed water wells, and forcibly evicted residents, claiming it is an “archaeological site.”
- In August, Israeli forces seized six donor-funded trailers used as classrooms in Jubbet al-Dhib, near Bethlehem, the day before the new primary school was due to open for 64 students. Residents used concrete blocks to rebuild five classrooms, but Israeli forces returned in early September and seized building tools, and used teargas and stun grenades against residents who protested. Residents had begun work on water and sanitation for the school in March, but the military issued a “stop work” order in April. Authorities have refused to connect the village to the electric grid for decades. In June, they seized 96 solar panels donated by the Dutch government, stating they were installed without permits, but later returned them. Residents told Human Rights Watch that children had dropped out of school because of the difficulty of walking to schools in other villages, and that several families left the village because of harsh living conditions created by Israeli restrictions.
- In April, Israeli forces razed a school in Khirbet Tana, near Nablus, under demolition orders issued in March. Israeli forces had demolished the village school three times between 2005 and 2010. Because of home demolitions in 2010, the village’s population was nearly cut in half, from 56 to 27 families. After residents rebuilt the school in 2011, Israeli forces demolished it again in March 2016.
- Authorities issued new demolition orders against primary schools in three other communities: Arab al-Ramadin al-Janubi, Wadi al-Siq, and Khan al-Ahmar Abu al-Hilu.
- Israeli forces demolished 12 buildings in Khan al-Ahmar Abu al-Hilu in 2016, leaving 60 people homeless. Israeli forces also dismantled and confiscated two donor-funded trailers used as a preschool in Sateh el-Bahar, near Jericho.
- In August, Israeli forces demolished a children’s recreational facility in the village of Nabi Samwil, near Jerusalem. Israeli authorities issued demolition or stop-work orders against a school classroom in the village in 2013.
- Israeli forces’ demolitions of Palestinian water networks near East Jerusalem cut the water to a school in the Bedouin community of Arab al-Jahaleen for 10 days. Authorities issued a demolition order for a school in Masaffer Yatta in the southern West Bank.
- In 2014, Israeli authorities issued new demolition and stop-work orders against four schools – in East Jerusalem, Hebron, Tubas, and Jaba’, a Bedouin community. In Hebron, Israeli forces declared one school to be a “closed military area” and used another school as an overnight detention center.
- Israeli authorities issued demolition orders for the school in the village of Khirbet Jinba, in the southern West Bank, and confiscated the vehicle that teachers used to reach the school. Teachers tried to ride to the school on donkeys, but the trip was too long, and the school closed, Haaretz reported. The nearest school was 20 kilometers away. Khirbet Jinba is one of eight neighboring Palestinian communities whose residents the military is seeking to expel, after declaring that they fall within “Firing Zone 918,” a military training area. Military restrictions and road closures have continued to affect the area.
- Israeli forces demolished a classroom in Dkaika village, in the southern West Bank. As of 2017 the authorities had issued demolition orders for 111 of Dkaika’s 140 structures. Israeli forces also demolished the playground of al-Ibrahimiya School and College, in East Jerusalem.
- Military forces closed roads to Palestinians in the northern Jordan Valley, forcing 166 primary-school students from four communities to take detours of up to 45 kilometers, which meant that they had to spend the week in the town where the school is located, away from their families.
International Law on the Right to Education and Occupied Territory
Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the widespread, unlawful destruction of property and “the deportation or transfer” of people in an occupied territory are war crimes. The ICC statute went into effect for Palestine on April 1, 2015. Separately, the Palestinian government had also lodged a declaration giving the ICC a mandate dating back to June 13, 2014, over serious crimes in Palestine. The ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has opened a preliminary examination into potential serious crimes committed by all sides. Human Rights Watch has called on the ICC prosecutor to open a formal investigation into the situation, given strong evidence that serious crimes have been committed in Palestine since 2014.
In April 2018, Bensouda, in the context of Israel’s killing of protesters in Gaza, issued a statement noting that “any new alleged crime committed in the context of the situation in Palestine may be subjected to my Office’s scrutiny.”
Common article 1 to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, including the convention applicable to situations of occupation, obliges all states “to respect and to ensure respect” for the obligations set forth in the conventions. States must seek to fulfill this obligation effectively. The authoritative International Committee of the Red Cross Commentary on common article 1 says that all contracting parties “must do everything reasonably in their power to prevent and bring … violations to an end.” The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 also obliges all countries to prosecute “grave breaches,” including the wanton destruction of property and the forcible transfer of people in an occupied territory from their homes to other locations within or outside the territory. The prohibition includes an occupier’s imposition of living conditions so harsh as to effectively force people to leave.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which interprets the Convention on the Rights of the Child, has stated that Israel must respect and apply the convention in Palestine. Under the convention, Israel is obliged to respect the right to education of everyone in the territory and ensure primary and secondary education are available and accessible to every child. In its last review of Israel’s compliance with the treaty in 2013, the committee called on Israel “to immediately declare a moratorium on the destruction of schools” in Palestine.