By Henriette Chacar MASAFER YATTA, West Bank (Reuters) -Haitham Abu Sabha, the principal at Masafer Yatta Secondary School in the occupied West Bank, expects his students to show up late to class. On some days, when the children are there on time, it is the teachers who have yet to arrive. “Better late than never,” […]
At some West Bank schools, looming displacement disrupts return to class
By Henriette Chacar
MASAFER YATTA, West Bank (Reuters) -Haitham Abu Sabha, the principal at Masafer Yatta Secondary School in the occupied West Bank, expects his students to show up late to class. On some days, when the children are there on time, it is the teachers who have yet to arrive.
“Better late than never,” said Abu Sabha, who has been running the school in the village of al-Fakhiet for six years.
Masafer Yatta, a group of hamlets in the hills close to the southern town of Hebron, has become a major flashpoint since an Israeli court ruling in May cleared the way for the largest displacement in decades to make way for a military firing zone.
As movement restrictions and live fire exercises have stepped up, the situation facing pupils in one of the most vulnerable communities in the West Bank has become increasingly difficult, with all four schools in the area under threat of demolition.
Since schools reopened in late August, the military has intensified its curbs on movement by holding students and teachers at checkpoints, sometimes for hours, only to then prevent them from passing through, six sources told Reuters.
In incidents reported by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) during the first week of school, Israeli forces detained staff on their way to school in the village of Jinba for about four hours, confiscated their car and took the driver for questioning. In al-Fakhiet, Israeli forces prevented teachers from entering the village one day, and on another they stopped a school bus, forcing about 30 pupils to walk a long distance to school in the desert heat.
“Every day we go to school, the army finds us,” said 17-year-old Bisan Makhamreh, who walks every morning down a rocky, slippery hill with a group of pupils from her village of Sfay to the school pickup point along the road.
“Despite that, we take the risk, and we take alternative routes that are longer and more dangerous. We want to learn.”
International bodies including the United Nations and the European Union have expressed concern about the situation at Masafer Yatta, which has seen a series of visits from diplomatic delegations over the past few months.
Israel declared about 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) in the South Hebron Hills as a closed military zone in the 1980s, known as “Firing Zone 918.” In court, it argued that the Palestinians living there at the time were only seasonal dwellers.
A spokesperson for the Israeli military said Palestinians violated this closure order over the years by building without authorization.
“Any entry to the area without a permit from the IDF is prohibited, constitutes a criminal offence and endangers lives,” the spokesperson said.
“IDF troops are stationed at all entrances of the firing zone in order to prevent unauthorized entry into the area.”
The Palestinian residents, who have led a distinct rural way of life for generations, and rights groups say many of the Palestinian families were living permanently in the area even before Israel captured the West Bank in a 1967 Middle East war.
The school principal, Abu Sabha, said making it more difficult for pupils and teachers to get to the classroom was part of a systematic attempt to break up the community.
In response to that allegation, a spokesperson for the Israeli military said its forces “operate in order to allow for routine daily life to all civilians in the area.”
The spokesperson added that following a “singular, specific instance in which students were delayed,” guidelines on the issue were clarified to prevent any future delays to students.
Abu Sabha said: “The Israeli government’s plan is to displace people and they know very well that these educational institutions are what helps keep people rooted here.”
If one day the school is demolished, he added, “we will put up tents and start over.”
(Reporting by Henriette Chacar; Editing by James Mackenzie, William Maclean)