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VIDEO: Children escape through window as Israeli army demolishes Palestinian school in contested village

Ben Lynfield
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Published: 9 December 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

BEN LYNFIELD: Human rights group B’Tselem says Masafer Yatta, near Hebron, is being targeted as part of a campaign to make life so unbearable that Palestinians will leave their homes.

The Israeli Civil Administration is deliberately destabilising children’s education in a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank as part of what human rights groups say is a larger effort to make life so difficult for local residents that they will leave their homes.

On Tuesday Israeli soldiers drove into Khirbet a-Safai al-Foqa hamlet in the Masafer Yatta area, south of Hebron, and confiscated two tents used for studies, a bathroom, water tank, desks, chairs and notebooks, according to Musa Abu Mreer, an English teacher at the facility.

“They didn’t leave anything but the ground,” Abu Mreer told The Jewish Independent.

The tents were set up as a replacement by the villagers for an elementary school on the same spot that was demolished by Israeli forces on November 23. The demolition, which according to military administrators was carried out because the building was constructed illegally, took place in the morning while school was in session.

Rights group B’tselem says the army actions are part of a coercive process against Palestinians in the Masafer Yatta area that amounts to “forcible transfer” of a protected population under occupation. Spokeswoman Dror Sadot says that amounts to a “war crime”, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Foreign Ministry and Israel Defense Force did not respond to the allegation.

Local Council head Nidal Younes told The Jewish Independent that the confiscation and demolition “are part of the steps and pressures” to remove about a thousand Palestinians living in tiny herding hamlets in the south Hebron hills. The IDF veterans antioccupation group Breaking the Silence “totally” agrees with that assessment according to its spokesman Ori Givati. In May, a Supreme Court ruling greenlighted the expulsion of the Palestinians on the grounds that they are an illegal presence in an army designated firing zone.

Since then, the military has conducted live fire training in and around villages, set up checkpoints and implemented travel restrictions. Israeli authorities have also heightened demolitions, according to B’tselem, even though discriminatory planning practices meant that even before the court ruling there was no way to build legally.

Another four Palestinian schools, with 44 teachers and 172 pupils, inside what is known as “Firing Zone 918” have demolition orders against them, according to B’tselem.

The November 23 demolition operation, for which army chief of staff Aviv Kochavi is ultimately responsible, was launched in the morning at a time when there were pupils in the school even though the school is not in session in the afternoon.

Video footage of the November 23 demolition operation made available to The Jewish Independent by Younes showed children escaping the building by climbing and jumping out of a window after Israeli soldiers fired stun grenades in what Abu Mreer and others said was a bid to frighten those inside and others, including families of the pupils, who gathered outside.

“We were surprised when the soldiers arrived,” Abu Mreer said. “We had just opened the school and given two lessons when the soldiers came. There were about 30 around and inside the school. Families of the children came. There were about a hundred Palestinians inside and outside the school and activists, including some Jewish activists who believe in peace, trying to save the school.

“People were shouting, saying ‘we won’t go’. The soldiers were kicking people and saying ‘get out’.

“The commander announced over a loudspeaker ‘you have three minutes and then we will use sound bombs and force to get you out’. And that’s what happened. The last person to stay in the school was a woman from the village. Female soldiers kicked her strongly and beat her.”

The demolition on November 23 was also captured on film. School principal Issa Makhamre told The Jewish Independent that a soldier struck him even though he identified himself as the principal. “The soldiers used sound bombs against the protest. The children got scared and fled out the window,” he recalled.

Abu Mreer said the Palestinians did not behave violently towards the Israeli forces. “They just tried to stay inside the school,” he said.

“The whole thing lasted about an hour and twenty minutes. We kept resisting and stayed a long time. But there was no way to save the school. They have the power and the force.”

Council head Younes said troops removed all the desks and chairs before two bulldozers destroyed the building.

In response to a query by The Jewish Independent, an Israel police statement said forces were carrying out a clearance operation in advance of demolition of an illegal structure in a closed military zone "Reasonable time was given for the people to evacuate. Some of the adults holed up in the building. There were also children there who left independently. During the clearing out, forces used one stun grenade in order to clear those who had gathered." 

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories did not respond to queries about the confiscation. It said the school demolition was “carried out in accord with proper procedures and authority and was subject to security considerations”.

Dror Sadot, from B’tselem, said: “We won’t see the army force these people on to trucks because of the optics of it. But Israel is doing everything else to make them leave their houses and make life impossible. The demolition of the school is part of the effort to make people leave their houses. When people are forced to leave their houses, even if it’s not by physical removal but just by making the environment hostile, it’s forcible transfer, a war crime. This is what Israel is now doing.”

Dror Etkes, director of the Kerem Navot settlement monitoring group, in remarks to The Jewish Independent in May, predicted that the pasturing land now used by the herders will end up in the hands of illegal settlers. He said this had happened in other IDF training areas in the West Bank.

Samah Jabr, a psychiatrist who is the director of the mental health unit of the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health, said Israel is traumatising Palestinian schoolchildren with actions such as the demolition. “This attack on schooling is an attack on the basic psychological need for routine. Destabilising routine creates a lot of distress and can be perceived as traumatic in the short run.

“This is another evidence of the unchilding of Palestinians,” she added. “The occupation has no respect for our children’s childhood and the developmental phase they are in. They will remember when they grow up that the occupation targeted a basic need, their schooling.”

“Some will insist more on developing their education and some will be angry,” she said.

Photo: The Civil Administration and demolition forces at the primary school in Khirbet a-Safai in Masafer Yatta in South Hebron Hills, while schoolchildren are evacuated from the classrooms (B'Tselem).

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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