South Hebron Hills: Are we waiting to build a new refugee camp?

CPT reports on eight schools in the South Hebron Hills experiencing violence at the hands of occupation soldiers and settlers.
Two children walk to school in South Hebron Hills.

Every day the situation in Masafer Yatta/South Hebron Hills becomes more complex and intense; incidents of violence and humiliation by the Israeli settlers and soldiers have become part of daily life for Palestinians. “If we look back on 2022 until now, we can see that Israeli occupation forces are systematically working towards the erasure of Palestinian infrastructure in the South Hebron Hills, especially school buildings. Several schools received demolition orders this semester, and one school in the village of Sfai was demolished,” said Fuaad Lieumur, the coordinator of the Protection and Sumud Committee. 

The Sfai school has become more than just a name after Israeli soldiers demolished the school in the village of Khirbet Sfai Al-Fouqa on 23 November. Families came together to build tents after the school was demolished, in order to continue their children’s education. But, on 6 December the Israeli occupation forces (IOF) returned to the village and demolished the tent structures. The families continued to resist, re-building the tents again, but the IOF returned on 3 January and confiscated the tents.

Lieumur noted that the students who live in Sfai now have two options: either attend other schools which are located very far from their homes and face natural threats of the rainy season as well as threats of violence from settlers and soldiers along their route; or stop going to school. Both options are not acceptable for children between first and fifth grade. 

Issa Makhamra, the principal of the Sfai school, said this semester has been very difficult. When the occupation forces arrived for the first demolition, students start to run and jump from windows because they were so scared of the soldiers.  He also reported that the IOF beat him and two other teachers in front of students.  “The situation is confusing at the moment,” he said. “We might use corrugated aluminum to rebuild—which will not protect from cold or hot weather—but we’re still not sure what is going to happen.” Some students wrote their final exams inside vehicles.  The Sfai school has approximately 12 students.

The community of Al-Majaz noticed differences between this semester and the previous one; there has been an increase in military patrols around the school, creating more obstacles to the education process. “The most difficult part this semester were the flying checkpoints,” said Jad Nawaja, the principal of Al-Majaz school. “Teachers were often delayed to school, and the IOF confiscated a teacher’s car when we were on the way back from expressing our solidarity with the Sfai school demolition.” The school has 40 students from first grade to eighth grade, 22 females and 18 males.

The school in the village of Shaeb Al-Batum also experienced threats of violence and demolition this semester. “We received a demolition order in 2015. In 2021 we built another two new rooms, but then we received another demolition order in 2022 for the two rooms,” said principal Mohammed Nawaja. Lately, settlers have started to pass by the school, threatening the children and the IOF closed the main road, so students and teachers have to take a detour via a bumpy road. The school is not in the firing zone, but it is about 200 meters away. The Shaeb Al-Batum school has 45 students from kindergarten to grade 10, 23 girls and 22 boys. 

In Khilat Al-Dabae, the school remains under threat since they received a demolition order in 2018, as it is located within the Israeli military firing zone. Teachers have started walking to school because Israeli soldiers will confiscate their cars if they drive to school. “Every now and then the soldiers will enter the school and threaten us and make us feel afraid,” said principal Raed Ahdeed. “Our teachers will be stopped by soldiers at least 10 times per month. The Israeli planes fly very close to the school which distracts children and teachers. Settlers have started walking closer to the area, and some of the settlers walk with dogs to provoke and terrify Palestinians.” The school has 12 students, three girls and nine boys. 

In the community of Khirbet Jenba, the school is located within the firing zone and received a demolition order in 2014. This semester brought difficulties as well. Khaled* reported that the teachers decided to collect money together to buy a shared car, but on the first day, the IOF confiscated the car, worth around 18,000 shekels. On a daily basis, teachers and students were delayed for 10 to 15 minutes because of the flying checkpoints, and teachers were also detained several times. There are 40 students, 20 females and 20 males. 

Most recently, the school in Khashem Al Karem received a demolition order on 28 November 2022, and only a few years ago, the Am Qasuh school was and is still under the threat of being demolished at any time by the IOF. 

In the village of At Tuwani, the military accompanies school children. In 2004 the Israeli military was ordered by the Knesset to accompany the children from Tuba who attended school in At Tuwani. The children must pass a two-kilometre stretch of road between the settlement of Maon and the outpost of Havat Maon. Two soldiers must accompany the children on foot whilst a military vehicle follows behind. This order was due to numerous violent attacks on the children (most of whom are primary school age) by settlers. International observers and other Palestinians are unable to access the road as it is deemed a closed military zone that only settlers can use. The role of activists has been to monitor the military’s adherence to this order and to accompany the children for the final part of the walk into At Tawani, beyond the closed military zone. 

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) reported incidents this semester that involved the failure of the military to accompany children past settlements as they walk to school. In some cases, military vehicles drove ahead of the children and waited for them at certain points, while in other cases, the military vehicles followed the children but stopped at the settlement gates, forcing the children to walk past the settlements unaccompanied. On one occasion, no soldiers accompanied the children at all, and on another occasion, only one soldier accompanied the children. In one instance, a settler was walking on the road, and two settler cars passed the children on the road.

Another observer, a Jewish activist who belongs to a grassroots movement, has been monitoring the situation for two years. He witnessed on occasion that soldiers failed to walk with the children, and during these times, settlers threw rocks at Palestinian students. Previously, activists and foreign observers used to walk with the children, “but lately there has been more harassment against human rights activists, depending on the military brigade serving in the area, and it has become harder to provide presence,” he noted.

Lieumur summarized the situation in Masafer Yatta, where, “our struggles have reached the international level, but we need more support from grassroots groups to push international governments to take action against what happening here. We need more people to come and visit the area. Otherwise, are we waiting to build a new refugee camp?”

Sami Huraini, a Palestinian activist and leader of Youth Of Sumud, also expressed a huge need for foreigners and activists to come and accompany the children to school, support the locals and bring more protective presence to the area. 

CPT expresses our concerns in regard to this increase in violence and the violation of the rights of the child to education as a systematic tool to displace Palestinians from their land. In CPT’s previous school report, we warned of another Nakba if no one holds the Israeli government accountable for the displacement of Palestinians in Masafer Yatta/South Hebron Hills.

*Name changed for security reasons

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