Another brick in the wall: Saving schools in the West Bank

The children of Fasayil have to take a dangerous three-mile walk to school – which is why villagers have been building a new one. But will Israel tear it down? Rosie Walker reports

Jamil Jarwan, like most 12-year-olds, does not like the walk to school. It tires him out, he says. It's too hot in summer and too cold in winter, and when it rains the valley fills up with streams that he has to climb over. Even in maths, his favourite lesson, he gets sleepy, and besides, travelling in the West Bank is not safe. This is occupied territory, after all.

So, Jamil's family were delighted at the thought of a school being built in their village of Fasayil, nestled in the Jordan valley in the West Bank. Next door is the Israeli settlement of Tomer. In 1967, the UN Security Council decreed Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza illegal, yet they have flourished. Tomer is where the work is. Well irrigated, it produces dates, herbs and vegetables for supermarkets in the UK. Most of Fasayil's villagers work there, arriving at dawn in trucks, while some herd a few animals despite the risk of having their livestock confiscated.

When the idea to build a school was first discussed at a village meeting, Fasayil residents were realistic about what they might achieve. After all, their drinking water is rationed by the Israeli authorities, they are not allowed to build or repair roads, and even the electricity pylons that run through the village have a demolition order on them.

But, on the other hand, there are 115 children in the village, and many parents are reluctant to send the younger ones on the risky three-mile walk to the nearest school. The villagers knew any building would be at risk of demolition by the military, but hoped, as local coordinator Fathy Khadarat puts it, that "maybe some of the children will get their education first".

As it turns out, demolition may happen sooner than expected because the Israeli authorities have issued an injunction to halt building work on 29 November, 2007. Yet, surprisingly, construction continues. Khadarat sounds upbeat: "Yesterday we started the second phase – the doors and windows, and partitioning the interior," he says. "There will be six classrooms when we've finished." Despite the lack of finishing touches, the building has already been used for community activities, and a trade union meeting was held there two weeks ago.

Education in Palestine has suffered disproportionately from the conflict. The fledgling Palestinian ministry of education was created in August 1994, after the Oslo Agreement handed control of Palestinian education, health, direct taxation and welfare from Israel to Palestine. Unesco immediately came to assist in developing a Palestinian education system: constructing school buildings, developing a curriculum, training teachers, providing salaries for ministry staff. Progress was made in the first few years, but maintaining an education system under military occupation, when even the basics of life are at risk, is not easy.

A report from the UN's International Institute for Educational Planning in 2001 calls attention to "a risk that the conflict will also lead to the complete destruction of educational development work in Palestine so far."

Villager Abdullah Salamh, who is helping to build the school, has four children, aged seven to 12. The eldest's ambition is to become a teacher. "They will have an education," says Salamh, sounding determined. But the area is now facing an educational crisis: with nobody in the village who has had access to a university education, there are no qualified teachers. Assurances have been given by the Palestinian ministry of education that teachers will be sent to the new school, but this will, of course, depend on the future of the building.

Plans are underway to establish a scholarship for a Palestinian student to study medicine at a UK university. "This is a priority for us now," says Khadarat. "In the whole of the Jordan Valley there is no doctor. Not one."

Work began on Fasayil school in August 2007. The villagers worked together, making bricks by hand in the traditional way. Both Palestinian and international activists came to join the effort, including delegates from the Brighton Tubas Solidarity Group. Tom Hayes, part of the group, says a school is the heart of a community. "The Israelis are trying to destroy community resources in the Jordan valley, because they want people to move away," he says.

"But the local people have every right under the Geneva Convention, which sets out regulations on what occupying authorities have to provide, to have a school."

A few days after the Brighton activists left for home, Israeli soldiers came to the village. "They came in the middle of the night, demanding to check the houses, frightening people," says Khadarat. "They checked house by house, person by person. But there is nothing for them to see, just clothes and mattresses." His tone is weary; this is not the first time it has happened.

According to Zidki Maman, Israeli Civil Administration spokesman for the area, the school cannot be granted planning permission because the area is designated for Israeli farming. Fasayil falls in "area C" of the West Bank, so planning permission is controlled by the Israeli occupying authorities. But, although the injunction has been granted, demolition may not follow immediately, he says. "We haven't applied to act on it yet, because it's a school," he explains. "We have humanitarian considerations."

But Dan Judelson of the human rights group, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, is sceptical. "If they're not going to demolish it, why put an injunction on the building?" he asks.

"Besides, the idea of planning permission being granted by the Israelis to the Palestinians would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic. It is almost impossible for Palestinians to get planning permission for any buildings, whether in Israel or the West Bank. But most important, how can the Israeli civil administration, at a time when Israel is claiming not to have annexed the territory of the West Bank, decide what is legal or illegal there? For them to try and dress up this military repression with legalese and planning permits is disgraceful. But, unfortunately, typical."

So, for now at least, the future of the school hangs in the balance. Once granted, demolition orders in the Occupied Territories can be carried out within days, or be left open for years. The villagers of Fasayil will continue with their plans, and are hopeful that their primary-age children will begin to get an education locally. The signs are that, even if the building is pulled down, another will rise from the ashes. Khadarat is resolute: "If it is knocked down, we will build it again and again. Our children will have their education."

Little Jamil was happy when he found out he wouldn't have to walk the three miles to school anymore. But, when asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he says he doesn't know. Is that because he is too young to decide? "It's because I don't know if I will be alive," he says. "The Israelis are always shooting at us."

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