Caught between covid and settlers: How a West Bank school is struggling to survive

For the 170 pupils in Al-Maleh village in the West Bank, the three-hour journey to school was arduous. Sometimes it took three hours after they had navigated the Israeli security checkpoints, some on foot and others on donkeys. Eventually, many of them simply stopped going.

In mid-2019 Mahdi Daraghma, chairman of the local council, set up two tents which served as a makeshift school for the children in the hope that having it close by would encourage pupils to attend classes.

It worked, but there were other challenges. In the winter months the pupils shivered and rubbed their hands together – so Mahdi appealed to international organisations for funding. When it arrived a year or so later, he used the money to build four classrooms, each room 15 by 20 square metres, with brick walls and a tin roof.

If you look north from Al-Maleh Mixed Elementary School, you can see the mountains of Khirbet Jabaris; to the south are the Salama Mountains and to the east is the Jordanian border. Fake grass lines the playground and a wire mesh fence surrounds it.

Inside, there are two grades to a classroom and the pupils share desks. There is no electricity or internet, but at least the children have access to lessons: "The school is very important for the students and the village community," says Mahdi. "The students now wake up at a normal time and the parents can follow up on their children and go to speak to the teachers as it is near to their homes."

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Hanan Dabak started in the school as a volunteer teacher, when it was still made up of tents, teaching Arabic, maths, English and National Education. Now she works there officially and receives her salary from the Palestinian Education Ministry.

For roughly one week, everything in the new school was going well. Then a notice arrived at Mahdi's office from the civil administration of the Israeli army – Al-Maleh Elementary was set to be demolished on the pretext that it had been built on an archaeological area. With that, it became one of 44 schools across the occupied West Bank currently at risk of demolition.

Mahdi himself was arrested and detained for four hours and when he was released the army confiscated his car and tractor, which they have not yet returned. He has submitted an appeal to an Israeli court challenging the demolition order but has not heard anything back.

[Mahdi Daraghma/Middle East Monitor]
[Mahdi Daraghma/Middle East Monitor]
[Mahdi Daraghma/Middle East Monitor]
[Mahdi Daraghma/Middle East Monitor]
[Mahdi Daraghma/Middle East Monitor]

On 17 December 2020 a second demolition notice was issued informing Mahdi that in 96 hours the Israeli army would destroy the new building.

"We didn't increase the size of the school. We just built a school in the same area as the tents. Just four classrooms with bricks and tinplate," he says, pausing.

The aim is for the Palestinians to own nothing.

"The demolition order for the school is part of the settlement support policies because if they accept the school, they think that will give the citizens a motive to stay in the area," adds Hanan. "Because if the school is far from where the people live, people would leave the area to go to places with services."

After they received the notice, teachers erected a billboard outside the school and attached it to the fence, displaying the name of its funders. The EU, Belgium and Denmark are all on there. Hanan and the other two teachers hope this might dissuade the army from razing it.

"We as teachers felt very sad when we learnt that the school will be demolished, and that the future of many students will be in danger and there is nothing we can do," says Hanan. "However sad we feel, we never show the students, and we encourage them and say we will stay here."

[Mahdi Daraghma/Middle East Monitor]
[Mahdi Daraghma/Middle East Monitor]
[Mahdi Daraghma/Middle East Monitor]
[Mahdi Daraghma/Middle East Monitor]
[Mahdi Daraghma/Middle East Monitor]

"What danger would a six or nine-year-old student pose for the Israeli occupation to issue a demolition order to the only place they have to attend lessons, the only school they can reach?" she asks.

"The psychological state of the children, the fear and anxiety is worrying. Many students come to speak to me and say, 'Miss Hanan, I'm afraid that the Israeli army will attack us, or the settlers will attack the area and harm us."

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Al-Maleh is a Bedouin village situated in the Governorate of Tubas and the Northern Valleys, which is registered as Area C and has been under the full control of Israel since the Oslo Accords.

The area has been classified as a military zone and nature reserve which means it is out of bounds for Palestinians. Mahdi says that whilst roughly 19 Palestinian structures, largely made of tents and tin, received demolition orders in 2020, Israeli settlements have expanded.

"Since 1967 until now, the Israeli occupation exercises the most heinous violations against Al-Maleh's civilians," says Mahdi. "Construction is banned, any infrastructure or services are banned, the people of the village live in camps."

Al-Maleh is an agricultural area and the population relies on sheep and cows to make a living, yet it's not easy because there are no essential services, including electricity. Residents import water for approximately 20 shekels a cup, explains Mahdi.

The village is surrounded by five settlement outposts and their inhabitants' assault and attack the Palestinians on a daily basis, locals report, including preventing them from entering their fields to tend to their animals. The Israeli army has seized some 30 tractors from farmers in the community.

[Hanan Debek/Middle East Monitor]
[Hanan Debek/Middle East Monitor]
[Hanan Debek/Middle East Monitor]

"For the last two years, farmers have been prevented from cultivating their lands," says Mahdi. "They confiscate any tractor that enters the land under the pretext that it is a military zone. Settlers, however, are allowed to farm and raise their livestock."

Added to the challenges faced by these villagers is the global coronavirus pandemic, which has driven down the price of products as demand has eased. On top of this, it has made it harder to transport milk and cheese products amidst travel restrictions.

Across Palestine, schools are closed to try and stem the spread of the virus, but Al-Maleh Elementary has struggled to offer remote learning, because of the lack of internet and electricity in the village.

After the demolition notice, 30 of the original 50 students – 1st to the 3rd grade – were brought back to try and deter the Israeli army from demolishing the school. Mahdi explains that the number of schools being knocked down has increased as the army takes advantage of empty premises.

In the meantime, the teachers try to reassure their pupils that they will be able to continue with their education. "When will the Israeli army demolish our school?" they ask Hanan. "Where will we study if they do; will we continue our education, will we have to make the long journey in the morning again?"

The parents are worried also. The mother of Mahmoud Zamil, one of the pupils at the school, said she is deeply anxious about her child's schooling and if he will once again have to make the difficult journey just so he can learn to read and write. Other mums and dads have asked Hanan and Mahdi if they have a plan for what will happen if the school really is demolished.

"If they demolish the school, we will build tents again in its place," says Mahdi. "If they demolish the tents, we will teach them under trees. The students will stay there, and we will keep educating them."

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