Israeli forces raided the Palestinian village of Isfey al-Fauqa in Masafer Yatta, known also as the South Hebron Hills, early Wednesday morning last week during active school hours, as a number of students were inside the recently-constructed school receiving lessons.
According to locals, Israeli forces evacuated the students and teachers before demolishing the structure, made of prefabricated buildings. Videos taken at the scene were widely circulated on social media, showing a number of distressed school children crying as the armed forces prepared the school for demolition.
Other photos showed school children retrieving their textbooks and papers that were strewn across the ground following the demolition.
The school was constructed by the Palestinian Authority as part of its “Tahadi” program, meaning “challenge” in Arabic, to build educational institutions in marginalized Palestinian communities across Area C, the more than 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli control where Palestinian construction is banned.
Beginning in 2016, the program, which has been funded in large part by the European Union, has seen the construction of over a dozen schools in Area C, including the one in Isfey al-Fauqa, which was constructed around two months ago.
The school had been in service only for a couple of weeks prior to its demolition, and was servicing approximately 23 students from Isfay al-Fauqa and the surrounding villages.
Just one day prior to the demolition, a number of diplomats and UN representatives had visited the school and posed for pictures in front of the new buildings. Following the demolition on Wednesday, the PA, the EU, and UN representatives criticized Israel for the move, saying that the Israeli government has a responsibility to ensure that children living in the occupied territory have access to a safe education.
Israeli military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht claimed that the “full picture on the ground” was “very different” from the one presented on social media and in the press. Hecht said on Twitter that the Palestinians in Masafer Yatta were being “cynically & dangerously used as pawns to populate illegal structures.”
“The [international] community’s support for these structures, [including] schools empty in the middle of the day, only creates further difficulty for all,” he said.
But the Palestinians in Masafer Yatta say the school was built to address a real need in the rural community, where another four schools, many of them several years old, are also under imminent threat of Israeli demolition.
“The purpose behind building the school in that location was to allow the kids from the Isfay area to have access to a school nearby, and not have to travel far distances in order to get to the existing schools across the Firing Zone,” local activist Sami Huraini told Mondoweiss.
“What’s happening in Masafer Yatta is a war crime, and it will happen to the rest of the schools in Firing Zone 918,” Huraini said.
In May 2022 the Israeli High Court made its final decision in a 20-year legal battle by the people of Masafer Yatta, ruling in favor of the army, which declared thousands of acres of land in the area as an active military “firing zone.”
The court’s decision in May paved the way for the forcible displacement of an estimated 1,300 Palestinians in Masafer Yatta, and the demolition of close to 900 structures, including homes, livestock pens, schools, clinics, mosques, water cisterns, and latrines. Rights groups have condemned the decision as a court-sanctioned war crime.
In late August, the court rejected an appeal against the demolition of two schools in the villages of Khirbet al-Fakheet and Jinba, which lie in the heart of the firing zone.
Since the high court’s decision, Palestinians in Masafer Yatta have stepped up their global campaign to #SaveMasaferYatta, calling for immediate intervention to prevent the expulsion of the residents by the Israeli army.
Huraini called the international community “hypocritical” for failing to take a stronger stance on the situation in Masafer Yatta, saying “it shows how scared and weak the international community is in front of Israel.”
“Our children should not have to travel such far distances in harsh conditions to get to school, while facing daily harassment from the settlers. These children should be able to go to school safely and freely, and have the right to an education, like all the other kids in the world.”