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Israeli military demolishes elementary school in Masafer Yatta

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated the school had been under threat of demolition for several months; the demolition order was in fact issued on 17 November. This article has also been updated with additional details of the raid and demolition.

Jerusalem24 – Yara Alnazer – Israeli military bulldozers and soldiers demolished on Wednesday morning an elementary school in the threatened community of Masafer Yatta south of Hebron in the occupied West Bank.

The donor-funded Isfey Elementary School, in Khirbet Isfey Al-Fawqa in Masafer Yatta, was built in October and its 22 pupils began studying there last month. They had previously been forced to walk several kilometers daily to attend another school.

On 17 November, Israeli authorities delivered a demolition notice to the school under the pretext it is built in a closed military firing zone.

An international delegation visited the school on Monday, amidst a bid to halt the demolition.

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates condemned yesterday “in the strongest possible terms the demolition notice issued by Israel, the occupying power, for Isfey Al-Fawqa school located in Area C, northeast of Masafer Yatta, and considers this decision as an extension of the Israeli colonial war against the Palestinian presence in those areas and other areas classified (C) with the aim of marginalizing them as a prelude to controlling the land and allocating it to colonial settlements.”

Nidal Younes, head of the village council of Masafer Yatta, tells Jerusalem24 that bulldozers had been present at the site since Thursday last week.

Younes also says the soldiers locked the schoolchildren inside the classroom and fired sound bombs inside, forcing the children to flee through the windows.

According to Basel Adra, a local activist and journalist, the army also confiscated the schoolchildren’s tables and chairs after “violently evicting them from the classrooms” and proceeding with the demolition.

A further three schools in Masafer Yatta are under threat of demolition, and residents, teachers and students have been facing various intimidation tactics as a prelude to forcibly displacing the entire community.

Whole community under threat

On 4 May 2022, the Israeli High Court of Justice rejected the appeal against eviction orders issued to Palestinian residents in Masafer Yatta for “illegally living in a firing zone”.

The eviction order endangers around 1,200 Palestinian residents including 500 children, living across 13 communities and 214 households, with 288 residential structures at risk of demolition and their residents subjected to impending forcible transfer.

Masafer Yatta was designated “Firing Zone 918” in the 1980s even though several Palestinian villages had been established there for decades.

Advocacy campaigns have urged the international community to pressure Israel into stopping the forced transfer. European Union Representative Sven von Burgsdorff and other international representatives visited Masafer Yatta following the court ruling on 4 May. The EU representative expressed his concern over the intensified military operations and settler violence in the area.

Israeli NGO B’Tselem issued an appeal in October to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court citing “Israeli war crimes” in the southern Hebron hills.

Around 38 structures have been demolished in Masafer Yatta since the beginning of this year, 30 of which were donor-funded structures.

A map of threatened communities in Masafer Yatta. [Credit: Middle East Eye/OCHA]

Intimidation tactics

Recent military exercises, which sometimes are scheduled to last for days, have placed the safety of Palestinian residents at risk due to military use of live ammunition near residential areas, in addition to restricting access to basic services and sources of food.

The residents of Masafer Yatta also face regular harassment by armed Israeli settlers who physically attack the residents, vandalize their properties, and cut down their trees.

The Israeli army, who is usually present during such assaults to provide protection for the settlers, also regularly seize agricultural equipment, electricity generators, and water and sanitation equipment.

According to Palestinian NGO Al-Haq, “contributing to these worsening conditions are Israeli military operations and trainings in the area, coupled with expanding settlements and acts of settler violence”.

Schoolchildren are particularly exposed to these tactics. The Israeli army regularly prevents students and teachers from accessing their school, via fixed and flying checkpoints. In one such incident in late August, Israeli forces at Jinba checkpoint detained for about four hours nine school staff who were on their way to Jinba school ahead of the opening of the academic year, according to a report by OCHA. Their vehicle was confiscated and the driver was taken to a nearby military base for questioning.

On the same day, teachers at Al-Fakheit school were stopped by the military at an impromptu checkpoint near the entrance of Khirbet Al-Fakheit, and forced to return to Yatta. Two days later, the military prevented the school bus from passing, “forcing at least 30 children to walk a long distance to school”.

Firing zones: A strategy for land-grab

Israeli “top secret” documents declassified in July reveal that military firing zones were specifically created for the purpose of eventually transferring land to Israeli settlements. Ariel Sharon, the then-Minister of Settlement Division said in a meeting in 1981 that “Firing Zone 918” was declared on top of Masafer Yatta in order to stop the “spread of the Arab villagers on the mountainside toward the desert”.

According to +972 Magazine, only 20% of the land declared closed firing zones in the West Bank is used for military training by the Israeli army.

Israeli settlers and civilians are also forbidden from accessing closed firing zones. However, while the Israeli Civil Administration routinely expels the native Palestinian population from the zones, Israeli settlers are allowed to move into those areas to build outposts, and eventually settlements.

As of 2015, around 17% of the surface area of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank was established in military firing zones pre-dating the settlements.

Israeli forces cordoned off the Isfey school in Masafer Yatta before demolishing it, 23 November 2022.[Credit: B’Tselem]
A total of 55 Palestinians schools across the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem have pending demolition orders under the pretext they were built without permits. Around 98% of building permit requests in Area C are rejected.

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