Threat of demolition hangs over West Bank

Amneh Mussa, principal of Al Tahadi School Number 5 in the West Bank, greets students arriving for class. Heidi Levine/Oxfam

Homes and schools are vulnerable to a discriminatory policy, increasing poverty and decreasing the likelihood of a just and long-term solution to conflict.

When the sun rises above the hills west of Bethlehem, it bathes Al Tahadi School Number 5 in a golden misty light. The temporary five-room structure is nestled among dusty, white limestone rocks, around which students pass as they walk up to school. As they arrive, some of them fill plastic bottles from a tap and water small trees planted in front of the school.

Today it’s a peaceful scene, but elementary school principal Amneh Mussa says she can’t ever count on the school being there when she arrives for work in the morning. “Every day there is a fear that we will arrive to see no school,” she explains as she greets students. “We are under a demolition order.”

That’s because this school is located in part of the West Bank known as ‘Area C,’ where according to the 1993 Oslo Accords Israel has full civil and military control. Around 300,000 Palestinians live in this largest part of the West Bank but are rarely granted building permits to address a growing population. Currently Israel authorities have issued 13,000 demolition orders for homes, businesses, and community buildings such as schools.

This leaves Al Tahadi School Number 5 and its 20 girls, 21 boys, and five teachers—at the mercy of the Israeli authorities. The current school is a temporary structure assembled after the school was demolished two years ago, the night before its opening day. “We are trying to get a permit to build,” Mussa says. “We have been working to get the permit for two years.”

Impediment to development

While the construction of Israeli settlements continues unabated in the West Bank—in defiance of international law and decades of bipartisan US policy—permits for Palestinians to build on their own land remain rare. Demolition orders are more common: 6,300 people lost their homes across the West Bank between 2006 and 2019 when 1,400 homes were destroyed. In Area C of the West Bank, the homes of more than 1,000 people were demolished and rebuilt more than once.

A herder in the Jordan Valley reports his family’s tents, animal shelters, and water tanks were destroyed by the Israeli authorities in May 2019. Heidi Levine/Oxfam

The lack of building permits and subsequent demolition orders are an impediment to development in the West Bank, and part of the phenomenon that the UN has called de-development. Lack of building permits, demolition orders, and other policies arising from the occupation limits investment in homes, wells, irrigation systems, and animal shelters that farmers need. According to figures from the World Bank, restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank cost the Palestinian economy $3.4 billion per year.

Al Tahadi School Number 5 is one of 17 “challenge” schools across the West Bank built to extend education to previously underserved rural areas using a combination of public and community funds.

The construction of this school has meant that more children, especially girls, have access to education. Previously the closest school was nearly an hour’s walk away, which discouraged parents from letting their children—some as young as six—to undertake that walk to and from school each day.

Israeli human rights organizations (such as B’Tselem, an Oxfam partner, and others) have documented that the Israeli civil administration rejects 19 out of 20 building permits in recent years, and underscore that the policy of demolishing homes and other structures is a violation of international law and a major obstacle to peace and development in the West Bank. Israel must operate within well-established legal frameworks for occupying forces, as they have no right to destroy private property and public buildings with no military purpose under the 4th Geneva Convention.

“Palestinians have to have homes where families can come together, schools where children can thrive, and businesses where people can earn a living,” said Oxfam’s Country Director in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, Shane Stevenson. “Demolition orders based on the refusal to grant permits for even the most basic of repairs and construction are a grim reality tens of thousands of Palestinians experience every day. These orders target already-vulnerable communities, forcing them to live in uncertainty and fear.”

Homes at risk

Mustafa Abed Rabo has a lush garden, which includes numerous fig trees and a large mulberry tree. Next to it is the smashed concrete and twisted metal rods of what is left of Rabo’s house. It looks like it has been hit by a rocket. Huge concrete slabs and columns have collapsed on the floors below. Next to his destroyed dwelling is the home for the rest of the family, also damaged.

Rabo says he is a day worker in Israel and was in the process of building this place with borrowed money when it was destroyed. “When this was finished, I was going to start saving for my wedding,” he says, sitting with a group of family members and neighbors, drinking strong Arabic coffee in miniature paper cups. “It was going to be in about three years, because I need to pay back the money.”

The demolished part of the Abed Rabo's home in the West Bank village of al-Walaja, near the West Bank city of Bethlehem. He and other members of his family says that they have been dealing with demolitions by Israeli authorities since 1967. Heidi Levine/Oxfam

Instead, he says, Israeli officials “brought the demolition order to the house.” Days later he says they returned at five in the morning, cut electricity to their home, and demolished the home he shared with 12 family members. In debt and unlikely to get a permit to rebuild, Rabo says he has few options. “I don’t know what to do. Our old house is very small. I have no money to pay for the construction. I don’t know if I’m able to rebuild.”

The demolitions of buildings (and other structures such as water cisterns, sheds, and storage areas) in the West Bank appears to be accelerating in recent years. Between 2009 and 2015, Israeli authorities averaged 60 demolitions per year. From 2016 to 2018, they averaged 137 per year. Estimates for 2019 appear even higher, with 57 demolitions in just the month of June.

By the end of November 2019, 85 homes were destroyed last year, displacing 235 people (103 of whom were children), according to figures published online by B’Tselem.

Speaking out in Washington, DC

Amneh Mussa visited Washington, DC, in early February to help educate American policymakers about the impact of the demolitions in the West Bank. Oxfam brought Mussa to meet with staff from the House of Representatives and the Senate as well as with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and State Department. Her message: “Education is a right for all children. Demolishing schools denies children of this right and the opportunity to live at peace with others. Please stop demolishing schools. Help us to live in peace and live for the future.”

A Bedouin family residing in the Jordan Valley struggles to raise livestock in an area the Israeli authorities have designated a military zone. The family reports that 40 percent of the people in the community have sold their livestock and left. One family member told Oxfam that the remaining people here suffer on-going harassment. Heidi Levine/Oxfam

Demolitions are a topic of increasing concern for US lawmakers: Following the visit, 64 Members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging immediate action to oppose the increasing demolition of Palestinian homes and the displacement that it causes.

The timing of the tour was also significant because the Trump administration had just released its proposal for peace in late January, and critics of the plan pointed out the general lack of input from Palestinians in the proposal.

“Oxfam and our partners have been working on the issue of demolitions in the West Bank for more than 15 years,” says Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam’s humanitarian policy lead in Washington, DC. “With Palestinian voices excluded from the recent US plan, we felt this was a particularly important moment to bring the perspective of the Palestinians affected by these policies to the attention of decision makers here in the US.”

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