Bedouin kids' school of hard knocks
With their school slated for demolition, the children of Khan al-Ahmar exemplify the complicated situation of Area C, where Israeli authority in the West Bank threatens their educational future.
In the twilight of the early morning, as the rising sun turns a nearby mountain a striking pinkish-red, Nujood emerges from the family shack ready for her first day back to school after the long summer holiday. The teenager is a member of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe which has been based in the West Bank since they were forcibly evicted from the Negev shortly after Israel’s creation in 1948.
Nujood greets us shyly as we sit with her father, Moussa, sipping sweet Bedouin tea in the family’s simple “garden,” the best the arid circumstances will allow. Despite the early hour, the 14-year-old, who is starting seventh grade, is excited about the prospect of resuming her education.
“I enjoyed the summer holiday but I prefer going to school because we study there and learn new things,” Nujood says in a barely audible whisper, betraying an attitude quite at odds with the mixed emotions of most teenagers greeting the new school year.
We walk the short distance – past a herd of drowsy camels who follow us with bleary-eyed interest and a couple of donkeys apparently enjoying the splendour of the early morning light – to her modest school. Nujood, who is neatly turned out in a lime green striped uniform and white headscarf, talks about her aspirations.
“I want to become a teacher,” she says simply. Her reason? “I want to teach other [Bedouin] children because not everything is available here for them to learn.” Perhaps that explains why, despite her self-conscious bashfulness, she led the saluting of the flag during the morning assembly.
Her excitement at a new term notwithstanding, Nujood is apprehensive and worried because her school – which she shares with around 100 other children, mostly primary school age, from Khan al-Ahmar and other nearby Bedouin communities – may not stay open for much longer. In fact, shortly before the term began a nearby Israeli settlement unsuccessfully, for now, petitioned the Supreme Court to prevent the school from reopening, and it is only a matter of time before the Civil Administration – the IDF arm which governs the West Bank – will have to carry out the order to demolish the school.
The school, like 17 others in Area C of the West Bank, has had an Israeli demolition order against it since it was built – out of old tires mixed with mud – with international assistance and local volunteer work in 2009.
“When I hear that they plan to demolish our school, I feel they want to humiliate us and don’t want us to learn,” Nujood reflects sadly. “But we won’t let that happen,” she adds, though what more this embattled community can do to save this school is unclear, since the lawyer representing their case in the Israeli courts has reportedly exhausted all avenues and it is only international pressure and advocacy that seems to be behind the ongoing stay of execution.
Becoming refugees all over again
In addition, Khan al-Ahmar itself, along with other Bedouin communities in the area, is slated for demolition, and the 2,300 residents of those communities live under the constant threat of eviction.
Sandwiched between Kfar Adumim (population: 2,500) and Ma’ale Adumim (population: 39,000), the freedom of movement of Khan al-Ahmar’s residents has been severely curtailed. This is not only a harsh slap for people who have for countless generations enjoyed the freedom to roam, but it also threatens the community’s traditional livelihood, which is based on herding. Moreover, the Bedouin complain that they can no longer reach Jerusalem, where they used to sell their livestock, nor are they allowed to work on settlements anymore.
The ostensible justification for these demolition and eviction orders is that the ramshackle collection of huts and tents that make up Khan al-Ahmar, like other Bedouin and Palestinian communities in Area C of the West Bank, was built “without a permit.” But acquiring such permission to build – according to the UN and other international organizations as well as Israeli human rights groups – is nearly impossible.
For its part, the Israeli Civil Administration insists that it provides the Bedouin with alternative locations to settle. But the Bedouin say that these alternatives – such as the plan to move 2,300 Bedouin from the Jerusalem periphery to a site near the stinking al-Abdali city dump – are not suitable and that they prefer to stay put. They don’t want to become “refugees all over again,” as numerous Bedouin in the area have told me.
The same applies to education, with the Israeli authorities insist that alternatives to Khan al-Ahmar and the 17 other schools exist or will be found. But locals are not convinced, saying that the closure of the school will force them to send their children to Jericho, where they used to attend before their modest and convenient local school was built.
Nujood remembers those days well. “My old school was hard to reach. I used to leave at dawn and come back at around 5pm,” she recalls. This left her with little time or energy to study and do homework, especially since electricity is a precious and rare commodity in Khan al-Ahmar, in contrast with the brightly lit settlements nearby. The journey was also a perilous one: some children were involved in traffic accidents, including a number of fatalities.
In this deeply conservative and traditional Bedouin society, the distance and risk of schooling in Jericho would lead many parents to keep their daughters at home. In fact, though the school was ill-equipped for it, the secondary school class – constructed with flimsy chipboard and wrought iron sheets – was introduced at Khan al-Ahmar expressly to enable girls to continue their education.
But as far as Nujood’s father is concerned, his daughter has a right to a full education, no matter the distance or cost, an unusual attitude in the community. “Even if they demolish the school, we will carry on with Nujood’s schooling,” Moussa tells me. “I’d like Nujood to go as far in the education system as she wants.” He delivers a heartfelt plea to the Civil Administration and the Israeli public that before carrying out the death sentence on this school, which he helped build with his own hands, to think about how they would feel if the same were done to their children.
The final stone in a contiguous state
The Bedouin of Khan al-Ahmar not only feel under attack by the Israeli occupation, but also have a sense that they have been abandoned to their fate by the Palestinian Authority, according to Eid Sweillam, also known as Abu Khamis, spokesman for Khan al-Ahmar.
“The occupation authorities do all they can to prevent the PA from performing its roles and responsibilities in Area C, and to restrict our ability to develop [it],” admitted Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad when I put the Bedouin’s concerns to him during a press conference he held at the school that same morning. “This does not mean that the PA has stood before the Israeli occupation with its hands tied. It has implemented hundreds of projects in what is called Area C.”
Area C, which falls under full Israeli control, represents 60% of the surface area of the West Bank. It is currently populated by 150,000 Palestinians, mostly Bedouin and poor farmers, and more than 300,000 Israeli settlers (from around 110,000 in 1993 and only just over 1,000 in 1972).
Despite the restrictions imposed by the occupation, the Bedouin insist that the PA can do more. “The most important thing that the PA can do in Area C… is to help us find alternative livelihoods and provide us with legal support,” suggests Abu Khamis.
Failing to act will not only hurt the Bedouin of Area C, but also the Palestinian national project, insists Abu Khamis. “We are the final stone keeping a contiguous Palestinian state together,” he says. “If these Bedouin communities are uprooted... This will split Palestine from north to south.” It would also cut East Jerusalem off completely from its West Bank hinterland.
This Israeli-controlled sector possesses the majority of Palestinian agricultural and grazing land and is the only contiguous territory in the West Bank, which was supposed to provide, under the ‘land for peace’ formula, the bulk of the space upon which the future Palestinian state would be established. But as more and more space is swallowed up by settlements and pressure grows from settler groups for Israel to annex much of Area C, this prospect is looking increasingly dim.
To deal with this challenge, Palestinians need to borrow from Israel’s handbook of creating faits accomplis, Fayyad stressed. “We are fully intent on building facts on the ground that are consistent with the inevitability of the emergence of the fully independent sovereign state of Palestine on the territories occupied in 1967,” the Palestinian prime minister said.