Weeks after Israel toppled several Palestinian schools in the West Bank, some students are back in the classroom after a group of activists reconstructed one of the buildings under the cover of darkness.
Last month, Israeli officials deemed three educational facilities – basic metal structures, mostly paid for by the European Union – illegal, and authorities arrived just days into the school year to dismantle them.
When they were done with one of the schools, in Jub El-Thib, east of Bethlehem, little more than the concrete foundation and an outhouse remained.
The removals provoked an outcry, with the Norwegian Refugee Council accusing Israel of denying thousands of Palestinian children their fundamental right to education.
The NRC said the other educational facilities included a kindergarten for the Bedouin community of Jabal Al Baba, which was torn down, and a primary school in Abu Nuwar, which had its solar panels – the only source of power at the school – stripped and confiscated.
Emil Mashriqi, a lawyer for the Society of St. Yves, a human rights organization, said that in the case of the school in Jub El-Thib, which he was representing, Israeli authorities had exploited a legal loophole which allows them to remove “supplementary building materials” at any point.
Declaring the metal sheeting used to build the original school walls to be supplementary material, authorities moved in and took it away.
Which is why when activists returned, they came with bricks, he said.
On Friday night, local resident Intisar Al Wahsh joined the group of activists, made up of people from four communities which surround the school.
Twelve hours later when they had finished, the school was renamed “Al Tahaddi,” meaning “Challenge” in Arabic.
And their reconstruction efforts were not without challenges, according to Al Wahsh, who said Israeli soldiers tried to stop them from rebuilding the school.
“They were throwing stun grenades, and tear gas to prevent (us) from building (the school), but in the end we made it,” Al Wahsh said.
The body that looks after civil administration in those parts of the West Bank still totally controlled by Israel – designated as Area C – said in a statement to CNN that it had carried out “enforcement activities against illegal construction,” during which Palestinians “acted violently towards the forces and threw stones at them.”
As is generally the case with new construction projects in the West Bank’s Area C, the issue is all about permits and small details.
The Israeli Civil Administration insists it works in cooperation with international organizations to promote projects for Palestinians, including sports facilities and schools.
But with regards to the school at Jub El-Thib, it said “the construction (continued) in blatant disregard of the legal authorities, and in violation of the agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, that state that any construction in Area C requires the approval of the Civil Administration.”
Palestinians counter that this approval is almost never granted.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs agrees, describing the planning regime as “restrictive and discriminatory,” making it “virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain the requisite Israeli building permits.”
Mashriqi said they had waited long enough to find out if their application to build had been successful or not.
He added that having built the original school back in August, it should have constituted a “fact on the ground” and, as such, should have remained in place until permission from Israeli authorities was either granted or refused.
“Now, though, with the bricks they can’t do anything,” he said, adding that the rebuilt school also holds a court order barring the civil administration from demolishing the school until its construction application is ruled on.
Hanan Musa, a mother of two children in the school, is also reassured.
“It’s never safe anywhere in Palestine, but now that I know there is (legal protection) and there are people who take care to see it is enforced, I feel it is a bit safer for the kids to come here,” she said.
And while the adults wait for a court ruling, for now, the children are simply happy their school has returned.
“I am so glad to see the school and sit with my friends inside a classroom,” said 8-year-old Nagham Ali smiling.
Her friend, 9-year-old Sundus Zawahra, added: “This time I am very hopeful we can continue studying inside the classrooms.
“Soldiers tried to demolish it again but they didn’t succeed because it is a stronger one.”