East Jerusalem does need schools. But not on the ruins of Palestinian homes

Far from serving the needs of Sheikh Jarrah’s residents, the Jerusalem Municipality’s excuse for expelling the Salhiyeh family is entirely cynical.

An excavator belonging to the Jerusalem Municipality carries out demolitions near the Salhiyeh family home, Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, January 17, 2022. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
An excavator belonging to the Jerusalem Municipality carries out demolitions near the Salhiyeh family home, Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, January 17, 2022. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

This article was published in partnership with Local Call.

Even for veteran activists in Jerusalem who have already seen their fair share of cruel spectacles — from home demolitions to severe police violence and brutal arrests — the image of Mahmoud Salhiyeh fortified on the roof of his house in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah last week with a gas cylinder and fuel tank threatening to blow himself up was harrowing in a different kind of way.

Activists and journalists followed the developments with anxious vigilance during the hours he stood there, full of rage and despair, praying that his home wouldn’t be demolished by bulldozers sent by the municipality. And indeed, that evening no disaster took place — that is, no disaster beyond the demolition of the plant nursery, the barber shop, and the open plot on the family’s land. But the Salhiyeh family were not expelled from their home, and Mahmoud came down from the roof healthy and intact.

Since everyone knew that the threat of demolition and expulsion was still hanging over the family, activists remained in the family’s home, taking shifts around the clock to provide a protective presence. Throughout the following day, an almost surreal atmosphere pervaded the home; on the roof, someone was playing an oud, perhaps not suspecting that by dawn their fate would already have befallen them. According to those who were home at the time of the raid two days later, police forces arrived at the scene as if it were a war zone.

It is no secret that the Israeli state, with all of the powers at its disposal, has been waging an overt and determined war against the city’s Palestinian residents for decades. But in this instance, there is something that overshadows even the cruelty of demolishing a family’s home and throwing them out onto the street on one of the coldest nights of the year, and that is the astonishingly cynical excuse in whose name this violent act of barbarism took place: building a school on the land that was expropriated by the Jerusalem municipality.

I want to ask Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon: What will children learn in this school? What values will the education system promote in a school built on the ruins of the lives of the Salhiyeh family? This is a cynical and wicked excuse, precisely because in East Jerusalem there is indeed a dire shortage of classrooms, for which the Jerusalem Municipality itself is largely responsible, due to its longstanding policy of neglect.

According to data from Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO that seeks to make Jerusalem a more equitable and sustainable city for the Israelis and Palestinians who share it, for the school year 2020-21, East Jerusalem lacks 2,840 classrooms. What’s more, a freedom of information request submitted by Ir Amim found that the Jerusalem Municipality is not aware of which educational framework 37,233 Palestinian children (nearly 27 percent of children in East Jerusalem of compulsory school age) study in.

‘Do they think we’re stupid?’

Even those most active on the issue of education in East Jerusalem do not believe that the demolition of the Salhiyeh family’s home is meant to benefit their children. Suffice it to mention that in Sheikh Jarrah itself, an empty lot designated for public needs was handed by the municipality to the ultra-Orthodox non-profit Ohr Somayach, which plans to establish a religious yeshiva and dormitories for its students.

“There is not a single Palestinian in East Jerusalem who believes they are doing this for the benefit of our children,” says Abdel Karim Lafi, who served for 10 years as chairman of the East Jerusalem Parents’ Committee. “Look at how they treat us in the planning department. They drive us crazy as architects. They don’t accept your permit requests, they don’t answer emails, then they’ll tell you, ‘We’ve shut that program down.’

“They’re demolishing a house to build a school? How many plots stand empty today in Beit Hanina, in Shuafat? Who are they trying to kid? Do they think we’re stupid? It’s not normal at all, what they’re doing. You saw how many police cars and officers there are? It’s a second occupation,” he says.

Palestinian children play after school in their playground in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat, March 30, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Palestinian children play after school in their playground in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat, March 30, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The excuse of building a school is also absurd in the eyes of Nahar Halsi, a member of the parents’ committee in the neighborhood of Jabal Mukaber, who has worked for many years to improve the state of education in East Jerusalem. “There are many plots in the Shuafat area. It’s possible to build a school there, you don’t need to destroy anyone’s home to do that,” Halsi tells me. “But in Shuafat, Sheikh Jarrah and Beit Hanina, the municipality is building unnecessarily; there’s not actually a need for new schools in those neighborhoods, whereas in Jabal Mukaber, where the need is far greater, they’re not even building a single classroom.

“It’s not a matter of building a school, but of fulfilling other goals. This neighborhood doesn’t need a school, certainly not immediately. A child from Sheikh Jarrah can go to Shuafat or Beit Hanina where there are lots of schools just standing empty. It’s a five-minute drive. The most severe distress is in the south of the city: Ras al-Amud, Silwan, Jabal Mukaber — that’s where there’s the greatest lack of classrooms.”

I became aware of some of this severe shortage at the beginning of the current school year during a tour with Halsi of the educational institutions in Jabal Mukaber. Halsi showed me a plot of land that according to municipal plans is intended to be used for building a school, yet the municipality has refrained from advancing the program because a local resident is squatting in the area and refusing to vacate it.

Although the severe shortage of classrooms in Jabal Mukaber is far greater than in Sheikh Jarrah and the northern neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, the municipality did not demand his eviction, and the police did not raid the place in the dead of night with stun grenades to evict the intruder so that the school can be built.

“Ultimately, they are implementing a policy, and the policy is clear: to get rid of as many Palestinians as possible and to bring in as many Jews as possible, in order to fragment the Arab neighborhoods and prevent Palestinian contiguity,” concludes Halsi.

A cynical argument

Looking at Israel’s handling of East Jerusalem, you’d need a pathological degree of naivety not to see the policy that Halsi is talking about. With the generous assistance of the state, the settlement enterprise is driving a stake through almost every Palestinian neighborhood. Only this time, the municipality itself is taking the lead.

“For years, the municipality has argued with us about the lack of classrooms,” says Yehudit Oppenheimer, director of Ir Amim, which, together with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), for years spearheaded a petition on the issue of the lack of classrooms in East Jerusalem. “They don’t build in places where residents are begging for construction, even where plans have been approved. In Jabal Mukaber, for example, they have been waiting for years for seven schools to be built which have already been approved.

“The municipality is building sluggishly, putting forth conditions, and now uses this argument entirely cynically,” Oppenheimer continues. “In a neighborhood full of expulsions, you expel another family? Do you not see the context? And why destroy the house, when even according to the municipal plan it was possible to leave the family’s home in place?

View of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabal Mukaber, January 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
View of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabal Mukaber, January 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev said in reference to the demolition in Sheikh Jarrah, ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it,’ i.e. ‘You want us to protect you and to give you education? Isn’t that a bit over the top?!’ But you can’t claim that you’re working on behalf of the residents and then heartlessly expel a family like this. It also reminds me of the appeal of the residents of Beit Safafa against this terrible road that runs through their land. Municipality representatives told them there, ‘But we gave you two schools.’

“It’s an image that really gets to the heart of the way Palestinians are perceived by the Jerusalem Municipality. The limited rights it is willing to give them — like education — it gives through force, through thuggishness, without bothering to explore possible alternatives, instead handing over an empty plot intended for a school to a yeshiva.

“After all, the family was not opposed to the building of a school; it’s a plot big enough for both a house and a school. And you know what? The plant nursery that was demolished by police could have been integrated into the special education school that they want to build here. But everything is advanced through force and violence.

“There is also a question of timing. After all, it’s not like they’re going to build there tomorrow, it wasn’t urgent, it was possible to sit down with the family again and look for alternatives. At a time when evictions in Sheikh Jarrah by settlers are causing so much friction, so much hostility, now the municipality has to put on this show? And in the coldest week of the year?”

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.