The one-room school building in the Palestinian village of An Nabi Samwil, near Jerusalem, serves as a classroom for eight pupils, a staff room, storeroom and the principal’s office. During the winter months or on hot summer days, it is also the children’s playground.
"The biggest difficulty I face here is that I am not able to add anything more to our premises," says school principal Khalil Abu Argu. "We have no facilities.”
The school serves 30 families in the picturesque village, which has panoramic views of Jerusalem and the West Bank. But a major problem for residents is that it is a struggle to reach either, as the village – along with 15 others – lies on the Jerusalem side of Israel’s “Separation Wall”.
The “Separation Wall”, or barrier, has been under construction since 2002. Israel claims it is essential to protect its citizens from Palestinian “terrorism”. In Jerusalem this wall, however, has not been built along the Jerusalem municipal boundary, meaning that these 16 Palestinian communities are cut off from their families and basic services.
An Nabi Samwil village also falls within Area C, where Israel retains military authority and full control over building and planning permission. Responsibility for the provision of services falls to the Palestinian Authority (PA), but because of the wall, the PA cannot access the area.
Most of the villagers hold West Bank IDs and so are not recognized by Israel as Jerusalem residents. This means they are forbidden from entering the city and anyone in the West Bank wishing to visit the village needs an Israeli permit to pass through the checkpoints surrounding it.
There is another challenge that Argu, who lives in the West Bank city of Ramallah, faces. He has been working at the school for four years. He now needs a permit allowing him to pass through the Al Jib checkpoint but is not allowed any further in the direction of Jerusalem than the end of An Nabi Sawil village boundary.
“That wall went up last year,” he says, pointing out the black electric fence winding through the valley below. “In the past, when the way was open, it was a 20-minute walk to school. Now it takes me an hour and I need a car."
Planning restrictions in Area C mean that new structures and the expansion of existing buildings can only be carried out with Israel’s permission. No permission has been given to Argu’s school.
Instead, the Israeli Defense Forces have issued demolition orders on the school’s small outside toilet and a tent they had been using as an extra classroom because they were built without permits. Israeli soldiers have visited the school more than once, warning that the illegal structures must be taken down.
Argu remains defiant: “They’ll come and take it down and I’ll put something else up. I plan to bring a shipping container to the school next year and turn it into a classroom.”
At An Nabi Sawil, lack of space has forced the school to only teach grades 1-3. From grade four onwards, local children must travel to schools in the nearby villages of Al Jib and Beit Iksa, which the principal says are more than an hour’s drive away thanks to the wall.
One of Argu’s brightest students, Malak, aged eight, is looking forward to starting grade four at a bigger school in Al Jib this October.
“I like my school now but it’s very small; there isn’t enough space," she said. "It would be better if we could have different classrooms for the different grades. It’s very difficult now, because we have to wait for the teacher to go through three different sets of lessons.”
Within the boundaries of East Jerusalem there is a different set of educational problems. Around 50 percent of the educational system is run by the Israeli municipality, the rest by a combination of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), private educators and Waqf, an Islamic religious endowment that essentially operates in lieu of the Palestinian Authority in Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem, which is not able to operate on the Jerusalem side of the “Separation Wall”.
A recent report published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned of the long-term impact of the restrictions on access to education in East Jerusalem.
Permit restrictions, checkpoints and the wall, it said, meant that pupils, and especially teachers with West Bank ID cards, face significant difficulties getting to schools in East Jerusalem, which is increasingly cut off from the rest of occupied Palestinian territory.
Ray Dolphin, the report’s author, told IRIN a key concern is the shortage of classrooms: “Even within Jerusalem [the Jerusalem Municipality] where students don’t need to cross checkpoints to get to school, there aren’t enough school buildings to meet their needs.
"And many of the buildings that are there weren’t designed as schools. Palestinian children living in Jerusalem have the right to an education but there currently aren’t the facilities.”
Despite the significant obstacles his school faces, Argu is full of enthusiasm: “I’m not at all frustrated with my job. My students work hard and that makes me proud and happy. What brings me most satisfaction is when I managed to develop the school somehow. It would be shameful for me to give up.”