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Israel targets Vittorio Arrigoni School in embattled Jordan Valley

11 September 2011 | The Alternative Information Center, Ben Lorber

As schools around the world begin another year of instruction, one school, near to completion in one of the most grief-stricken and resilient areas of occupied Palestine, has suffered a massive set-back because the Israeli military has carried away its infrastructure- the Vittorio Arrigone school, in the small village of Ras Al Auja in the Jordan Valley.

The Arrigoni school, named after the Italian International Solidarity Movement activist killed in Gaza this April, began in February as a small tent school in the village of Ras Al Auja, and began evolving into a more permanent mud-brick and caravan structure in April. Built jointly by the Ras Al Auja community and the activist group Jordan Valley Solidarity, the school, once built, will educate young children up to the age of 13 in one of the areas of the West Bank hardest hit by the Israeli occupation. From the time that Israel seized control of the area in 1967 until the present, the resident Palestinian population has decreased from 320,000 residents to 56,000, as 36 primarily agricultural Israeli settlements, housing 6,400 settlers, have been constructed on 50% of the Jordan Valley’s land.

Ras Al Auja is a Bedouin community seven km west of the larger community of Al Auja. Both serve as paradigmatic examples of the devastating impact of Israeli occupation on Bedouin in the Jordan Valley. Until Israel’s occupation, Al Auja was for millennia an oasis, famous for its ever-flowing spring. As it says on the website of Jordan Valley Solidarity, “people would come to Al Auja from all over to swim, fish and sit among the banana groves that once grew there.” In 1972, the Israeli water company Mekorot, which has monopolized the West Bank water,  dug two deep water wells in Al Auja, cutting off the flow of water before it reached the village. “These wells lowered the water table, drying out the spring. Today the area is a desert, crossed with dried-up canals that see water one or two weeks every year during the rainy season.”

As is commonplace for the larger West Bank Bedouin communities, families must use tractors and mobile water tanks to bring water to their homes and villages, at considerable personal expense. The estimated amount of water that one Palestinian in the Valley consumes per day, for drinking as well as all other activities, is some 70 litres. This is the amount of water it takes to flush a toilet. Jordan Valley settlers, on the other hand, enjoy free access to water and, from the comfort of their heavily subsidized, modern settlement homes, individually consume about 33 times as much water as their Palestinian neighbors in the Valley.

To make matters worse, the families of Al Auja and Ras Al Auja, who settled there after expulsion from Beer Sheva during the 1948 Nakba, used to have “over 100 sheep or goats each, which they grazed on the mountains and watered at the spring”. Now, the settlements of Yitav, Niran and ‘Omer’s Farm’ have colonized the surrounding mountains, an army military checkpoint borders Ras Al Auja to the south, and two enormous settler-only water towers cast a grim shade over the dry Al Auja spring. ‘Omer’s Farm’, in particular, has stolen half the land of Ras Al Auja in the five years of its existence. It consists of a single family, on a hilltop, surrounded by stolen farmland, heavily guarded by the Israeli military.

The men of Al Auja, according to Jordan Valley Solidarity, “are reduced to surviving by working in Israel’s illegal settlements, earning a pittance. The area feels like little more than a work camp, reminiscent of the townships of apartheid South Africa, with all the men away during the day in the settlements.” The Bedouin now work for settlers, to farm land that the latter stole from them. While they were previously self-sufficient farmers, the residents now wage-laborers making scarcely enough to get by.

In March 2011, Jordan Valley Solidarity joined with community members to construct a school for children of the 130+ families of Ras Al Auja. Over the course of two weeks, volunteers sewed sack cloths together to construct a makeshift tent school, where women from the community began to teach 30 children, mostly aged between 5 and 8, a basic curriculum of math, English, Arabic, geography and history. It was vitally important to establish a school in Ras Al Auja, says Jordan Valley Solidarity coordinator, volunteer and driving force ‘Jane’, who has been involved with this project since its inception, because “if you don’t have education when you’re a small child, that means that when you go to school you’re behind already. Education is a basic human right. These people have a right to education in their community.”

Before construction of this school, the children of Ras Al Auja were forced to walk 7 kilometres each morning to the school in al Auja. As the foot path trailed right next to two Israeli settlements, exposing children to regular physical and psychological settler harassment, many parents were wary of sending their young children to school. In addition, numerous fathers are off working in these very Israeli settlements, thus unavailable to assist their children in the mornings. Numerous children, therefore, were left without an education until later years.

Today, because the new school in Ras Al Auja only educates children aged 7 to 13, those children over 13 lucky enough to continue their education still need to take this daily trek to the Al Auja Secondary School, where they can study for the Tawjihi (matriculation exams). Mossem Zubaidat, a volunteer with Jordan Valley Solidarity who also works with the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education, relates how “there is no transport to take them to the village, so they use their legs to go to school in summer and winter. It is hard for them to put the bag on their back and walk all the distance…We need to build the school because in Ras Al Auja the people live in boxes, not in houses, they live in tents! We are certain to build a school there, it is our land and we can build a school anywhere!”

The Israeli army does not agree. The Area A, B and C zoning system was established for the West Bank after the 1993 Oslo Accords to designate areas of full Palestinian control, joint Palestinian civil and Israeli military control, and full Israeli control, respectively. Because 95% of the Jordan Valley, including al Auja and Ras al Auja, falls under Area C (50% because of Israeli settlements and 45% because of military training grounds and nature reserves), this means that almost nowhere in the Valley can the Bedouin build any permanent structure without requiring an Israeli permit, which is expensive to apply for and almost impossible to obtain. Between January 2000 and September 2007, Israel issued almost 5,000 demolition orders against Palestinian structures in the Jordan Valley. Of those, 1,663 demolitions were carried out – Israeli bulldozers tore down houses, schools, animal shelters and even entire villages.

The stated purpose of Israel’s vise-like grip on ownership and control of the Valley is to hold a security buffer space between Israel and Jordan, necessary to defend the country; in reality, however, Israel covets the Valley because (1) the West Bank, which could serve as a future Palestinian state, is thereby surrounded on all sides by Israel; (2) the West Bank is thereby cut off from economic interaction and communication with Jordan, and the rest of the Middle East; and (3) in the words of the soon to be published Jordan Valley Solidarity factbook To Exist Is To Resist, the Jordan Valley’s “abundance of water resources, fertile soil and natural minerals offer competitive economic advantages in agriculture, industry and tourism. It also constitutes a geographical “reservoir” of land where the Palestinians could establish housing projects and public facilities.”

Israel’s policy of constant settlement expansion, pervasive military checkpoints, destruction or closure of Palestinian roads (the last few years have seen 17 new roadblocks and 4 new checkpoints in the Jordan Valley), construction of Israeli-only bypass roads and physical intimidation, harassment, and outright demolition of Bedouin villages in Area C is evidence of a conscious attempt to gradually exterminate a Palestinian presence in the Jordan Valley, to cement Israeli control and solidify a long-term Israeli presence that remains illegal under international law. Jane explains the role of Jordan Valley Solidarity in resisting the Israeli occupation: “By supporting communities to construct infrastructure for basic services, we support them to stay in their communities, on their land- because the Israelis want them to leave the Jordan Valley, or to make them move into the 5% of the land which is in area A or B to create an Israeli state with Palestinian ghettoes.” The establishment of a school in Ras Al Auja, like countless other projects in the Valley, is not primarily a gesture of humanitarian aid, but rather a symbol of international solidarity. “The aim of lack of education is to drive people from their land. What that means is that the right to education for people is really important…as a basic human right, it’s not something that can be taken away from children…Therefore our motto is ‘to exist is to resist’, and the people in Ras Al Auja are existing and resisting just by being there, and being on their land is their resistance, so we support them in their resistance…together, [we are] using their own land that the people live on to create a fact on the ground to resist the Israeli occupation.”

It was in this spirit of resistance that, in April, it was decided that a tent school, though an important first step, was too small and impermanent to meet the community’s needs. Accordingly, over 100 international volunteers and community members began constructing two permanent mud-brick classroom buildings. After the death of Italian International Solidarity Movement activist Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza that April, the Ras Al Auja community, which personally knows the vital role of international activism, requested to name the school Vittorio Arrigoni. From the Jordan Valley Solidarity website- “Vittorio was, and will remain, a great symbol of resistance. To give his name to one of our schools is an honour, and we will do our best to make this school another example of resistance against the occupation.” On 25 April 25t Luisa Morgantini, former Vice President of the European Parliament, Majed Al Fityani, Jericho Governor, 50 Italian volunteers, members of the local community, and Jordan Valley Solidarity volunteers laid the first brick of the Vittorio Solidarity school while singing ‘Bella Ciao’ and the Socialist International anthem.

It is this spirit of resistance that the Israeli army is acting to suppress. During the month of Ramadan, the Ras Al Auja school joyously received a donation of two large caravans, which would serve as classrooms. Yet at 10.30 a.m. on 7 September, in Jane’s words, “the Israeli occupation force arrived and removed the caravans on lorries, leaving paperwork…they made all the village stay back and declared it was a closed military zone while they removed the caravans”.

Jericho Governor Majed Al Fityani, who laid the first brick of the Vittorio Arrigoni school in April, said Wednesday afternoon that “we were surprised by the Israeli actions this morning, we were not expecting this from the Israelis. We are going to request an official answer from the Israelis for why they took the caravans…it is the duty of the government to provide education for the people. it is a question of providing services and facilities for the students, free of charge. It is very difficult to provide services because the school is in Area C, so it is impossible for us to build structures there.”

The start of classes will be postponed until further accommodations are arranged for the students. In addition, a celebration and official announcement ceremony for the school, planned for September 15, will now be postponed.

Nonetheless, the community of Ras Al Auja, along with Jordan Valley Solidarity, remains resilient in the face of this new obstacle. Explains Mossem Zubaidat, “its not the first school we built with Jordan Valley Solidarity. The first school was in Jiftlik, it started in tents, now it’s a building. The second school is in Fasayil. We built it from mud and soil and tents, and now it has become a building. So we have experience with the Israelis about these situations. We are sure that we are going to build that school again, and we must build that school for these people. We are going to talk to the media, we are going to talk to the Jericho Governorate, and we are going to talk to the community, to do something about it. The army says it is illegal, but we say it is legal, because it is Palestinian land!…We have to build the school because we need to stand with these people in their land, not to leave their land to the Israelis. We are going to fight to build that school again, we are not going to surrender!”