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Hebron: A City on the Brink

West Bank and Gaza, June 18, 2004

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    Mercy Corps is working to build schools and bring hope to embattled West Bank communities like Hebron. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps Photo:

With blueprints in-hand and a determined expression, Ghalib Abu Subaih inspects the construction work completed on the new school he and his neighbors are building in the Abu Sneinah neighborhood of Hebron City.

“Our children used to go to Tariq Ibn Ziad School just down the hill, but the Israeli military took it over,” says Abu Subaih. “Now they have all been transferred to other schools that are overcrowded and have to hold two or three shifts a day just to fit all the students. How can our children get a decent education under these circumstances?”

According to the Governor of Hebron, Areef Al-Jabari, three schools in the city have been annexed by the Israeli military escalating the already critical situation of overcrowded schools in the area. In addition to the toll overcrowded schools take on the quality of education provided, the students also suffer psychologically from the situation.

“We don’t have a state, we don’t have a complete city, and now we don’t even have our school,” says Ali, a student who is twelve years old and recently had his school closed when it was taken over by the Israeli military. “Now, I walk a long way to class and sit with kids I don’t know. I don’t even bother making friends. The military will probably just take this school over, or I will be transferred because it’s too crowded. I’ll have to start all over again.”

The future holds little promise for the Palestinian students in Hebron. The Israeli Government is planning to build walls around the local Israeli settlements that may annex even more Palestinian schools. Without more classroom space for Palestinian children soon, the city simply will not be able to cope.

Abu Subaih, a concerned father of eight children, and his neighbors have taken on the problem as best they can. Together the neighbors have raised money, donated land and secured donations of local building materials to begin building a new neighborhood school.

“We have blueprints and land for two schools here, but we only have enough money to pay contactors and buy imported materials we need for the first floor of this school,” says Abu Subaih as he inspects the near-completed first level of the new school.

“Everyone here has been supportive and given whatever they can,” continues Abu Subaih, “but the cost of iron has gone up 100% since the Israelis started building the Wall. Now we can’t afford to finish the work. Most people here are unemployed, so it’s hard to raise more money.”

The unemployment rate in Hebron, like the rest of the West Bank, has skyrocketed since the beginning of the last intifada, decimating the lives of the Palestinians. The severe economic and employment crisis has had a domino effect on the area, crippling everything from local businesses to basic services such as healthcare and education the municipality is responsible for providing.

“With the intifada, shops were closed, strict curfews enforced, and transportation of products to market was blocked,” says Governor Al-Jabari. “Major local industries such as marble and stone quarries went out of business, and then the transportation companies and stone factories were forced to shut…Over 163,000 families have lost more than half their incomes since the uprising…Without any business in the area the government can’t collect taxes to pay for more schools and basic services.”

Projects such as constructing new schools are desperately needed and desired by the Palestinians in Hebron. School construction can serve the purpose of improving access to quality education, as well as giving an economic boost to the area by supplying construction jobs and pumping cash into the economy to revive marble and stone industries and other major sources of employment.

Abu Subaih has a fading hope that financial assistance will come to help them finish their school. As he inspects the grounds of the construction site, he points out the tree seedlings he and his neighbors planted in the area that will one-day be a playground.

“I just hope the school is finished before the trees are too tall,” he says.

Mercy Corps is currently building nine schools in south Hebron Governorate with funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and actively seeking additional funding to address the ongoing employment crisis and provide more classrooms and educational facilities to Hebron City and the surrounding areas.