A Rundown School for Palestinian Children Awaits U.S. Aid

Residents worry that the Biden administration won’t restore critical funding for the renovation of the West Bank school.

The partially completed school addition in the West Bank village of Jaba. Residents are concerned the Biden administration won’t come through with the promised money to finish the addition.
Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

  • March 11, 2021

JABA, West Bank — When Joe Biden was elected president, residents of the tiny hilltop village of Jaba in the occupied West Bank cheered.

They hope the new American president will restore funding to a project to transform a rundown school in their village into a modern facility by adding an impressive three-story building with a library, a new science lab, more classrooms, an office for social workers and a shaded basketball court.

Work on the project stopped in 2019 after the Trump administration effectively ended aid to the Palestinians.

Jaba, home to about 1,300 residents near Bethlehem, is set on a series of small rolling hills that straddle Israel and a string of settlements. It has few businesses; its sole medical clinic operates one day a week; and its streets are narrow. It also suffers from a housing shortage because it is in an area where Israel rarely allows new construction.


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A Rundown School for Palestinian Children Awaits U.S. Aid 1

20 miles

JORDAN

Jordan River

Tel Aviv

WEST BANK

ISRAEL

Jerusalem

Bethlehem

Jaba

Surif

Dead

Sea

By The New York Times

The original plan to expand the school would have represented one of the village’s most significant upgrades in the past decade. It would have allowed it to increase its student body from 80 to 250, including 50 girls.

“We hope Biden will find a way to rectify the cruel decision to halt funding to the school,” said Jaba’s mayor, Diab Mashala, sipping coffee in his spacious living room. “It is vital to the future of our children.”

For the mayor of Jaba, Diab Mashala, reviving the school project would correct an “immoral” move that succeeded only in “punishing” young students.
Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

Many Jaba residents were excited about the school’s expansion because it would have made grades 11 and 12 available in the village. Students in those two grades must now travel to a larger school in the neighboring village of Surif, a one-and-a-half-mile journey that parents complain can be dangerous because of occasional assaults by ultranationalist settlers.

“I would feel much less anxious if my son could learn in our village,” said Muheeb Abu Louha whose son studies in Surif.

Along the trek between the villages, students must bypass a large roadblock — an orange gate surrounded by piles of burned trash and mounds of dirt — and then walk the rest of the way or hail a taxi or minibus. The only other option is a circuitous 30-minute car ride.

Humam al-Tos, a senior, said settlers had hurled stones at him more than once.

“It’s terrifying,” said Mr. al-Tos, 18, who hopes to study mechanical engineering in Turkey. “When the army comes, they stop them. But when the army isn’t in the area, they do what they want.”

Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

The Israeli military would not say whether it was aware of settlers attacking students between Jaba and Surif, but said it “does not stand by” when it witnesses violence. And on a warm day in mid-February uniformed boys and girls walked along the narrow road without incident.

The roadblock has not been removed, Israeli security officials said, because the road does not meet Israel’s safety requirements and the Palestinian Authority must submit to Israel a plan to repair it before any efforts to reopen the road can begin.

Palestinian officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The school itself is a symbol — one example of how the Palestinians hope the United States will restore relations with them.

During a recent tour of the partially built structure in Jaba, layers of dirt, dust and trash were collecting in its interior, rebar protruded from its rooftop and walls of exposed concrete blocks appeared to be weathered.

Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

In late February, the United Nations Development Program and the Education Cannot Wait fund solicited bids for completing a small part of the project, but program officials said while they would work to make an 11th-grade classroom available, there were no funds to construct a 12th-grade one. It also said it would install a multipurpose room and a canteen.

For handicapped students, the project is crucial because it would be much easier not to have to travel to Surif. “Finishing high school here would be a difference-maker for me,” said Khader Abu Latifa, 14, a ninth grader who has a muscle-related disease.

Khader started walking at the age of eight but he still struggles to take steps. He said he hoped his father would drive him to Surif when he entered 12th grade, but worried the older man would not always be available to give him a ride.

Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

And for a handful of girls, the school project embodies their only hope to obtain an education.

Several religiously conservative families in the village refuse to allow their daughters to study in other towns, forcing them to drop out before completing high school, said Mr. Mashala. “Giving these girls the option to complete their studies could be transformative for them,” he said.

But while a number of people in Jaba say they are optimistic that the Biden administration will restore the needed funding, bipartisan legislation known as the Taylor Force Act, signed into law by President Donald J. Trump in 2018, could complicate efforts to do that.

The act restricts the U.S. government’s ability to disburse aid that “directly benefits” the Palestinian Authority as long as the authority pays salaries to families of Palestinian security prisoners and slain attackers.

Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

Analysts, however, said that what “directly benefits” the Palestinian Authority must be defined by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.

“Would funding construction of this school, which is controlled by the Palestinian government, be considered direct support of the Palestinian Authority? It may or may not be,” said Joel Braunold, an expert on U.S. law surrounding foreign aid to the Palestinians. “It is up to the secretary of state to decide.”

A State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. looks forward to resuming economic and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, but would do so in a manner consistent with relevant U.S. law.

The Palestinian Authority hasn’t announced plans for any significant reforms to its highly popular payment system in the coming months.

Mr. Mashala, who has been mayor since 2017, questioned the logic of holding students accountable for policies they had no part in developing.

“Our kids have nothing to do with politics,” he said. “They are totally innocent. Why should they pay the price for something they have nothing to do with?”