(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
A nearly yearlong legal battle may have finally paid off for a group of east Jerusalem families and their supporters, who have been fighting the Education Ministry and the municipality over the continued use of a school building near the Shuafat refugee camp that sits next to a metal factory.
The Shuafat boys' grammar school, which is situated in the heart of the neighborhood's industrial zone, was previously used as a goat pen.
When the school year began last fall, pupils and staff began complaining about sharp metallic odors inside the building, headaches, dizziness, burning eyes and other health problems they claim are a direct result of the school's proximity to the factory.
A few days after the complaints were made, the school's Parent-Teacher Association decided to close the facility.
But according the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V'Din) - two NGOs that have intervened on behalf of the families - the municipality and the ministry refused to provide an alternative location to hold classes, saying that the building was up to code and was operating according to regulations.
"The pupils basically missed the entire month of September," said Jameel Sanduka, head of the Shuafat Neighborhood Committee, whose children attend the school. "But the municipality wouldn't let us move the school - we even brought them a list of other buildings in Shuafat that are fit for use, but they weren't interested."
The parents, together with the NGOs, then filed a petition with the Jerusalem Administrative Court, demanding that the municipality find an alternative location for the school.
The court discussed the petition throughout the entire school year and, at the end of May, handed down its ruling which, while accepting certain arguments - namely, that it is unreasonable to place a school in an industrial zone and next to a factory - it sided with the municipality, ruling that the continued use of the school building was not illegal because it did not deviate from the regulations.
On Wednesday, the municipality maintained that it had invested millions of shekels in renovations to the school, and had checked whether the factory did in fact pose a health risk.
"But we found that it did not pose such a risk," the ministry said in a statement. "And the Ministry of Environmental Protection checked the risks as well and found, very clearly, that the factory next door was operating in full compliance with the necessary regulations."
"But that's only half of the Ministry of Environmental Protection's response," said Tali Nir, a lawyer for ACRI who spoke to The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. "The other half, which we also received, states very clearly that while the factory is operating under the regulations of an industrial zone, such a zone is no place for a school building."
Therefore, the families and NGOs decided to take their appeal to the Supreme Court, a move which they say has spurred the Education Ministry to change its position and accept that the school was in fact unfit for use and that a new location needed to be found.
"The Education Ministry changed its position yesterday, and the Supreme Court hearing is tomorrow," Nir said. "It seems to me that they finally saw that we were serious, and realized that they were wrong - a school cannot operate next to a metal factory."
She said that a response from the Education Ministry accepted that the school was not fit for use due to its location, but that the ministry would need a "reasonable amount of time" to find a solution.
"But we think that a reasonable amount of time is the beginning of September [when the new school year begins], otherwise the pupils will continue to suffer health problems," she said. "There is no reason for them to have to learn there another day."
Sanduka also expressed doubts regarding the ministry's intent with regards to the said "reasonable amount of time."
"They said they need reasonable time, but the school year will start in less than month," he said. "They can just as easily say that they won't have the solution figured out by the start of the school year, and then we're back where we started, back in that school building, that really isn't a school building at all."
Both Sanduka and Nir said they would wait for the outcome of Thursday's Supreme Court hearing to make any further moves.
"We'll see what happens in court," said Nir. "I really hope that this issue is taken care of."