A lesson not learned

After eight years of waiting, Beit Hanina residents may finally get a new girls' school. But not if the residents of nearby Neveh Ya'acov can help it.

beit hanina 88.248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
beit hanina 88.248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The abandoned military base on the border between Neveh Ya'acov and Beit Hanina looks as squalid and empty today as it has been for the past 20 years. Nothing indicates that a brand-new educational facility for girls from Beit Hanina is about to be built on this no-man's-land. Despite a 2001 High Court ruling that 245 classrooms must be built in east Jerusalem, the foundation stone has yet to be laid, but the media frenzy is already in full swing. Members of the Neveh Ya'acov Neighborhood Administration recently launched a campaign against the school, claiming that its close proximity to the residential area would compromise security in the the neighborhood and therefore the municipality would have to find an alternative location for the school. "We are not against Arabs in any way and will not tolerate accusations of racism, but the school should be located elsewhere, because we suffered enough from terrorism and we don't want to be at risk again," Gabi Benish, the head of Neveh Ya'acov Neighborhood Administration, told In Jerusalem. He says a few Molotov cocktails have been thrown from this spot several times and there have even been shootings. "During the intifada we couldn't drive along this pathway, as it was dangerous. We are afraid that in the future the school might become the center of dangerous activity and pose a threat to the neighborhood. Today they say that the school is an elementary school for girls, but then they will build another floor and expand it and everything might change. We just can't risk it," says Benish. But Bella Pesahov, who lives near the site on Rehov Moshe Sadeh, believes this is not the whole story. She says she has never heard of shootings or any other problems in this area, but she still thinks that an alternative site should be allocated for the school. "I've heard about the campaign against the school building right here, in front of our noses, and I support it, because this way there will be more potential for problems in the future. The two nations should live separately and minimize the interaction between themselves, at least today, when the key to our conflict is not yet to be found," she says. Pesahov didn't know that the disputed institution was a girls' elementary school, but says that this is not "very important." It is, however, important to the people of Beit Hanina, who have been waiting for this school to be built since 1998. "It is a girls' elementary school, which means that only girls aged six to 11 will be studying there," notes Hussam Wattad, director of the Beit Hanina Neighborhood Administration. "Whom can they threaten? This piece of land is empty, it doesn't [bother] anyone, whereas our kids are deprived of normal education because Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods lack schools, and our schools lack suitable buildings and classrooms." Wattad believes that the whole story is just a misunderstanding that will soon be resolved. "I wish that the people of Neveh Ya'acov would come and talk to us first. I'm sure that together we could reach common ground. They have to understand that the school doesn't pose a threat to them, but the kids who do not go to school and are not part of any educational system do," says Wattad. "If more schools are built in east Jerusalem, it will lead to a change in behavioral patterns of these youths who are currently busy doing nothing. "But they didn't come to us and that's too bad. For some reason they believe that they have the right to meddle in our business and in our neighborhood, as the property lies within Beit Hanina." The saga began in 1998, when a site on the border between Beit Hanina and Neveh Ya'acov was allocated for a school. Meretz city councillor Pepe Alalu speaks about the dispute that has continued for more than eight years. "When it comes to fulfilling the High Court ruling regarding building new schools and classrooms in east Jerusalem, the municipality always says there are not enough free land slots. And when these slots are found, they still remain vacant. I see it as a consistent method of depriving Arab children of the proper education to which they are entitled." In fact, east Jerusalem neighborhoods lack not only the school in question, but many schools and hundreds of classrooms. Two hundred and forty-five to be precise, according to a High Court ruling. In 2001, when 119 schoolchildren from east Jerusalem who were denied education in public schools appealed to the High Court, a decision was taken by the Jerusalem Municipality and the Ministry of Education to launch a four-year program and to budget for an additional 245 classrooms. "Within the next five months the state will have to prepare a detailed plan to solve this serious problem. Also, the state will have to transfer the approved budgets to the municipality of Jerusalem, so that the creation of the classrooms will start immediately," the ruling read. In reality only 47 classrooms have been budgeted for, states a report by Ir Amim, a Jerusalem advocacy group. Nonetheless, the residents of Beit Hanina still feel optimistic. "We have the High Court on our side and we will not be satisfied with anything less than having this school built in this particular area, since our children have waited long enough," insists Wattad. The people of Neveh Ya'acov are no less determined: "We are concerned for the future of our children and for our common safety. This school doesn't belong here," says Benish.