Israeli occupation authorities' demolition of Palestinian schools in the West Bank, as part of a discriminatory planning system, constitutes a war crime, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"Israel has repeatedly denied Palestinians permits to build schools in the West Bank and demolished schools built without permits, making it more difficult or impossible for thousands of children to get an education," HRW said today, nothing that 44 Palestinian schools are "at risk of full or partial demolition because Israeli authorities say they were built illegally."
The global rights group said it had found that "Israeli military authorities have demolished or confiscated Palestinian school buildings or property in the West Bank at least 16 times since 2010, with 12 incidents since 2016, repeatedly targeting some schools."
"Israeli authorities have been getting away for years with demolishing primary schools and preschools in Palestinian communities," said Bill Van Esveld, senior children's rights researcher at HRW. "The Israeli military's refusal to issue building permits and then knocking down schools without permits is discriminatory and violates children's right to education."
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HRW explains that "most West Bank schools at risk of demolition fall within Area C", 60 per cent of the occupied West Bank, and that "Israel justifies its demolition of schools and other Palestinian property there not on security grounds, but rather on the grounds that they were built without permits from the military.
However, the military refuses the vast majority of Palestinian building requests, and has zoned only one per cent of Area C for Palestinian building, even as construction proceeds with few constraints in nearby Jewish settlements.
The school demolitions are consistent "with other actions that make communities unviable, such as home demolitions, and the refusal to zone the communities or grant them connections to utilities like water and electricity," HRW said.
Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office on 31 March 2009, Israeli forces have demolished 5,351 Palestinian buildings in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, for lack of building permits, displacing 7,988 people, including more than 4,100 children, based on UN data.
HRW stresses that international law prohibits an occupying power from destroying property, including schools, unless "absolutely necessary" for "military operations".
The Fourth Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court prohibit widespread, unlawful destruction of property as a war crime.
In addition, "the intentional forcible transfer of civilians within an occupied territory â€“ the movement of people under duress to a place not of their choosing â€“ is also a grave breach of the laws of war."
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The Rome Statute states that forcible transfer can occur "directly or indirectly", through coercive circumstances as well as direct force. "Israel's demolitions of schools are part of a policy that has forced Palestinians to leave their communities."
"Israeli officials should be on notice that razing dozens of Palestinian schools not only can block children from getting an education, but may be an international crime," Van Esveld said. "As part of their efforts to support Palestinian schools, other countries should demand that those destroying schools should be held to account."