KHAN AL-AHMAR, West Bank – Dozens of children returned to school on Sunday, taking part in an annual ritual that has taken on special meaning in this Bedouin tent camp.
The makeshift school buildings, cobbled together from mud and old tires, were built over the objections of Israeli authorities who are now threatening to demolish the structures.
Israel says it won't tear them down until alternate facilities are available.
"We'll go to school until it's demolished," said 10-year-old Islam Hussein as she dashed to the school on a nearby hill, after hastily dressing in clothes her mother gave her. She was faster than her brother, Mohammed, 6. Their mother Sara playfully threw shoes at them as she told them not to be late.
Behind them was their home: a series of huts of tin, plastic and wood, forming a kitchen, sleeping room and animal pens. Nearby was the family's camel herd. Bedouins have lived in similar conditions for centuries, sometimes preferring a nomadic life style to the offer of government-built towns.
About 150,000 Palestinians, or 6 percent of the total number in the West Bank, including those of Khan al-Ahmar, live in the 60 percent of the territory that remains under full Israeli control. This territory is also home to Jewish settlements, where 300,000 Israelis live.
Palestinians and their supporters say Israel is trying to pressure them out by refusing to allow them to build infrastructure. Israel has issued demolition orders against some 3,000 structures: homes, cisterns, solar-power generators and 18 schools, including the Khan al-Ahmar Mixed Elementary School, according to U.N. figures, but only a fraction have been carried out.
In the first half of this year, Israel destroyed 360 structures, the U.N. reported.
Israeli military spokesman Guy Inbar said while there was a demolition order for the school and the entire encampment, there is no intention of destroying it until an alternative is found for the students. He said many of the community had willingly relocated to a nearby Palestinian town.
Just as Israelis have built West Bank settlements over the decades to cement their hold on the territory, Palestinians see building up their communities as the way to keep their land. Palestinians claim the West Bank as part of their future state.
"We are fully intent on building facts on the ground that are consistent with the inevitability of the emergence of the fully independent sovereign state of Palestine," said Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in a visit to the school.
The Jahalin Bedouin clan used to send their children to schools in the Palestinian town of Jericho, about 20 kilometers (13 miles) away. The Palestinian Authority-issued school bus didn't always turn up, said Eid Sweilam, a community activist.
The community decided to build its own school, completing it in 2009 with help from Western aid groups and Israeli volunteers, Sweilam said.
The Palestinian Authority supplies 11 teachers and staffers for the school's 90 children, ranging from grade one to seven. Mariam Abu Ghaziah, one of the teachers, said they hope to keep adding grades.
Despite the shortcomings, the school is the best education that most will receive in this deeply conservative community.
Most parents are reluctant to send the children, especially girls, outside the village to high school. It is not proper for them to be outside for so long, said mother Sara Hussein, 35.
As a result, Hussein, the mother, who cannot read, made her eldest daughter, Nour, 14, drop out of school after sixth grade. If the school adds grades, she can return, but she won't be sent to Jericho, her mother said.
The teenager, with a stony face, watched her siblings excitedly prepare for school as she shook a milk-filled goat skin — an ancient method for making butter.
"I was really good at school," she said. "I'd like to go back."