|School children from Twaneh school being accompanied by Israeli military [SAVE THE CHILDREN]|
Twaneh School in Hebron has seen some improvements since former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair paid it a visit as UN Middle East envoy last year.
The track leading from the school to the new main road joining Jerusalem to Israeli settlements on the south eastern slopes of Palestine is now paved. There are two new school rooms being built where pupils will be taught up to Grade 9, rather than having to leave after Grade 4. They now have a playground.
But for the 32 children who live in Tuba and Magher Al Abeed, Palestinian villages encircled by three Israeli settlements, getting to school remains problematic.
Frequent attacks by Israeli settlers on children from these villages as they make their way to and from school have pushed Israel to take the exceptional step of providing them a daily military escort.
Ali, 12, has been coming to Twaneh School for six years, and is among those who wait for the military attachment: “The soldiers are okay, they don’t give us a hard time. It’s just the settlers – whenever we walk by the settlements or past their land, they try to attack us.
“Sometimes they chase us with their horses, ride them at us and try to use them to hurt us. The horses are so fast we can’t get away. It’s very frightening. But they don’t harass us nearly so much when the military are there.”
Patrol not reliable
Unfortunately, the patrol is not always reliable. Last Monday, Ali and the other children waited as they do every morning at 7am for their Israeli escorts but they didn’t come. Eventually, they decided to walk the long way, a 12km detour around the settlements, which took them two hours.
In the afternoon, the children waited again for the patrol they expected to collect them at 12:30pm. At 3pm they gave up waiting and set off on the 12km hike for the second time that day, arriving home after dark. On Tuesday, the children waited and when the escort failed to arrive, they simply went home, too exhausted to face the two-hour walk once again.
After the military’s two-day absence, Twaneh School’s Headmaster Mahmoud Makhamreh contacted the Ministry of Education who in turn called the Palestinian Authority who spoke to the Israeli authorities. On Wednesday, the patrol turned up to take the kids to school.
Makhamreh sees a clear difference in the pupils who travel with the military: “The kids who are escorted are weaker in their ability to study- their communication skills are poor and they don’t mix well with other children.
“They are full of fear, they feel insecure. I can see it in their behaviour: Whenever the patrol is late, they become nervous, afraid that it won’t turn up and they will have to walk home unprotected.
“Quite a few have dropped out because of the difficulties they face getting here, particularly the girls. Last year three dropped out, this year one: four in total since 2008.”
|Ali, 12, a pupil at Twaneh school in the occupied West Bank. [SAVE THE CHILDREN]|
According to new research published by Save the Children UK this week, Palestinian families living in areas like Hebron that the UN identifies as ‘high risk’ in the West Bank and Gaza are poorer, less protected and more vulnerable than anywhere else in the occupied Palestinian territory.
At least half of those living in these areas who spoke to the charity said they have been forced from their homes at least once since 2000, the last major period of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Salam Kanaan, Save the Children UK’s country director in the occupied Palestinian territory, states: “Without a secure future, the lives of Palestinian children living in high risk areas like the Hebron district are blighted. The daily struggle for basics like food, water and their physical safety has left children depressed and traumatised.
“Conditions in these areas make life so intolerable that many families are driven from their homes, leaving them even poorer and more vulnerable.
“These children need help and protection from the Israeli and Palestinian authorities as well as the international humanitarian community. Families need relief from the unrelenting pressures they face so they can raise their children.”
Hurt by stones
Now he is 12, Ali says he worries less for himself than he does his little brother Mahmoud, 10, who walks to school with him: “We older kids always look out for the younger ones, try to protect them. When I was younger, in first and second grade, I was so scared of being beaten that I didn’t want to come to school.
“Most of the kids I walk home with have been hurt by stones. We all have bruises on our legs from where rocks have hit us. Last year, one girl was sent to hospital because a stone hit her face and she was badly injured; she was 12 then.
“Of course, if I get hurt I’ll tell my parents. I also tell them I’m afraid. They tell me that we need to stick together and never walk away from the military patrol truck.”
While the military patrol has stemmed the attacks, it has done little to lessen the impact of the occupation on Hebron’s children. Like the playground, the extra classroom and the paved road, this precaution is a cosmetic treatment for the deep wounds of conflict.
Twaneh School has had a demolition order on it since 1999. Headmaster Makhmareh says Israeli peace activists have championed their case in the courts and the demolition has been delayed, but it could still be carried out at any time.
The children, however, continue to walk to school, carrying on life almost as normal. Ali explains that he has little choice: ‘They throw stones at us because they want us to leave this area. But I will never leave here, I was born here. I belong to this land.”
Phoebe Greenwood works for Save the Children UK, a global children’s charity.
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