A harrowing walk to school for Palestinian children

Pupils in the West Bank village of Tuqu pass by barbed wire fencing and armed Israeli soldiers every morning.

West Bank''s Tuqu children 2
Mohammed Sabah, 10, says the barbed wire often catches on the skin and clothing of children walking by [Abed al-Qaisi/Al Jazeera]

Tuqu village, occupied West Bank – Just after sunrise, children of all ages gather in the streets of Tuqu, a village in the southern West Bank district of Bethlehem. 

Groups of girls in green-and-white striped uniforms stand waiting for their friends to accompany them to school. Young men yell at their younger siblings to hurry up, while parents wave their children off from balconies.

The scene is similar to that in many neighbourhoods around the world on a school morning, but once the children leave their homes and reach the main road, the picture changes dramatically. Armed Israeli soldiers stand guard along Route 60, with some positioned on rooftops. A stretch of barbed-wire fencing cuts down the length of a dirt footpath that runs parallel to the road, effectively dividing it in half. 

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“The barbed wire is scary,” 10-year-old Mohammed Sabah told Al Jazeera, walking alongside a group of friends towards their school. “We tried to walk through the olive field next to the path instead, but the soldiers hide in the trees there and grab us, so we stopped doing that and walk next to the barbed wire, like they want us to, instead.”

Residents of Tuqu say the metal fence is a new addition, installed late last year, but a spokesperson for the Israeli army said it has been in place since 2008. The spokesperson cited recent reports of children throwing stones at passing Israeli cars on Route 60, which is frequented by local Israeli settlers.

They put this here to scare us, I think, because the kids don't like the barbed wire - it cuts our hands and our clothes and bags all the time. But we were already scared.

by Mohammed Sabah, 10-year-old resident of Tuqu

While the fence was ostensibly put up to stop children throwing stones, it is only a few hundred metres long, and residents point out that children could still get around it on either side to reach the road. 

As they walk, Sabah and his friends remain in single file to avoid brushing up against the barbed wire. Along parts of the path, there is a half-metre-high drop-off on the left-hand side, leaving the children in a precarious position between the ledge and the barbed wire.

“They put this here to scare us, I think, because the kids don’t like the barbed wire – it cuts our hands and our clothes and bags all the time. But we were already scared. We’d never throw stones from here, because – look,” Sabah said, pointing across the street towards the Israeli soldiers standing on the other side of Route 60.

“They stand there,” he added. “And there up on the roof, and over there on the other side of the school. We’d be crazy to throw rocks here; they are always here, during the day and evening. Since I started kindergarten, they’ve always been standing here on my way to school.”

At the end of the pathway, students wait for one of their teachers in a bright yellow safety vest to shepherd them across the road towards the school building.

“I should be here because of the traffic,” one teacher, who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera. “This is a busy road and cars fly by, but that’s not my main role here. [We] stand out here to make our presence known, in the hope that the soldiers don’t try and intimidate the children.”

With machineguns slung across their shoulders, Israeli soldiers stand in groups of four or five about 100m from where the teachers gather in front of the school.

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As Sabah goes to line up for school with his classmates, Tuqu Primary School administrator Freyal Abu Farha explains that he was detained by Israeli soldiers for hours last month.

While each child’s case is different, Defense of Children International – Palestine, the human rights group, has documented that the majority of Palestinian children detained by Israel are accused of stone-throwing.

The unsettling security situation detracts from the children’s studies, Abu Farha added.

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“Once they get to school, they should be ready to start the day, but often the kids are showing each other the tears in their jeans or the cuts on their hands from the barbed wire,” she said. “It is very distracting.”

The situation is even worse for high school pupils, Abu Farha said. “When they detain the older kids, it is something serious. They don’t take them for a few hours and let them go, like with our kids. The high schoolers are less frightened, though; they have experienced this their whole lives. They think it’s normal.”

May Sulieman, a primary school teacher, points towards her own son and daughter, who are laughing together in the schoolyard.

“They seem so happy now, yes?” Sulieman said. “All of the kids will tell you the soldiers and the barbed wire bothers them, but they are laughing and jumping like normal kids still. It’s not until the night that you can tell there is something wrong with our children.”

Sulieman, who has five children, has particularly noticed the effects of the daily trauma on her 12-year-old son.

“He is 12, and he still comes to our bed at night. He screams for his father in his sleep,” Sulieman said. “The young ones having nightmares, that’s not so surprising; but a 12-year-old who wants to sleep in his parents’ bed? Something is wrong here. They are hurting the minds of our children.”

Additional reporting by Abed al-Qaisi

Source: Al Jazeera