Israeli army, settlers 'routinely harass' Nablus students

West Bank school's staff documented 65 Israeli violations during first semester, at least three more since January 24.

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    Israeli army, settlers 'routinely harass' Nablus students
    The school is often the target of Israeli army and settler activities in the area [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

    Nablus, occupied West Bank - School principal Mohammad Jaser presses a button to open the intercom system and makes a routine announcement.

    "The Israeli army has been spotted near the premises," Jaser says, his voice blaring from speakers and into the classrooms of the al-Sawiyeh al-Lebban school near Nablus in the northern West Bank last month. 

    "Stay inside your classrooms, away from the windows, and lock the doors," he instructs the students. "Prepare for an evacuation."

    The students and teachers at the mixed school, located between the villages of al-Sawiyeh and al-Lebban, have been trained to respond to incidents like this.

    The school is often the target of Israeli army activity in the area and has faced numerous incidents of armed settlers entering the premises and threatening students.

    The al-Sawiyeh al-Lebban school serves about 500 students, including 20 girls, from sixth to 12th grade [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

    Due to the high frequency of violence at the school, emergency drills and training have been implemented to teach students how to respond to the incursions.

    "Now, when we spot Israeli soldiers or settlers around the school, students know exactly what to do," Jaser said.

    Students, for instance, receive training on how to lessen the effects of tear gas and some are trained to provide first aid to their injured peers during confrontations, he says.

    'They like to point their weapons at the students'

    The al-Sawiyeh al-Lebban school serves about 500 students, including 20 girls, from the sixth grade until the 12th.

    The school is located in Area C - which comprises about 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli military control - situated alongside Road 60, a shared Israeli-Palestinian road that cuts through the West Bank.

    Israel's illegal Eli settlement, located on nearby hilltops, almost completely surrounds the school.

    Jaser, who has been principal of the school for three years, sifts through dozens of videos and pictures of security incidents on his computer.

    "This is when they came to arrest one of the students," Jaser said, as he played a video showing Israeli soldiers handcuffing a student outside the school and leading him to an Israeli army jeep.

    Emergency drills and training have been implemented to teach students how to respond to Israeli incursions [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

    During the last semester, which commenced at the end of August, the school's staff documented 65 Israeli violations at the school, and there have already been at least three documented violations since the current semester began on January 24, according to Jaser.

    Abed, a teacher at the school who preferred that Al Jazeera not use his last name, says the first semester of this school year was the worst he experienced since the start of his tenure at al-Sawiyeh al-Lebban 12 years ago.

    While most of the violations at the school were committed by the Israeli army, he says several times during the first semester armed Israeli settlers had also entered the school grounds, escorted by soldiers, and harassed and threatened students.

    "The settlers and soldiers like to point their weapons at the students in order to frighten them," Abed told Al Jazeera.

    He recounts numerous instances of Israeli aggression on the school, including troops firing tear gas at the school playground where children play football, patrolling the area and preventing students and teachers from entering school grounds, and detaining teachers and students for interrogation.

    In October, the Israeli army ordered the closure of the school entirely, stating that students were throwing stones from the premises.

    But the staff, students, parents, and Palestinian officials resisted and decided to open the school in defiance of the order.

    Israeli forces responded by firing tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets at the crowd gathered outside the school, injuring Palestinian Education Minister Sabri Saidam, Nablus Governor Akram Rajoub, and dozens of students and teachers.

    The Israeli army ordered the closure of the school but staff, students, parents, and Palestinian officials resisted [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

    Although the school administration succeeded in keeping the school doors open, the staff continues to feel on edge, anticipating another army closure at any moment.

    As a result of these routine disruptions, "there are serious weaknesses in the teaching process", Abed told Al Jazeera. The school is often forced to evacuate the students owing to Israeli army and settler activities in the area, causing students to miss out on their classes.

    "It's rare that the students are actually able to stay at the school until the last period," Abed said.

    "They are being evacuated and sent home almost every day, so it affects their ability to learn."

    On top of this, many parents are now afraid to send their children to the school, Abed explains, opting instead to transfer them to public schools in the nearby Salfit district or register them in private schools.

    About 40 students have dropped out since the start of the school year, according to Abdulrahim Suleiman, the school's vice principal.

    'Constant state of panic'

    In November, Mohammad, a student at al-Sawiyeh al-Lebban who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his identity, was temporarily detained by Israeli forces on his walk back home from school.

    The 17-year-old was stopped and interrogated by the soldiers for about two hours.

    "They asked me about my family and had me name all of my siblings," Mohammad explained to Al Jazeera, nervously fidgeting with his hands.

    "They asked me who was throwing stones at the school and what I want to be when I grow up while making jokes with each other."

    The soldiers then tied plastic cuffs around the teen's wrists, blindfolded him and ordered him to lie on his back on the floor of an army jeep.

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    They proceeded to drive him to Israel's Huwwara checkpoint in Nablus where they handed him over to Palestinian police.

    During the hours he was detained, "I was scared they would keep me and I would miss my exams and not be able to graduate", he said.

    Rights groups have noted that children facing occupation-related violence often experience "nightmares, bedwetting, higher levels of absenteeism from school, higher dropout and/or transfer rates, and lower levels of educational attainment".

    Furthermore, students attending schools targeted by the Israeli army and settlers have reported being in a "constant state of panic", feeling "always tired", experiencing "great difficulty" focusing on lessons, less motivation to attend school, and an increase in violent behaviour.

    Zikra Daraghma, a 17-year-old student at al-Sawiyeh al-Lebban, tells Al Jazeera that she is often harassed by soldiers on her way to school.

    "They [soldiers] stand in our way while we are going to school and don't let us pass or make it difficult for us to get to school on time," she said.

    "They always threaten and insult us. I don't even want to repeat the bad things they say to us."

    Israeli violations at Palestinian schools in the West Bank have seen a marked increase over the past several months.

    The United Nations has documented 111 Israeli interferences to education in the West Bank from January to December 2018, affecting 19,196 Palestinian children.

    More than half of these incidents involved "live ammunition, tear gas, and stun grenades fired into or near schools by Israeli forces, impacting the delivery of education or injuring students", according to the UN. 

    'We are never safe'

    Al-Sawiyeh al-Lebban, along with several other schools vulnerable to Israeli-related violence in the West Bank, began implementing emergency protocol training to prepare students and staff to adequately respond to Israeli army or settler confrontations.

    As part of an initiative called Schools as Zones of Peace (SZoP), led by the international NGO Save the Children, "crisis cells" - or school disaster-management committees - have been formed at vulnerable schools in the West Bank.

    The cells consist of students, teachers, and the principal and are responsible for acting in an emergency, and providing leadership and training in school disaster management.

    The cells lead frequent school-wide emergency drills and training to help prepare students for potential incidents.

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    This includes training students and teachers on how to organise an evacuation of the school, how to adequately respond to weapons commonly fired by Israeli forces, such as tear gas, and how to provide first aid.

    "The most important thing is keeping the children calm," Suleiman tells Al Jazeera, noting that the organised and practised emergency response makes students and teachers feel more in control of their situation.

    In addition, the Palestinian Authority (PA) received permission from Israel to station several Palestinian security guards at al-Sawiyeh al-Lebban to provide more protection for students.

    The unarmed Palestinian guards are stationed around the entrances of the school and attempt to prevent the Israeli army or settlers from approaching the area. The guards also escort vulnerable children to and from school.

    The school's staff told Al Jazeera that the presence of the PA security guards has significantly curbed Israeli activities in and around the school since their arrival at the start of the year.

    For Daraghma, however, the presence of the Israeli army and settlers has continued to affect her and her peers.

    "It affects us more psychologically," she said, "because when we see violence all around us, we can't focus on learning."

    "Instead of paying attention to the lesson, we are constantly thinking about what's going to happen to us when we leave school. Will I be hurt, detained, or maybe even killed?"

    "We are never safe," she added.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News