By Ron Taylor
"The children face beatings from settlers," says O. "Sometimes they spend all day in fear. The settlers must leave. If the settlers are here there is no safety, only fear." O is a Palestinian farmer from the tiny hamlet of Maghaer al-Abeed in the South Hebron Hills. He is also the father of young children who attend primary school in the nearby village of At-Tuwani. But the journey to school is a dangerous one.
“We usually start from home and then to Tuba, and then on to the chicken barns,” says M, one of the 20 or so children who make the journey to At-Tuwani. “And there we wait for the soldiers. There we face the settlers. The settlers try to crash into us with their cars. They sometimes catch us, hit us with rocks and knock us down.”
The settlers live in the red-roofed Jewish settlement of Ma’on and its outpost of Havat Ma’on or Hill 833 – a collection of huts largely hidden in the trees and the chicken barns. Both stand there in defiance of international law. The latter is even illegal under Israeli law. Many of those living here moved to the West Bank from the United States, France and South Africa as well as from Israel itself. They are armed and claim the land as their own.
Unfortunately for the children of Maghaer al-Abeed and Tuba, the most direct route to school passes between Ma’on and its outpost. There are other less dangerous routes but the journey times are much longer – up to 75 minutes instead of 25.The settlers oppose Palestinian use of this dusty track even though it lies on land owned by several Palestinian families.
The soldiers the children await are from the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). They have the task of escorting them to school in At-Tuwani in the mornings and then back to their homes in the afternoon to protect them from attack by violent settlers.
Violence against children started shortly after settlers occupied Hill 833 in 2001. In one of the first attacks a 6 year-old girl was hospitalised after she was hit on the head with a rock. She never returned to school. By 2004 international volunteers from the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) and Operation Dove began to escort the children but they, too were met with violence.
Israeli human rights groups, including Taayusch and Rabbis for Peace, managed to raise the matter in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Eventually, its Committee for the Rights of Children agreed to act. But rather than curb the activities of the settlers and remove them from Hill 833, the Israeli District Co-ordinating Office (DCO), the section of the army which deals with civilian affairs in Occupied Palestine, was ordered to provide a military escort to protect the children on their daily journey.
It is not an ideal start to the day but the move was generally welcomed by Palestinian parents. As one mother puts it,” If the army doesn’t go with my children I am scared for them and the children are scared.” Yet there are problems. The escort is often late arriving and sometimes doesn’t come at all. When this occurs the children, waiting unaccompanied by the chicken barns, are particularly vulnerable.
Alarmed by reports of the unreliability of the escort, in 2006 a group of leading Israelis wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seeking action. “Beyond the shame inherent in the very necessity of providing a military escort for children,” they declared, “and the (State’s) helplessness in the face of the assailants, it appears that the escort in its present format cannot protect the children.” Calling the situation “ insufferable”, they demanded “that the IDF be instructed to provide the village children with full and adequate protection that will ensure that they get to and from school safely.”
But, according to members of the CPT who monitor the escort, the arrangements are still far from satisfactory. A recently released report, ‘A Dangerous Journey: Settler Violence Against Palestinian Schoolchildren Under Israeli Military Escort’, shows that during the 2007/8 school year settlers used violence against children during the escort on 14 occasions, an increase of four over figures for the previous year.
M describes what happens during the attacks. “Settlers sometimes catch us, hit us with rocks, and knock us down. They have covered faces and sticks. The soldiers drive ahead of us, the settlers run after us and throw eggs.” The escort is meant to walk with the children but more often than not they stay in their jeep and the children follow on foot. “The soldiers hurry. We ask them to slow down but they say ‘no, go quickly’. Sometimes they push us and we fall down. Because of that we drop our bags and run away. The soldiers use bad language. The soldiers with a kippa make us run fast but sometimes we have a good escort, good soldiers. They walk slowly with us.”
The CPT figures also show that the escort arrived late nearly 40% of the time and on 94 occasions the soldiers failed to accompany the children along the entirety of the agreed route, leaving them open to attack. On ten occasions the escort either failed to come at all or arrived after the children had left for At-Tuwani by one of the longer routes or simply returned home.
Although the new school year is only a few weeks old, the signs are still not good for the children of Maghaer al-Abeed and Tuba. On October 14, 2008 once again settlers attacked. Rocks were thrown and the children were chased by two adults from Ma’on. According to the CPT this attack is just the latest in a pattern of settler violence which is allowed to take place by a complacent Israeli army. No settler has ever been charged with offences of violence against the children.
The effect on the emotional well being of the children can only be imagined. But as M says, “I have bad dreams of settlers with long hair, coming with sticks. When I wakeup, thank God, it isn’t real. School time is a bad time because of the settlers.” Unfortunately, sometimes the bad dreams become reality.
-Ron Taylor contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.