AT-TUWANI: Traumatizing the children of the South Hebron Hills
15 March 2011
AT-TUWANI: Traumatizing the children of the South Hebron Hills
by Sam Nichols
Since 2004, Christian Peacemaker Teams and Operation Dove have documented more than 110 acts of settler aggression against Palestinian schoolchildren from Tuba and Maghayir al-Abeed villages in the South Hebron Hills . The details of the attacks may vary, but the crux of every incident is the same: the Israeli military fails to arrive in order to escort the schoolchildren past Ma'on settlement and Havat Ma'on outpost; the children are forced to walk an indirect route without escort; settlers emerge from the outpost and chase or assault the children.
As I sat with the kids on 7 February 2011, they were becoming increasingly impatient. They had finished their two-week winter recess that provided a reprieve from the daily uncertainty of whether their journey home would be uneventful or dangerous. As the kids became increasingly eager to take the long way home, instead of waiting for the military escort, I became frustrated with their impatienceâ€”even though I knew my frustration was misplaced.
I had called the military dispatch office four times, encouraging them to send the escort. Twice they answered and told me they would send the soldiers. On my third call, they hung up. On the fourth call, the dispatcher informed me that the office had not even called the soldiers because the soldiers had more important duties to perform.
During the call, the kids were climbing on my arms and legs, trying to get their ears closer to phone to hear what the military personnel were saying. What did they say? Are the soldiers coming? I could not bear to tell them the truth, that the officers did not care what happened to them, so I lied. Yeah, they are on their way here; just wait a few more minutes.
Finally, the kidsâ€™ patience ran out, and they set off on the longer path that skirts along the perimeter of Havat Ma'on outpost. Mere minutes after setting out on the sixty-minute journey over rough, rocky hills, the kids spotted a settler in the trees that obscure the outpost. The kids scrambled in retreat while I struggled to turn on my video camera as I ran backwards. After getting a safe distance from the place where they saw the settler, the older kids in the group discussed our options and decided we should descend into the adjacent valley, to distance ourselves from the outpost, and continue heading towards Tuba and Maghayir Al-Abeed.
The older children were confident in their choiceâ€”they have made important decisions like this countless times before. The instant we started to head deeper into the valley, my colleague, who was watching from a nearby hilltop, called to say three settlers were moving down the valley in our direction. Before she finished speaking, I yelled to the kids, â€śCome back here, quickly, there are three settlers coming down the hill towards us; they are masked!â€ť My warning passed quickly to the front of the group, and the kids again quickly distanced themselves further from the outpost. Once we stopped, I saw that several of the younger children were distraught. One young girl, Inshirah, was pacing back and forth with her hands on her head, her whole body shaking. She was pleading with everyone, or with no one in particular, to go back and wait for the army. Biddish amshi fil tariq had, ana khayfe min il mustawtaneen (Please, I don't want to walk on this path, please, I'm scared of the settlers).
Villagers from at-Tuwani came out towards us once they saw the settlers approaching. One of the village leaders, Khaled, shouted instructions to the children. As more at-Tuwani villagers began to stream out of their houses in support, the Israeli Border Police arrived.
The settlers, still masked, approached the jeep and spoke with the Border Police officers, gesturing and pointing, apparently narrating their version of events before heading back to the outpost. Khaled and I approached the Border Police; I began by complaining of the late arrival of the military escort and demanding that action be taken against the settlersâ€™ threatening behavior. Khaled spoke at length with another policeman who suggested the source of the problem was the schoolchildren walking too close to the outpost, which forced the settlers to come out. He also suggested that the at-Tuwani villagers routinely provoke the settlers, and the international activists are on hand to document the settlersâ€™ response to the Palestinians' provocations. Khaled remained calm and refuted the Border policeman's claims by recounting the details of several recent attacks against his own family as well as explaining the consistent trend of violence and land annexation since the establishment of Ma'on settlement in 1981.
After hearing from the military that they were not providing an escort for the schoolchildren that day, the Border Police agreed to escort the children on the direct path to Tuba and Maghayir al-Abeed. They opened up the back door of the jeep to keep an eye on the children following behind the jeep. I saw them laughing as the jeep sped up and the kids, some of whom were still shaking in fear, had to run to catch up.
Given that more than 110 acts of settler aggression have been documented against one small group of children in the span of six years, one wonders how many thousands more attacks on children have happened across the West Bank in the same period. These incidents do not make international news, Israeli news, or even Palestinian newsâ€”settlers killing Palestinians, home demolitions, and the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem are bigger news items than masked thugs chasing kids after school. But the children targeted by these acts of settler aggression, are forever scarredâ€”both by the attacks and by the system that deems them unworthy of protection. Nevertheless, the children from Tuba and Maghayir al-Abeed are living examples of samoudâ€” resolute steadfastness. They refuse to let acts of aggression and violence deny them access to education, and continue to struggle against the occupation of their land by making the journey to school each day.
 Christian Peacemaker Teams and Operation Dove, â€śThe Dangerous Road to Education: Palestinian Students Suffer Under Settler Violence and Military Negligence,â€ť December 2010.