In the rolling, rocky hills of South Hebron, where electricity and water are scarce and Israeli settler violence is plenty, a group of children huddle together, waiting to be escorted to school by the Israeli military.
They come from the villages of Tuba and Maghayir Al-Abeed, facing intimidation and harassment, for an education. What should be a peaceful 20-minute walk to the area school in at-Tuwani has become a testament to the determination of this group of Palestinians to nonviolently protest the appearance of settlers attempting to steal deeded land, using physical violence against children and adults, Palestinians and international volunteers to gain control of a region.
Violence against the children and international volunteers assisting on the walk to school, on Palestinian land, but claimed by the Ma'on settlement since 1981, became so prevalent that in 2004 the Israel Parliament mandated an order to the Israeli military to provide an escort for these children seeking an education. To and from school, soldiers are supposed to insure safety, with promises of prosecution against settlers guilty of violence and threatening behavior.
Neither order has yet to be met with regularity, leaving an already vulnerable group of children unsafe, while allowing their attackers freedom to attack again. Fear for the children in the area has grown so strong, the school population has dropped one-third. Nightmares, anxiety and other associated post-traumatic stress symptoms are now a way of life, stealing away the children's innocence, targeting them in an attempt to steal away education and a chance at a different life.
"If the army doesn't go with my children, I am scared for them and the children are scared. The beginning was worse, but after today it seems harder than the beginning. The settlers are still beating the kids," said a mother of one of the children from the village of Tuba.
"The children face beatings from settlers. Sometimes they spend all day in fear. The settlers must leave. If the settlers are here there is no safety. There is no safety; there is only fear," stated a father in the neighboring area of Maghaer al-Abeed, confirming the fear and violence faced by the children of both villages.
International volunteers from the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT) and Operation Dove attempt to accompany the children, but even they have been subject to violent attacks by settlers. When the military escort does not come, the children have a very difficult decision to make: risk having harm done onto them or taking a route around the settlement of Ma'on and the illegal outpost Hill 833, sometimes referred to as Havot Ma'on or Ma'on Farm, taking them 75 minutes and making them late for class. Volunteers make phone calls daily, multiple times a day, to the Israeli District Coordinating Office, the section of the Army that is responsible for coordinating civilian affairs. After long waits, some children simply return home, missing school for the day.
"Efforts have been made (when the military does not come). We make almost daily calls to the army asking them to fully complete the escort in addition to coming on time for the escort," stated a CPT member living in the area.
One of the most recent cases of negligence came on October 27, 2009, when the military did not arrive for the ordered escort. After 45 minutes of waiting, in which CPT and other international volunteers called the military office several times, the children began walking with the activists, taking the long route at 8:15, 15 minutes into their scheduled school day. On their way, the international activist and children were chased away by Israeli settlers. Four adults, one masked and armed with a sling shot, and an additional vehicle full of settlers awaited the children and activists, causing them to run back to the village of Tuba. Sixteen children missed school that day.
When the soldiers do show up, the children are forced to run beside the military jeeps, running to school with settlers behind them, harassing them. Settlers sometimes follow, silently, stalking. Sometimes the settlers shout threats. It has created an environment of fear.
A girl from the village of Maghaer al-Abeed, identity protected, stated," The settlers try to crash into us with their cars. Settlers sometimes catch us, hit us with rocks, and knock us down. The settlers have covered faces and sticks. The soldiers drive ahead of us; the settlers run after us and throw eggs. The soldiers hurry. We ask them, 'Slowly, please drive slowly.' And they say no, 'go quickly!' We fall down."
Despite witnessing this behavior by the settlers, and an order to arrest those involved in violence and intimidation against the Palestinians, Israeli solders do not act against the settlers.
A CPT member stated, "The army is usually very negligent when settlers are nearby. Usually the soldiers drive away or seem to turn a blind eye to the settlers. None of us currently here in Tuwani have even seen the army prevent an attack. Also, the illegal outpost, Havat Ma'on has an eviction order. So the military has not carried out their right to evict those living in the outpost. The military does a poor job of the escort and does not arrest or evict anyone involved in these attacks."
While Israel Defense Forces (IDF) patrols are often considered irregular, unreliable and sometimes sources of hostility toward the children, soldiers have occasionally found themselves victim to settler tactics while escorting the children to school. In one incident, rocks were pelted at IDF soldiers while settlers followed behind the military escort of school children. In another, masked settlers followed IDF vehicles, shouting insults and attempting to intimidate soldiers from assisting the Palestinian children in this area. These actions further confuse a complicated political landscape where there have been documented reports of mistreatment and harassment by IDF soldiers toward villagers in this area, sometimes turning a blind eye to the destruction of property and harm of person done by settlers of Ma'on toward shepherds and farmers in this area.
"Why don't they do anything to keep us safe?" asked a young boy, aged seven.
As settler violence has increased in this area, the Palestinian community has committed to resisting the attacks on their person, their children and their land nonviolently, though they are often presumed guilty over the innocence of the settlers and Israeli military. An example of this presumed guilt can be witnessed in the case of Ezra Nawi, a Jewish activist arrested and charged for assaulting an officer during a home demolition, despite documented video evidence showing this to be untrue. A year earlier, however, three Israeli settlers beat a Palestinian man with a club and no charges were filed.
"We just want to go to school," one student said, "maybe our education is really what they fear most."