Palestinian schoolchildren, teachers, villagers and internationals make the hour and a half walk along the dirt road to bring supplies to a school. (Jo Ehrlich)
Al-Tuwani is a Palestinian village in the south Hebron Hills of the occupied West Bank. The village, home to approximately 200 residents, is more than 1,000 years old. Al-Tuwani falls under Area C (which covers some 60 percent of the occupied West Bank), an outcome of the Oslo accords which means the Israeli army has full control over all security, planning and construction in the village. There is no running water and a diesel generator provides electricity for a few hours a day. Al-Tuwani’s residents have faced repeated obstacles from the Israeli army to any type of development in the village, from halting construction of a medical clinic to confiscating electricity lines. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers in the nearby illegal settlements Ma’on and Havat Ma’on continually harass villagers and poison their livestock.
Al-Tuwani’s school is attended by children of the village as well as those from nearby villages. Students, particularly those traveling by foot everyday from the nearby village of Tuba, have been physically and verbally attacked by Israeli settlers as they make their way to school. The Israeli army is now required by law to accompany the children part of the way to school. It is an order they follow with limited consistency, sometimes making the children wait alone, dangerously close to the illegal settlements, showing up late or not at all.
The Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) and Operation Dove, two international organizations operating in the occupied West Bank, have provided a permanent presence in the village at the villagers’ request since 2004. They live in al-Tuwani, sometimes spending a few nights a week in Tuba, and accompany the children traveling to and from school as well as supporting farmers and shepherds who face harassment in their fields and while grazing their livestock. Recently, a Palestinian family and the two CPT volunteers accompanying them were attacked by settlers who beat them and stole their cameras.
As tortuous as the occupation is for the people of al-Tuwani, on 10 December — International Human Rights Day — they decided to offer support to other Palestinians by highlighting the discrimination faced by schoolchildren from the neighboring villages. The focus of Human Rights Day 2009 was on non-discrimination, a topic that is particularly appropriate in occupied Palestine where Palestinians face daily discrimination by Israel.
Tents setup as classrooms.
The tiny village of al-Fakhit is even more isolated then al-Tuwani. Like most of the Palestinian villages between al-Tuwani and Israel’s internationally-recognized border or the “green line,” it is located within a closed Israeli military area. So on Human Rights Day, more than 100 Palestinian schoolchildren, teachers, villagers and internationals gathered at the al-Tuwani schoolhouse before making the hour-and-a-half walk along a steep, rutted, dirt road (the only way to get to the village) to bring supplies to the school at al-Fakhit. The smallest children rode in the tractors with the donations, the rest of the participants walked.
The procession was monitored continuously by Israeli forces — intimidating and repressing nonviolent Palestinian resistance is a top priority for Israel. A police jeep caught up with the marchers halfway through the walk but the officers did not impede participants’ movement. According to villagers, three Israeli military jeeps parked outside the al-Tuwani school soon after the walk to al-Fakhit began.
Al-Fakhit and the surrounding tiny villages have been hit hard by the occupation. Thousands of dunams (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters) of farmland have been appropriated by Israel as closed military zones. Because of the village’s proximity to the green line, Palestinians desperate for work have used the small dirt roads to try and make their way into Israel for employment. This means that the Israeli army is a continuous presence in the area. Inside the village, life is difficult; there is no electricity or running water, no medical clinic, no shops, and families live in tents.
Until last year there was no school in al-Fakhit and families were faced with three choices: leave their homes and move to the town of Yatta, the closest Palestinian city (although it is less than 15 kilometers away from al-Fakhit, because of the deplorable state of Palestinian roads it takes hours to get from one to the other); send their children to live with relatives in Yatta (or worse non-relatives who use the children as domestic workers), breaking up families; or, not send their children to school at all.
Instead, the villagers of al-Fakhit, in an act of nonviolent resistance, built a school — a series of spotless classrooms in tents for the 43 school-age children from al-Fakhit and the surrounding villages of Maghayir al-Abeed, Markaz, Halawe, Majaaz and Jinba. Even though the conditions for education are not ideal, now families will no longer be forced to make the choice between education for their children and their land.
Teachers in al-Fakhit’s school travel the long difficult road every day from the town of Yatta. Along the way they pick up many of their students. Teachers and students alike are often stopped and searched by the Israeli army on their way to school. The army has dismantled parts of the road and is threatening to close the road permanently. This is the only road connecting the villages to the rest of the occupied West Bank.
These actions — intended to harass and disrupt the education of children — expose the true nature of Israel’s occupation. Schoolchildren under the age of 12 and their teachers are not a security threat to Israel and the reason that they are harassed by the army has nothing to do with security. Israel wants the most Palestinians in the least amount of land so that they can maintain economic control over the Palestinian people and Palestine’s environmental resources. Thus, Israel’s policies intend for Palestinians living in rural areas to move to urban areas in order to access employment, education and social services, leaving their land free for Israeli appropriation. Although Palestinian children and their families pay the daily price of Israel’s colonial designs, they are also working together to resist the occupation, from one village to the next.
Jo Ehrlich is a graduate student from the United States. She is currently living, working and learning in Dheisheh refugee camp in occupied Palestine.