Teargas, bullets and a cage: Getting to school in Palestine

The breaking points are sometimes small, innocuous. You can’t sleep for a week because the Israeli shelling is so bad, there are continuous and horrible reports of death, but we’re fine- “I’m fine. No, I’m ok. Really.”—- then something as silly as trying to fold an omelette in the frying pan, it breaking, and then- the tears fall.

But other times, your numbness breaks at what you are seeing in front of you. 6am at Qalandia checkpoint. As I approach the checkpoint I am amazed at the line-ups. Is The Cage gone? It seems as though there are just line-ups…but as I get closer I see that it is still there- the 10-foot high fence wire cage where the Palestinians are lined up to be able to cross the checkpoint.

I stand in the line, the one which is vaguely for women, children and older men. But the lines are not moving. The checkpoint in enclosed in thick spools of barbed wire; some women crossing from the other side get their dresses caught as they try to step over it. One woman -carrying her small child- trips on a stray sandbag, but manages not to fall into the sharp grey metal.

On our far left, there is a break in the barbed wire where Palestinians crossing from the other side come through. We see some children -in their pale blue uniforms, schoolbags- crossing around the side, walking quickly by the soldiers. Going to school. More children see that they might be able to cross on the side, and within seconds there is a cloud of blue and green uniforms, white headscarves. Some of them manage to cross- but the soldiers have spotted them. Two of the soldiers are screaming (in Hebrew) at them. But some of the children -

aren’t the children afraid, do they learn fear or are they brave or…

-run across. The soldiers screech at them. Then- the soldier’s arm curls, and the object is launched. There is a panic in the crowd of children, and in the crowd of adults standing, in the cage, watching in horror. Tear gas, sound bomb or grenade? It goes up, then starts to fall. The children run.

It hits the ground, the sound breaks our ears, children scatter. The smoke rises.

The children regroup, and wait. The smoke clears, and some of them are allowed through. Bravery returns, and more children stand and wait their turn to cross. Some get permission from the first set of soldiers to cross, but then get screamed at by the others, guns raised.

A shot is fired.

An elderly man carrying a young girl waits with the children. He advances, then is shoved back. What must be his grand-daughter drops to the ground. The soldier yells at him, telling him to go back, but motions with his gun for the little girl to cross. The little girl walks slowly towards the rest of the soldiers, her grandfather urging her to cross the checkpoint, even if alone: go to school.

More blue and green uniforms and white headscarves have advanced to the soldiers. Some pass, running. The soldiers, now with children all around them, start screaming again. “Get back, get back”.

Inside the Cage: we watch this happening to the children, horrified. Something small and dark swoops a few feet above our heads, and we duck- then a short nervous laugh as we realise that it was a sparrow, not an explosive. The line I am in has moved….but only because the people in front of me have been turned back, regardless of what type of ID they hold (including Jerusalem ID). I advance towards the soldiers, passport held out. But then more schoolgirls are behind me, attempting to cross through the second set of soldiers. The soldiers scream at us, and we are physically pushed back. One of the soldiers -her green eyes blazing- puts her hand on my throat and pushes me back into the crowd of uniformed school girls. Another sound bomb has gone off just behind me, and a girl beside me is whimpering in fear. Terrified with how out of control the soldiers are-

“Calm down, calm down…these are children. These are children”. My voice is shaking, but I keep talking to the soldier. She screeches at me, and lifts her machine gun. I step back, but can hardly move because of the crowd behind me. Another soldier lifts a grenade, over my head-

We are able to move back slightly. More soldiers surround us, pushing us back.

A woman is pleading with the soldiers after being told that she cannot enter. She points at her son, probably less than 3 years old, and is saying again and again: “Mustashfah, mustashfah”. [“hospital, hospital”].

Somehow I manage to cross in the next moments, and I walk as fast as I can to cross, feeling as though bullets might hit me at any moment. Another round of gunfire, and the scattering of children.

I cannot look back.