The worst worry of a child’s school day should be homework. Maybe a lost book, or an argument with a friend. No child’s walk to school should routinely involve armed soldiers and fear of sometimes being chased and assaulted by angry adults. But for the Palestinian children who live with their families in the small rural villages that make up the South Hebron Hills, this is how the school day begins. Illegal settlements and outposts isolate and separate their villages and soldiers are a constant in their lives.
Once, the trip from the tiny hamlet of Tuba to the school in the village of Tuwani was a calm and beautiful walk along a quiet road connecting the two villages. During the l980s, Israeli settlers built a settlement on privately-owned Palestinian land, which had been used to graze sheep and goats. Following construction of the settlement, the settlers established an illegal outpost. Now, industrial chicken barns sit astride the road that once served children walking to school, farmers taking livestock to town and families traveling to Tuwani, or the larger town of Yatta for health care, shopping and higher education.
Between the settlement and the outpost, what remains of the road is closed to Palestinians. With one exception: Children walk behind an Israeli military jeep to reach their school. Their parents are not allowed to walk with them.
The 20 or so children who make this trip start their school day in an unprotected field, anxiously waiting for the Israeli soldiers who will oversee their walk to school. Villagers had built shelters in which the children could await the soldiers, but Israeli authorities have dismantled every shelter. If it is raining, the children get soaked. Some days, the soldiers are the same soldiers who chased or arrested shepherds the day before – shepherds who may be the brothers or fathers of these children. Some days, the soldiers are late, leaving the group of children waiting, vulnerable to attack and within easy reach of the outpost. Some days, the military escort does not arrive at all, and the children make the trip to school with international volunteers along a longer path, which also lies alongside the settlement.
About 1,000 people live in the neighboring villages, an estimated half of whom are children. Nevertheless, because the villages lie inside of Israeli Firing Zone 918, the military uses the land for military training.
Amazingly, despite all of this, it is almost unheard of for children to miss a day of school. Parents are determined that their children will be educated. When I began volunteering in Tuwani, the school reached only to third grade. Now, thanks to the community’s determination to provide their children with education, students can complete high school in the village, and although facing a continued threat of demolition by Israeli military bulldozers, villagers have built and staffed primary schools for children who live in eight nearby villages.
This is what nonviolent resistance to military occupation looks like.
I’m grateful that I can spend a portion of this year in Palestine. For many years, children in these villages have taught me about nonviolence. Sometimes, the presence of international human rights workers holding cameras has some small positive effect on their days.
US people bear some responsibility for the interruption of Palestinian childhoods. The US subsidizes about 25 percent of Israel’s military budget, at a cost to US taxpayers conservatively estimated at $3.1 billion a year.
I’m working with the Italian organization Operation Dove. They support Palestinians who resist the Israeli occupation, standing with families in their commitment to remain on their land. This includes accompanying school children and farm families as they walk to school, graze their animals and tend their crops. Operation Dove helps document harassment, intimidation, arrests, detentions, home demolitions, checkpoints, road closures, military training exercises and settler attacks. Villagers also report to Operation Dove when they endure theft and when their crops and property are destroyed.
Protective presence provided by activists is not a large-scale solution to the violence that intrudes into children’s lives in Palestine. But many years of visits with these families persuades me that it’s important and necessary to support and participate in the villagers’ nonviolent efforts. Families that confront militarism and occupation help us move beyond our addiction to militarism and violence.
The children I met early on are grown now. Some have gone on to college, and some have families of their own. These young people have every reason to be angry. Their childhoods included fear, intimidation, demolitions, arrests and isolation. But they have also grown up witnessing their community’s steadfast commitment to nonviolently resist injustice. Their families have supported them well, including them in the community’s struggle for dignity. Against all odds, they are growing up with humor and tenacity instead of anger and bitterness. They are living proof to the rest of us that love wins.
To read more about Operation Dove’s work in the South Hebron Hills, visit: http://www.operazionecolomba.it/togetherattuwani