By Mel Frykberg
AT TUWANI, Nov 23 (IPS) – Being able to travel to school in relative safety is something children all over the world take for granted. But, for Palestinian children living in the shadow of the ubiquitous and illegal Israeli settlements dotting the West Bank, simply walking to school can be a terrifying experience.
“It is really scary walking to school. We never know when the settlers will attack us and beat us,” says Rima Ali, 10, from the village of Tuba in the southern West Bank, about two hours drive south of Jerusalem.
“Every day we have to watch out that the settlers are not in the valley ahead of us and if we see them we run away,” Ali told IPS.
Ali still bears the scar from when a settler pushed her causing her to fall to the ground and cut herself below the eye.
Hundreds of Palestinian children in Tuba and the surrounding Palestinian villages face the same daily predicament as they try to reach school in the Bedouin village of At Tuwani.
Situated on a hilltop overlooking At Tuwani are the Israeli settlement of Ma’on and the extended settlement outpost of Havot Ma’on.
The only road which previously connected Palestinians to neighbouring villages and to the nearby Palestinian town of Yatta – a 10-minute drive away – has been appropriated for the exclusive use of settlers. Palestinians are banned from driving on it.
The villagers are now forced to take off-road dirt tracks, which circumvent the settlers-only bypass road and the settlements. If they walk the route it takes approximately an hour on foot – assuming they don’t have small children with them.
Settler attacks – including arson attacks on agricultural fields, chopping down olive trees, poisoning water wells, killing livestock and assaulting Palestinian villagers living near settlements – have become a way of life for Palestinians all over the West Bank as the Israeli authorities continue to turn a blind eye.
But the repeated attacks on schoolchildren forced a group of international Christian peace activists from Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) to establish school escorts for the children in a bid to try and protect them.
Furthermore, the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, was forced to intervene several years ago after several foreign citizens escorting children were attacked by chain and baseball-wielding settlers.
Two CPT members were hospitalised after they suffered injuries including a punctured lung, a broken arm and a fractured skull.
The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) was ordered to provide daily military escorts for children from various towns and villages in the southern West Bank.
However, the children and the peace activists have complained that the military escorts are often unreliable and sometimes a source of hostility towards the children themselves, as many of the soldiers are sympathetic to the settlers.
And while the number and severity of attacks have dropped they have not stopped. Last week a young Palestinian couple, with three children under the age of three, was trying to make its way home to Tuba after visiting Yatta.
They family was warned by two members of the CPT that a group of settlers had been spotted on the ridge above earlier in the day and that it would be safer for them to take the longest route home to avoid a confrontation.
“We decided to accompany the family in case there was any trouble. Despite taking the longer route a group of five settler men rushed towards us from the valley above and attacked the father who had a toddler in his arms,” American CPT member Sarah MacDonald told IPS.
MacDonald and another CPT member, Laura Ciaghi from Italy, were videotaping events in case they needed to go to the police.
“I decided to try and engage the settlers to try and protect the family,” Ciaghi told IPS. Ciaghi was thrown to the ground and repeatedly kicked in the ribs and back as the men stole both video cameras from the women.
“Because the settlers focused their attention on us the Palestinian family was able to get home safely and so we feel we achieved some kind of victory,” added Ciaghi.
Ciaghi was badly bruised, required a stitch to her scalp and had contusions on her head.
The Israeli police and army were called to investigate but, with the exception of a couple of individuals, most of them appeared to be disinterested and no thorough investigation was carried out.
This does not surprise Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din, which monitors human rights abuses against Palestinians in the West Bank and acts as an intermediary between Palestinian victims and the Israeli security forces.
In order to file complaints Palestinians need to go to police stations which are located in the illegal Israeli settlements. However, the catch-22 is that they are not permitted to enter the settlements and this is where Yesh Din steps in.
“The police often ‘lose the paperwork’ or are ‘unable to identify perpetrators’ of attacks against Palestinians,” Yesh Din director Lior Yavne told IPS.
“And of the few cases opened, less than 10 percent result in any conviction,” Yavne added. “This situation is completely different from when Palestinian attacks on Israeli settlers are investigated.”
Meanwhile, despite the Israeli government calling for the demolition of Havot Ma’on over two years ago, on the grounds it was built illegally according to Israeli law, the outpost continues to expand and the settlers living there continue to attack Palestinians.
In the interim, Israel is carrying out a massive campaign of Palestinian home demolitions as settlements all over the West Bank expand at an unprecedented rate.