When school classes began in September, familiar scenes unfolded in neighbourhoods across the country . With eager faces, newly sharpened pencils, clean blank note books, lunches packed, and bright clean clothes, children walked out the doors of houses and apartments, joining the cheery noise and bustle on the streets heading to the school. Parents smiled (or teared up behind their hands) as their young ones moved into a world of growing independence and delightful challenge.
Classes started on September 4th in Palestine this year: a Sunday morning, following the holiday of Eid al Fitr at the end of Ramadan. For the children of La Seefer, of the Abu Qbeta family, this day meant having to once again face the challenge of crossing a high security checkpoint, and then walking up the long steep hill to Imneizel school. Every day after school each child is subjected to being searched physically and having their belongings rifled through, their permits checked and walking through a metal detector. Little seven year old Khaleel Abu Qbeta was scared when I visited his family the week before school opened. He looked at the ground; he trembled. Any excitement about the learning adventure ahead was completely overshadowed by the fear he had of facing this checkpoint without his parents there to support him.
His parents are Palestinians, residents of the village of La Seefer, and they do not have permits to cross the checkpoint. They live in what is called “the seam zone”, small pockets of territory created when the separation barrier extends into the West Bank beyond the ‘Green Line’ (the internationally acknowledged 1967 border of Israel) to take in settlements built in the West Bank. This then subsume any Palestinian villages on that land into Israeli controlled area. The Palestinians in these pockets are not given Israeli citizenship and receive no services or supports, such as water, electricity, medical care or schooling. Their movements are severely restricted, since they are not permitted to move within Israel, and are also limited in accessing the West Bank as they need to pass through a controlled border checkpoint. Khaleel’s parents risk harassment and questioning if they even walk with him on the road that passes by the end of their small patch of land, as this is ‘in Israel’.
Ecumenical Accompaniers meet the children of La Seefer village on the road at 6:45 in the mornings and walk with them through the checkpoint and on to school. They ensure that the children are not unduly harassed or searched by the checkpoint staff. In the past, the children have had guns pointed at them, or been told to stop and wait for an undefined period of time, resulting in them being very late for classes.) EAs will also accompany them again on their return home at the end of the school day. Each child is subjected to metal detectors, shoe removal, backpack search and permit check every single day. Some children have complained that they have been touched roughly or in humiliating ways by the checkpoint staff. EAs will document the treatment and forward any concerns to UNICEF, who have visited the checkpoint and are very concerned about the welfare of the children.
This is not a question of security…. checking 7, 9 and 11 year old children with packed lunches and pencils. This is an act of intimidation, designed to make life in ‘the seam zone’ intolerable so Palestinian families leave.
Meanwhile, in the village where their school is located, the Israeli Army has recently given notice of a demolition order on the community’s solar panels, several dwelling s and also on a newly built classroom and toilets at the school. There is no other source of electricity, so should the panels be destroyed, the school will be without lights; the village homes will be without refrigerators, electric lights or power for radio, television or cell phones.
When this news began to reach the international community, enough letters were written and enough pressure applied that there is currently a reprieve on those demolition orders, but who knows how long this will hold.
If EAPPI presence can ease the fears of Khaleel, and can help his parents feel supported and more stalwart in their resolve to stay on their land, then accompaniment is serving its purpose here in this small corner of Palestine. The larger task is to question why Israel continues to create such hardship and misery among the people of these territories, and to do everything possible to uphold the right to dignity and self-determination for the Palestinian people.