In September, on the first day of classes at the occupied West Bank, students living in Tuba wait for Israeli soldiers to accompany them to school.
Their route takes them through the illegal Israeli settlement of Havat Maon, built on Palestinian land between Tuba and the adjoining village of At-Tuwani. The military escort is not only necessary but, at this point, routine.
The closest school to Tuba is in the village of At-Tuwani. When the Israeli settler settlement of Maon expanded in the early 2000s to connect with a new settlement, Tuba was cut off from the road leading to At-Tuwani and continuing to the nearest Palestinian city, Yatta.
The distance from Tuba to Yatta is about 20 minutes walking. However, since the Israeli settlement was established, Palestinians must surround Havat Maon to avoid settler violence. A detour that increases the distance to 20 kilometers. The diversion also significantly affects students’ access to educational facilities in At-Tuwani.
In 2004, a group of American volunteers from the Christian Peacemaker Team came to the region. The volunteers saw the daily suffering of the school children and spoke with their parents, who agreed that they will accompany the students through the settlement.
However, during the first week of the semester, children and volunteers were brutally attacked by settlers: five masked men armed with a chain and a bat. This put pressure on the Israeli government to address violence directed at children, who carried only school bags full of pencils, notebooks and hot bread.
Instead of removing the settlement, which violates even Israeli law, it was decided to assign a patrol of the army to accompany the students who came to and from school on foot. Ironically, the students are dependent on the Israeli forces: they cannot go to school unless the army shows up. Even with their presence, illegal settlers threaten children.
For 17 years, this strange and morally questionable solution has continued.
I started primary school in 2004, with an army escort, and I studied like that for 12 years. I remember not being able to go to school, or being late, because my friends and I had to wait for the military escort to arrive. I remember being attacked by settlers even with the Israeli forces in front. Attending classes depended on the mood of the soldiers.
Every day after school, I would wait for hours in At-Tuwani for the army to show up so that I could go home. By the time we arrived, lunch was waiting for us, but it was almost time for dinner. At dawn and dusk we walked. He lived in a permanent state of movement and disorientation. My mind and body were consumed by the daily walks.
Growing up like this made me ask constant questions. Why do we need military escorts to go to school? Why do these settlers attack me and what do they think of when they harass other people?
Every day I wanted to tell the soldiers: I did not choose to be born here and live like this. Why am I different from other people who work, play, study and love without being constantly subjected to violence? Am I less worthy? Less human?
I remember that one day, military vehicles began to accompany us as we walked through the settlement. As I passed, I saw hundreds of settlers blocking the way back home.
The soldiers decided to put us inside the military vehicles with the driver while they formed a barrier. As we passed through the mass of the demonstration, the settlers tried to stop the jeep from moving on. Some climbed to the front. I looked around and saw that the settlers were attacking the Israeli forces car.
This was strange to me. It was the first time I had seen Israeli soldiers dealing with them. Meanwhile, hundreds of settlers, hiding in the bushes, were throwing stones at us, both at us and at the soldiers. They violated laws for which the Palestinians would have been arrested.
The attacks on the children of Tuba were not limited to my time in school. I finished in 2016 and the violence persists to this day. Another cousin of mine, who was not yet born when the ‘army escort’ plan started, still lives with the same nightmares.
In 2015, when my cousin Sujood was seven years old, she brought a bottle of water to her uncle, who was grazing his herds in the family’s fields, just a few hundred meters from Havat Maon. On her way home, a group of masked teenagers followed her, throwing rocks at her. One of the stones hit his leg and he fell. As I lay on the ground a settler approached and struck him with a stone on the head.
Israel’s new government claims it wants to “reduce the conflict.” It could be assumed that this means reducing the conflict by applying the law in the occupied territories, or giving priority to the repression of settler violence; at a minimum, ensuring the full protection of young children who go to school. Importantly, the affairs of an occupied people are the responsibility of the occupying power, especially with regard to security.
But in recent months, Palestinian activists from the South Hebron Hills region have documented an increase in settler violence, including throwing stones at Palestinian residents, burning my family’s straw bales that we use to feed to our sheep and trees we own.
The soldiers of the Israeli forces simply they watch and refuse to interfere.
It is inconceivable that the cost of going to school may mean going home bruised and missing the entire school year.
Why is our life like this? Now, as an adult, I still demand answers.
I am a writer and human rights activist, with a degree in English literature and I hope to start a postgraduate degree. Every day, I walk optimistically along the roads that lead to school with the children of my village. As I study, protest and document to achieve a different, better, safer and fairer future for us and for all Palestinians.
Ali Awad is a human rights activist, English Literature graduate and writer, originally from Tuba in the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank.