MASAFER YATTA, OCCUPIED WEST BANK — It’s the first week of school and Sujoud Awad walks with eight other children from the village of Tuba in the Occupied West Bank to the adjacent village, At-Tuwani, to attend class.
An Israeli military jeep crawls behind the group of children as they pass through the illegal settlement outpost of Havat Maon in order to reach their school. The army is tasked with escorting Tuba schoolchildren to and from At-Tuwani. This is the government’s solution to Havat Maon settlers assaulting children along their commute. Despite the army’s presence, settler attacks persist.
In 2015, Sujoud Awad was attacked by masked settlers after delivering water to her uncle, who was grazing his sheep in the fields. On her way home, settlers from Havat Maon threw stones at her, knocking her to the ground. As she lay down in the dirt, a settler approached and pelted her head with a rock. She now has a scar on her head from the attack.
And just this past May, as Sujoud Awad walked to school accompanied by soldiers, a settler yelled at her and the other children in Arabic, “Sons of bitches, go away from here!” Around the same time, 18-year-old student Hamza Abu Junddiya was swiped by the side-view mirror of a settler’s car as he walked to school. Abu Junddiya fell and injured his hand.
Verbal and physical abuse from settlers is often ignored or completely denied by the soldiers. In Abu Junddiya’s case, the military commander of the area disputed his complaint, saying he fell down on his own and wasn’t hit by a settler.
A region plagued by settler and army violence
Masafer Yatta is a region in the South Hebron Hills located in the Israeli-military-controlled Area C of the West Bank. A collection of about 30 agricultural hamlets, Masafer Yatta is home to approximately 4,000 Palestinians who make their living as shepherds and farmers.
Located near a firing zone and encircled by settlements, Masafer Yatta is gripped by settler and army violence.
In the 1980s, the Israeli military declared 12 villages in Masafer Yatta a training zone for the army, referred to as “Firing Zone 918.” The army then evacuated the residents in 1999. Following a petition submitted to the Israeli Supreme Court by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and attorney Shlomo Lecker, the residents were able to return to their villages until the High Court reached a decision.
Legal battles have dragged on for the past two decades, with the Supreme Court failing to reach a decision. The next court hearing is scheduled for Sept. 19.
Live ammunition has been suspended in the firing zone until a verdict is reached, but military training is still a regular occurrence, with soldiers mowing down fields in Armored Protected Carriers. In February, large combat vehicles ran over cultivated fields — damaging crops and water cisterns — and artillery equipment was left scattered throughout. Days after the operation, a boy lost his hand after encountering a bomb left by the army.
A community under constant threat
Firing Zone 918 isn’t the only area in Masafer Yatta under imminent risk of expulsion. The Palestinian village of Khirbet Susiya was coveted by Jewish settlers owing to its proximity to an ancient synagogue. In 1983 a settlement was established around it, and in 1986 the Israeli government declared Khirbet Susiya an “archaeological site” and evacuated the residents.
Susiya’s residents were pushed further and further down from their original village in the subsequent decades. Today, they are surrounded by the settlement of Susiya North and the outposts of Havat Har Sinai and Mitzpe Yair.
Susiya experiences ongoing army demolitions and property destruction from both the military and settlers. But for Susiya resident Hamdan Muhammed the perpetual cycle of home demolitions shouldn’t be the media’s sole focus.
“The real problem is after the demolition,” Muhammed said. “What happens when the family loses their home and the father is angry?” He explained:
The kids learn what they watch. They think all the time about [Israel’s] occupation and demolitions. They never think about playing or going swimming. So if the kids, who are the future of the villages here, think about revenge against the settlers or the army, then it becomes a very complicated place and future for them.
According to a recent study by humanitarian aid organization Save The Children, four out of five children in the West Bank and Occupied East Jerusalem whose homes have been demolished feel abandoned by the international community. A 16-year-old Palestinian said in the report, “Nobody stopped them — or could stop them again — from destroying our home, our lives. So why should I bother to dream about a good future?”
The study also found that more than 70% of parents and caregivers feel powerless, unable to protect their children from home demolitions, ashamed, and angry. Muhammed said the adults try to provide the children with happy moments — like birthday parties or trips to the park. Yet the impact of Israel’s occupation endures. Muhammed offered a comparison:
If you ask the kids in America or Europe their dreams, they’ll have a sweet dream because they live in a good country. But every week, the Palestinian [children] living here see [property] confiscation and army training with helicopters and tanks, so then what can you think about their future? They have no future really.
From a young age, the children of Masafer Yatta experience settler attacks, demolitions, military drills, nightly army raids, and even arrests. In March, Israeli soldiers arrested four boys picking wild vegetables near Havat Maon after settlers accused them of trespassing and stealing parrots.
“Soldiers are the settlers’ tools,” Basel Adra, an activist and journalist from At-Tuwani, told a group of international journalists during a press tour of Masafer Yatta earlier this month.
Expanding settlements and escalating settler violence is met with impunity by the Israeli army. And for most Palestinian activists living in Masafer Yatta, the military’s inaction on settler violence is seen as a way to protect the settlers.
Violating children’s right to education
Havat Maon is a settlement outpost originating from the nearby Israeli settlement of Maon. Unlike settlements, outposts are considered illegal under Israeli law because they are built without official government approval. Not long after Havat Maon’s construction in 2000, settlers began attacking children walking to school.
American volunteers from the nonprofit organization Christian Peacemakers Teams began accompanying children in 2004 to school to protect against settler violence. But the volunteers’ presence provoked the settlers even more and they attacked the volunteers and children with sticks and chains.
In response, the Israeli parliamentary Committee on the Rights of the Child decided to enact a military escort program for Tuba’s schoolchildren.
“Instead of Israel removing this outpost or at least arresting the criminals [who committed these attacks] or opening an investigation, they didn’t do anything,” Ali Awad, a Tuba resident and activist told MintPress News. “They just had the army accompany the kids every morning and afternoon to and from school.” Ali was one of the first children to participate in this military escort program.
“It’s still not really a protection because the criminal settlers are still living there,” Ali said. “Every morning, the kids have to wait for the army to show up and usually the army is late.” Ali explained when the soldiers arrive late the children miss their classes in the morning or are forced to take a six-mile route home in order to bypass the settlement outpost.
Ali recalled waiting for the army with his brother and cousins one afternoon. After three hours of waiting, Ali and his family decided to take the longer route back to Tuba. As they approached a hill just half a mile from their village, a group of settlers chased them. The children ran down the valley to escape the settlers, but one of Ali’s cousins tripped and fell into a stream — breaking her hand, leg, and nose. “It took more than three hours until she was able to reach the hospital [in the nearby city of Yatta],” Ali said. “When she finally did, her body was totally broken.”
Reem Awad skipped a year of school to recover and her parents convinced her to return by saying the army patrols are there to protect the students. “This is not really true,” Ali said. “The soldiers come depending upon their mood. So, if the army didn’t show up again, she might face the same nightmare she had already experienced.”
During the first half of the 2013-2014 school year, religious nonprofit organization Operation Dove found that the army escort arrived late 50% of the time; on six out of 132 school days the soldiers were missing; and on 96% of school days the escort didn’t fulfill all of its protective mandate requirements. One such requirement is for the soldiers to walk alongside the children and not drive in a vehicle behind them. Former students attest that the soldiers rarely interact with them and do not exit their cars.
A resolve to keep going
Ali, now 23 years old, finished high school in 2016 and received his bachelor’s degree in English literature this year. Over the years, though, he watched many of his peers drop out of school as the obstacles to finishing their education mounted. In 2004, 21 students were attending school. By 2016, only two (including Ali) graduated from high school.
For Ali, what kept him going was his activism. He said:
If I want to become a shepherd, I would still be suffering. If I want to become an activist, I would still be suffering. So if I have a dream of finishing my school and if I drop it I will still be suffering in my life, then why not try to become more educated and understand what’s going on so I can speak out about it?
Now as his cousin, Sujoud Awad, begins another year of school, she has a similar dream of receiving an education and becoming an English teacher. She said she feels embarrassed, though, walking past settlers swearing at her just so she can learn.
Ali reflected back to his school days waiting hours for the army and imagining how his classmates might be home having lunch already or heading to the playground. He’d watch inside the outpost as settlers drove their children home from the bus station.
“I always felt discriminated against and feel that I am a special case because I have to pass through this to get my education,” Ali said. “Despite all of that, I still had my dream in front of my eyes.”
Feature photo | Israeli forces conducting a “training drill” in the Palestinian villages of Masafer Yatta, February 3, 2021. Keren Manor | ActiveStills
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.