Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank of the occupied Palestinian territories, is a bewildering place to visit. With half the city a hive of activity, full of over-zealous stallholders marketing their wares, the other half is fully deserving of its moniker “Ghost Town”. Under Israeli military control, this part of Hebron has an atmosphere so tense one can often find their heart in their mouths just walking down the street. For here lives a community of ideologically-driven Israeli settlers which seems intent upon ridding the city of its Palestinian inhabitants. This 400-strong community is protected by a military force of around 2000 combat soldiers, many of whom are conscripted young people from the age of 18 to 21.
Cordoba School lies in the heart of occupied Hebron. It provides education up to grade 10 to 155 students who live within a few miles of the school. The school is surrounded by 4 Israeli settlements (illegal under Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention) and is situated just off Shuhada Street. Formerly the commercial centre of Hebron, Shuhada Street was closed to all Palestinians in 2000. The army closed all the shops and sealed the doors at the entrances to the houses. Those who remain are no longer allowed to use their own front doors.
A small section of Shuhada Street is permitted for Palestinian pedestrian access, with a military checkpoint at both ends. The children attending Cordoba School have to enter one checkpoint through a metal detector and are forced to empty out the contents of their school bags at the behest of a number of heavily armed soldiers, and through another check point at the end of the entrance to the school. At best, the children are delayed, intimidated and frightened. At worst, they are subjected to physical and verbal attacks from soldiers and both children and adults from the Israeli settlements. The settlers consider the Palestinians to be clinging on to territory that belongs to Israel, and appear to try their utmost to drive them away. Cordoba School, its teachers and its students, are therefore a prime target for attack.
Shortly after my arrival in Hebron, I witnessed an attack by two young settler boys against a group of children my colleague and I were accompanying down Shuhada Street. The boys threw sticks, hit and hurled abuse at a number of Palestinian school children. The settler children then called to the soldiers from the checkpoint and reported the Palestinian boys for throwing stones (a frequent accusation and one which results in arrest in almost all cases). The soldiers responded violently dragged the Palestinian boys across the street, pinning them up against the wall and shouting loudly. The Palestinian boys, aged 11 and 12, were thrown in the back of a police van and driven away. No action was taken against the settler boys who instigated the attack. Palestinian children are subject to Israeli military law, whereas Israeli children living in the same area are subject to Israeli civil law, which provides them with a range of protections that Palestinians are denied. This incident followed a spate of arrests of school children in Hebron earlier this year.
Children across the West Bank are frequently denied access to education through intimidation, harassment, physical obstacles like check points.
15 year old Ahmad N. from a nearby refugee camp was arrested at 3am on the 7th April when soldiers entered his house, blindfolded and handcuffed him, and took him to a prison 45 km away, again on suspicion of throwing stones (an accusation he vigorously denies). He was due to sit an exam the following day. He was detained for 24 days and says he was hit with the butt of a rifle and punched in the stomach during interrogation. He showed me wounds to prove this. Today Amhad remains under house arrest, and is therefore unable to attend school. He hopes one day will be able to go back to school.
The right to education is enshrined in international law. Article 50 of the 4th Geneva Convention (1949) states that “the occupying power shall…facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children”. Israel however argues that the Geneva Convention does not apply in the occupied Palestinian territories as it believes the land is not in fact occupied but rather “disputed”.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966 – ratified by Israel in 1991) states that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
And finally, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states that….”(ratifying) parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity”. (Article 28)
Israel contests their responsibilities in upholding the rights regime for Palestinian children. It states that Israel has no obligation to respect the rights guaranteed to Palestinians and their children by the human rights treaties it has ratified (Save the Children, 2000).
The violence with which Palestinian school children live is a daily violation of their rights to life, survival, development and education. Until the military occupation of places like Hebron ends, the evidence suggests that such cases will continue to occur, and the rights of children to enjoy not only an education but also anything resembling an ordinary life will be denied them.
The Principal of Cordoba School, Noora Zayer, said in 2011 that the school has grown and that it is seen as a beacon of non-violent resistance in the area. Despite repeated violent attacks including arson and stone throwing, the school children and teachers remain committed to learning and working at Cordoba as their own small act of resistance to what would for some be an intolerable situation.
By Liz Allcock
DISCLAIMER: Liz is participating in a programme with Quaker Peace and Social Witness as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained herein are personal to her and do not necessarily reflect those of her sending organisation Quaker Peace and Social Witness or the WCC. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact [email protected].
First photograph courtesy of L. Allcock. Second photograph courtesy of O. Nedrebo