Issa is on his way to his first day of first grade. His head bops up and down from behind his SpongeBob SquarePants backpack, which is a few sizes too large for him. We walk along a rocky path near the village of A-Tuba in the West Bank’s South Hebron Hills. “I’m 25,” he says when I ask him how old he is, bursting into laughter. Each question I ask is answered with an exaggerated response. He has 25,000 students in his class, and one of his teachers will teach him how to land on the moon. His hair is gelled to the side and his black shoes gleam in the sun. Despite what he claims, it is clear he is excited.
Eight other children from A-Tuba march alongside us on the way to school. None of them pay attention to me, and I suspect that my questions are too serious for 7 a.m.
“Journalists like you have been coming here once a month ever since I was a little girl,” says Inshirah, who is heading into 12th grade. “It’s already a matter of routine. Your questions are so boring. You always want us to talk about our way to school, about the soldiers that accompany us, and the settlers. I don’t have the energy to repeat the same sentences and clichés over and over. Why don’t we talk about drawing? I like drawing. I like drawing flowers.”
Every morning, Israeli soldiers accompany this small group of children and teenagers from their home in A-Tuba to the adjacent village of A-Tuwani, since settlers from the nearby outpost of Havat Ma’on have been known to attack the students on their walk. In November 2004, a Knesset committee ordered the army to accompany the students twice a day. Fifteen years later, the problem has yet to be solved. Not a single settler has been arrested, and the IDF patrol, which was meant to be temporary, has become permanent.
We continue to walk until Inshirah motions to all the kids to stop. “We need to wait for them here,” she says, and the younger ones huddle around her. “When do they arrive?” Issa asks. “Seven-thirty,” Inshirah responds, “if they’re not late.”
It’s 7:20 a.m. and the soldiers are supposed to arrive any minute now. “Soldiers are only part of my morning,” Inshirah says as we wait. “Since first grade, every morning is similar to the one before. I brush my teeth, get dressed, take a taste of the bread my mother bakes, drink tea, say goodbye to my parents, pick up the children, and wait for the soldiers. We hope everything goes smoothly, walk by the settlement, and eventually arrive at school.”
Once in a while the soldiers are late, and the absurd routine is broken. When that happens, the children are forced to take an alternative route, which takes much longer, which means they miss their first two lessons. Once, last year, when the soldiers ran late, a settler from Havat Ma’on verbally attacked the children as they took the regular path home. Since then, they don’t pass by the outpost without an army patrol.
This year, Inshirah will be taking her matriculation exams, so she hopes the army will be on time in the mornings, she says. “I have to stay focused. I studied non-stop during the summer vacation. Usually, I draw on vacation, but I stopped this year in order to study. The exams stress me out, especially the one in English.”
Along came Jehoshaphat
At 7:30 a.m., a jeep emerges behind us, right on time. We head back to the path as the green vehicle rumbles behind us, setting our pace. None of the children stop, and it seems their walking is only growing faster. Issa and two other girls, also heading into first grade, look back at the four soldiers in the jeep. Step, glance, step, glance. “They’re just not used to it yet, that’s all,” explains Inshirah.
We pass by a faded wood sign on our right that reads, “Welcome to Havat Ma’on.” On our left is a small forest planted by the Jewish National Fund. It’s a strange place, I tell myself, thinking about how it sticks out like a sore thumb in the arid desert of the South Hebron Hills.
All of a sudden Inshirah’s younger brother, Hamza, whispers: “Now they’ll give you trouble,” and points at a man who appeared between the trees, armed with a pistol. The man walks briskly toward the army jeep and yells something at the soldiers. I stop, and the children continue on their own.
The soldiers then drive toward me, roll the window down, and tell me, hesitantly, in Israeli-English: “Leave. You cannot be with the children.” I stare at them and think about which language to respond in. “Says who?” I ask, in my own Israeli-English. But they don’t answer.
“That was Jehoshaphat,” Inshirah casually says after I catch up with the kids. “Everyone knows him. He is the founder of the outpost. My father once visited his page online. He trains teenagers in his yard, teaches them how to shoot weapons so they are ready for battle.”
The rest of the journey goes off without a hitch. The soldiers leave when we are around 650 feet from the school, which houses over 150 students, from first grade to high school.
“The Palestinian Authority builds schools even in far-flung places,” says one of the residents of the village after the children enter, “especially in places where its sovereignty is challenged by Israel.” The bell rings and the children gather outside to sing the Palestinian national anthem.
A policy of dispossession
I reach Inshirah’s house before dawn, at 5:30 a.m. The sun is only starting to rise, and the hills are awash in a gentle, golden light. Two-year-old Ibrahim is deep asleep on the mattress in the yard. Lately he has been sleeping there, since he prefers the cool air. Members of the households are getting ready, drinking tea, and eating bread, cheese, and olive oil together. Inshirah wakes Ibrahim up. There is something moving about witnessing the intimate morning routine of a family.
Hamza is the first to wake up and feed the goats. He is a quiet boy, and when I ask him how he spent his summer vacation, he says, in a near-whisper, that he mostly herded his father’s goats. This year he’ll be going into 10th grade, but even during the school year, he wakes up at 6 a.m. to feed the animals. In the West Bank, the summer holidays extend over three months. A-Tuba is a village of around 100 residents, and Hamza is the only 15-year-old there. “It’s easy to get bored,” he says, “so I tend to the goats.”
Omar, the father, offers me tea. He grew up on this hill and could never imagine living anywhere else, he says. Havat Ma’on was built on land belonging to his family, and when he was a kid he would play there. “There’s a big rock that looks like donkey. I remember riding it as chickens would run toward me and peck at my body,” he recalls, laughing. Unlike his children, Omar did not complete his education and dropped out of school in seventh grade. “It was a different time. We didn’t even have electricity,” he says.
To this day, Israel refuses to connect the residents of A-Tuba to basic infrastructure, including power and water — much like most of the Palestinian villages in Area C. It’s a way for the state to push the residents out of the area and move to larger cities like Yatta or Hebron. Before marveling at how Israel sends soldiers to “protect Palestinians from settler violence,” it’s worth remembering that Israel also goes a long way to erase Palestinians from the map. It’s part of a decades-long government policy to reduce the number of Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills. Omar told me that they connect themselves to power independently and purchase water from the nearby village at a high cost.
The mother, Zahriyah, does not need electricity to bake bread. While placing the dough in a stone oven, she lets me in on her thoughts: “I used to accompany the children to school every single morning for two years. I started doing so after settlers hurled a stone at my eldest daughter in 2004. She was in second grade and suffered a head wound as a result. A few months following this incident, the soldiers started accompanying the children. My kids are used to this situation by now, they are not scared. But I continue to worry.”
The conversation with Zahriyah reminded me of how in second grade, my mother used to walk me to school every morning, even though it was only a mere three-minute walk from our home. I hated it and begged her to let me walk on my own. I enjoyed the independence I finally earned in third grade when she finally acquiesced. How different my morning routine was from Inshirah’s, whose journey to school takes place in the shadow of decisions by Israeli settlers, soldiers and Israel – three different players upholding the same system of dispossession.
To this day, the state applies immense pressure on Palestinians in Area C — and the South Hebron Hills specifically — to leave their land and homes, which, for the most part, are under threat of demolition anyway. To this day, armed soldiers accompany little children to school in the beautiful village of A-Tuba. Each actor plays their part to keep this absurd routine going, and here we are, at the start of another school year.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.