Palestinian Students

AT-TUWANI, West Bank (CNS) — Sitting on his small white donkey under some trees to fend off the midday sun, 9-year-old Massleh awaits an Israeli military jeep to escort him home.

Behind Massleh, on a hill verdant with trees that hide the Israeli outpost from sight, stand several Israeli hothouses filled with plants, all built on land belonging to the Palestinian village.

To get home, Massleh and 17 Palestinian schoolchildren ages 6-14 must travel on a road that takes them between the Israeli settlement of Ma’on and its outpost, Havat Ma’on, built without the approval of the Israeli government.

In At-Tuwani, population 250, there is no electricity, and modestly dressed women gather in the mornings at the entrance to the village to fill their plastic containers with water from the modern well.

Atop a parched hill, the stark white school building that serves children from five other villages stands out among the simple gray cement homes and dirt roads.

Until two years ago, international volunteers accompanied the children from two of the outlying villages to and from school until they were violently attacked by Israeli settlers, and an Israeli court ordered a military escort for the children.

“They throw big rocks,” Massleh said, pointing to his arm and the side of his head where two years ago he was hit by the stones that Israeli settlers threw.

Now volunteers from Operation Dove — the nonviolent peace corps of the Italian-based Pope John XXIII Community — coordinating with volunteers from the Christian Peacemaker Team who also have a presence in the village, monitor the children’s progress from two vantage points at the beginning and end of the school day but are no longer permitted by the Israeli Defense Forces to walk with the children. There is a period of a few minutes where the children are out of sight from both teams, and the children must walk alone past two chicken coops just outside of the Israeli settlements.

One 20-year-old Operation Dove volunteer notes that the army jeep is meant to escort the students past the chicken coops but instead stops at the edge of Ma’on.

Things do not always run smoothly with the military escort, which sometimes arrives late or does not arrive at all, said another volunteer. In such an instance, the volunteers will call the escort three times and, if still there is no response, they will contact an Israeli human rights organizations to help in their efforts.

Sometimes watching the situation continuing its downward spiral and the feeling of helplessness it creates is frustrating, said a woman who asked to be identified only by her first name, Federica.

“But to be a Catholic means to follow Jesus, poor and in servility. It means to share my life with the poor people and to serve. My faith is really a concrete thing, not something abstract,” she said. “I need to take on a little bit of the cross with somebody else so as to lighten the load for that person.”

Yusef, 15, said the children are afraid of the settlers, but his friend Awath, 14, quickly interjected that he is not afraid.

“The little ones are afraid,” he said.

As the end of the school year approaches, he is looking forward to his vacation and tending his family’s sheep, he said. But Israeli settlers sometimes harass them in the fields, he added; Operation Dove volunteers also accompany the shepherds.

One volunteer who has been in the village for eight months said that when the military escort does not arrive, the children must walk to their villages along a longer road, which takes them past the Jewish settlers’ fields. In such cases, volunteers accompany the children, she said.

“Since I have been here, I escorted the children twice, and one time there were settlers in the field. They started to run toward us and the little children were scared, crying and running. We try to protect the children, they know we are there, but they also know we can’t protect them for sure,” said the volunteer, who added that the incident was just a scare tactic.

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