Army escort helps Palestinian pupils run settler gauntlet

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Every morning, 11-year-old Jaafar Omar gets ready for school, but to get there, he must await an Israeli army escort to protect him and his classmates from extremist settlers.

The trek from Tuba village to the school in al-Tuwani in the southern West Bank is about three kilometers (1.8 miles) and the children have to navigate a dirt track that runs between the Jewish settlement of Maon and the wildcat outpost of Havat Maon.

But following a series of vicious assaults by settlers, both physical and verbal, the children were forced to take an arduous 10-kilometre (six mile) detour across the rocky hillsides -- until they won the right to a military escort in accordance with a parliamentary decision in 2004.

Since then the situation has improved, although rights groups say the children still face harassment.

And they are still very much afraid.

“We’re scared of the settlers because they throw stones and beat us up when we’re alone (without an escort),” explains Jaafar.

“They often hide behind trees, waiting to stop any Arabs coming through.”

Although Jaafar detests the Israeli army for “beating up shepherds and youths,” he is relieved at the sight of them arriving for the morning school run.

But the patrols are at best inconsistent.

“The other day, the soldiers arrived two hours late. We couldn’t go without them, of course, and we were late to class,” explains 14-year-old Rim Ali.

“Sometimes, if the soldiers aren’t there when we finish school and need to come home, we take the long, treacherous route (which avoids the two settlements completely) and it can take two hours to get back to our village,” she said.

On Oct. 1, Italian NGO Operation Dove accused the army of negligence over its inconsistency in turning up to escort the children to school, saying it “rarely fulfilled its duty,” often leaving the pupils waiting.

So far this semester, the children have been late arriving at school 61 percent of the time as a result of the soldiers’ tardy arrival, Operation Dove said.

And two out of every three days, they were late picking them up from school, and often did not accompany them all the way through the settlement areas, it charged.

In response, the army told AFP the delays were, “in some cases, due to operational demands,” but did not elaborate further although. It did, however, say the inconsistencies would be “reviewed and appropriate lessons drawn for the future.”

The al-Tuwani school, which counts 150 children of primary and secondary school age, is doing what it can to cope with the Tuba children missing classes or turning up late.

“The Tuba pupils arrive usually after the start of classes because of the army’s delays, but teachers often redo the lesson for them, especially those taking their secondary school exams,” headmaster Mohammed al-Tawil told AFP.

“Those students arrive nervous and scared every day. The soldiers drop them off and disappear,” he said.

And the troops working on the school run are also regularly involved in arresting youngsters elsewhere, often on charges of stone-throwing.

Recently, they briefly detained three of the children’s classmates, deputy head Ayed al-Juneidi said.

“How do you think the children feel being escorted by soldiers from an army that has arrested their own classmates?” he asked.

Earlier this year, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said the army had physically assaulted several al-Tuwani students in the first semester of 2013, and criticized five catalogued instances in 2012 where the military escort arrived late.

In 2012, UNICEF documented 49 cases where children were denied access to education in the West Bank, the vast majority of which was blamed on army activity, including arrests and roadblocks.

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