Israeli Arab students are learning the hard way
Because of a dispute with their local council, 37 Israeli-Arab children from the Ramle area are forced to walk six kilometers to school every day.
The trip that 3-year-old Jannat Abu-Labdeh and her relatives make to nursery school begins at 6:45 A.M., when she sets out with 37 other children from her Israeli Arab extended family.
The children range in age from 3 to 16, and the trip to their various schools in Ramle takes almost two hours. It includes a bus trip and considerable distances on foot.
The family lives in the Emek Lod regional council district, but there are no Arabic-language schools in the area, so the children go instead to Ramle, which is a mixed Arab-Jewish town.
When asked why it doesn't provide transportation for the children, the regional council said the family members are squatting on privately-owned agricultural land and have ignored a court eviction order. Family members denied the allegation that they have been illegally squatting on the land, claiming they have lived at the location since before the founding of Israel in 1948.
The children's trek from home near the Tzrifin junction includes a march over a winding dirt path crossing busy streets, a wait for a public bus, and then another long walk on foot to school. After the trip of more than six kilometers, the children still arrive late to class. The children say they also have to wait to get into school because they show up late.
Education regulations require local authorities to provide transportation for children up to 4th grade if they live more than 2 kilometers from school. From 5th grade, it is 3 kilometers. The Education Ministry said school transportation is a local obligation and the ministry's involvement is limited to funding for it. The ministry said the regional council has not requested such funding for the Abu-Labdeh children.
Tal Hassin, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI ), says whether or not the regional council is correct that the family is squatting illegally on private land, there shouldn't be any connection between planning and building regulations and the right of the children to transportation to school. She called the transportation "part of their constitutional right to education." She said repeated requests to the local authorities have not changed the situation.
The Emek Lod regional council said that the extended family clan had taken over private land without permission and built on the land without obtaining permits, all of which is currently in court litigation. "The owners of the land are demanding that they [the Abu-Labdehs] leave immediately and return the land to its original purpose - agriculture. The place is not a residential community."
Jannat Abu-Labdeh's father, Mohammed, sees the children's routine as a violation of his daughter's rights. "I'm talking about the basic right as a person and a citizen - a 3-year-old girl shouldn't spend two hours getting to nursery school. The children shouldn't get to school an hour late every day. We shouldn't have to go with them every day for hours," he said. "The state doesn't care for one reason. Because I'm Arab."
"I'm going to be late today for my math test," said Ibrahim, who is 14 and a half. "Every day it's the same story," said Jannat's aunt of the 3-year-old's routine. "It's hard to go this way every morning. She's 3. Her mother is with her 2-year-old sister and can't make a trip with her to nursery school for two hours in each direction. So I go with her. I also have six children [of my own] here."
As the children make their way to school, they lug coats and backpacks. About 20 minutes into the journey, they cross the bridge over the Tzrifin junction. "Last month, one of them almost got run over," the aunt said.
As he rode the bus, one of the children confessed that he lies every time he gets to school late. "They don't believe me at school that I've left home on time. I hope they let me in," he says. The children get off the bus in the center of Ramle and walk through the city market and a parking lot. For the next half hour they begin to scatter to their different schools, their day only just beginning.