Three weeks after a big brawl between Druze and Muslims at a village in northern Israel, more than 100 Muslim high school students have yet to return to their classrooms.
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According to the Education Ministry, students from middle schools (grades 7-9) who have been absent since the violent scenes in Abu Snan will return to their classrooms tomorrow, after an understanding was reached by the ministry and local authority, the Arab popular committee and Sheikh Taysir Khaldi, the Imam of the local mosque.
Despite this understanding, a sense of confusion remains in the village. The reason behind the students’ continued absence from local schools is also controversial. Along with claims that they do not feel safe, others involved in the situation say the reason is that some elements in the village are striving to build a new school that would separate the Muslim students from the Druze and Christians.
S., the mother of a ninth-grade student, says she still doesn’t know anything about any arrangements for a return to school tomorrow. “I don’t know what the main issue is,” she says. “It’s because of what happened in Abu Snan. It’s because of the problem between Druze and Muslims. The Muslims don’t want to return, since some of their injured are still hospitalized.”
She says she and other parents are following the guidance of Khaldi. “Only when the Imam tells us to return will we go back. People said there were attempts to open a new school, but nothing was concluded. That’s what was said at the mosque.” S. noted that it’s very problematic to have a girl in ninth grade stay home for three weeks, especially since she is so devoted to her studies. “She’s in a science-oriented class and at home she’s bored and fed up. What can we do?”
Closing down the school came at the initiative of the local authority, because prior to the brawl there had already been violent incidents between Druze and Muslim students. When attempts were made to reopen the high school and middle-school classes, it was hard to resume because many Muslim families refused to let their children return, obeying instructions by their leaders.
Dr. Orna Simchon, head of the Education Ministry’s northern district, says she understands the tensions and difficulties, but that students should not be the victims. “I told them I don’t accept this situation, and that there will be no policy of segregation,” referring to the idea of a separate school. “We can’t accept this and, if it happens, we will block funding to the school.”
Simchon said there was a meeting in the village last Wednesday, in the presence of Acre police chief Kobi Karni, as well as the head of the local authority and council members, Sheikh Taysir and the Arab popular committee. In addition to that meeting, talks are being held regularly with the intent of getting the students back. “I promised that the police would help,” says Simchon. “The conflict between Druze and Muslims is an ancient one, and the school is not at fault. The police agreed to help, and positions seem to be softening a bit.” She hopes things will return to normal in the coming week.
Transfer, not segregation
However, in contrast to Simchon’s words, Khaldi presents a different picture. He says the agreement with the local authority included the transfer of Muslim pupils in the middle classes and high school to a separate wing of the local primary school. “They are trying to finish all the work there over the next few days, hoping to finish by Monday. The prevailing atmosphere does not enable the Druze and Muslim students to study together. The head of the council made a courageous decision to move the children and let things settle down for a few months.”
Khaldi says this is not segregation but rather a transfer, and that the local Muslim leadership will determine things, not the Education Ministry. “In the meantime, we’ll work to try and calm things. Everything is going well so far. We’ll return the children to school – the [popular] committee is on the ground there. We represent the Muslim population there.” Khaldi claims the atmosphere has improved.
Abu Snan mayor Nihad Mishlab agrees that things are improving. “The school authorities and heads of the local authority agreed on opening the school, but that didn’t work out so well. All schools are open now, but some pupils are staying home. We’re at the peak of the drive to return children to school, obviously with the involvement of everyone who is connected to the matter – including residents of Abu Snan and other locations, religious figures, local leaders and the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee. I believe that, together, we’ll be able to overcome the problems and restore peace.”
Mishlab doesn’t offer a specific reason why the students aren’t returning, but attorney Nasra Adib – a councillor in Abu Snan – says the students have not returned because of a feeling of insecurity, and that this is unconnected to the proposed new school.
“They don’t return because of the persistent violence and their sense of insecurity,” says Adib. “They don’t feel safe. We’re concerned that the violence will erupt again. We want to calm things down and find a solution for the students.”
Adib says plans for a new school are nothing new. “People want a new school – not necessarily for Druze or Muslims, just a new school. The ideal solution is that everyone returns and resumes studies together, regardless of whether there is one school or two. We live in one village and we want to live in peace and harmony. We breathe the same air.” He adds that the police’s inability to arrest anyone for throwing a grenade during the brawl remains a problem, noting, “Arresting this person will greatly diminish any remaining tension.”
Forty-one people were injured in the brawl on November 14, most of them by a grenade thrown into a cluster of people who were taking part in the fighting. Except for one, all the injured were Muslims. Five are still hospitalized in Nahariya, one with serious injuries and another with moderate to serious injuries. Another has light to moderate injuries, while two suffered light injuries.
Superintendent Eran Shaked, the spokesman for the Coastal District, says the police are still present in the village, although in smaller numbers. They are dispersed at sensitive points, such as schools and the local council building, and are assisting in restoring calm. He added that two investigations are being pursued. One relates to the identity of the grenade thrower, the other is looking into the violence that erupted in the village, including the initial violent assault that caused serious injuries. “We’ll remain there, continuing to investigate until we apprehend the perpetrators and put them on trial,” he says. Twenty-four people have been arrested for disorderly conduct, with three remanded for longer periods.