"All this just to escort a few kids home," mumbles one soldier. "Closed military zone," the commander announces, with five army jeeps in the background.
What looks for a moment like a major military operation turns out to be an escort for 15 elementary school kids. The children attend school in Khirbet al-Tawani and are being escorted home to the caves of Umm Tuba.
The path is at the foot of the Maon Farm illegal outpost, and the children are often assaulted by settlers there. The Knesset Committee for Children's Rights discussed the matter, following an attack on foreign nationals who were staying at the village, and a military and police escort was announced.
Until then, the children had been compelled to take a 90-minute-long circuitous route. The convoy sometimes takes a four-kilometer-long compromise route, and on rare occasions it uses the short route, which passes between the Maon settlement and the Maon Farm outpost. Settlers have placed a gate here hampering passage. Another reason the army gives for not using this route regularly is that "the children gather operational intelligence."
Thus every day the children wait at the last house in Khirbet al-Tawani for the soldiers to take them home.
Yesterday 10-year-old Dalal was running late. The escort set out.
Up until a week ago it was comprised of four soldiers. Yesterday, following last week's attack on soldiers, media pressure and a letter sent to the defense minister and prime minister, there were five jeeps waiting. Dalal ran to catch the convoy. She looked scared.
The children walk briskly and sometimes the soldiers seem to have trouble keeping up.
Last week, Dalal recounts, she was hit in the face with a rock.
"Here," she touches her cheek. People coming from Maon Farm jumped on her and her friends. "It was at the foot of the black house," she says. "They put stones there, blocked the way, and then a settler came and started hitting a soldier. We clung to the soldiers' legs out of fear, but they couldn't do anything." Her classmate Diana was pushed into the brambles along the road and kicked. There have been no arrests to date.
The convoy arrives at the foot of the black house. A young man and woman emerge. He is dressed in white and has a long beard; she's in peach colors. Very slowly they approach the soldiers. The convoy moves on.
"Is this what you enlisted for?" the man shouts at the soldiers. "For this you have a weapon ? to protect Arabs?"
Two of the soldiers snap under the tension and crack jokes, imagining a future conversation about what they did during their army service. "I, bro, evacuated Gush Katif, knocked heads at Amona," says one. "I evacuated Hebron," rejoins the other. "And at the end, I worked security for Arabs," the two laugh bitterly.
Everyone rushes, wanting the march to end. The dust clouds churned up by the jeeps make it hard to breathe or see. The children, already used to the lengthy journey, do not complain. They aren't allowed to get into the soldiers' vehicles.
Two small children are standing in the road, watching. They refuse to speak, lest their words be written down on the Sabbath. The security coordinator from Maon arrives and speaks to one of the soldiers. Smiling, he recommends that anyone not from the place avoid going past Maon Farm. "If they don't know you," he says, "it could be dangerous."
A few hundred meters past Maon Farm, the convoy leaves the children to traverse the final two kilometers on their own, through the exposed hills to their cave dwellings.
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