Opinion |

For 17 Years, Stone-throwing Settlers Have Terrorized Palestinian Children. I Was One of Them

For the children of Tuba, a Palestinian village in South Hebron Hills, attending school means walking more than ten kilometers with an armed IDF escort, to bypass an illegal settlement whose residents regularly threaten and attack them. I was one of those kids

 Ali Awad
Ali Awad
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Children from the village of Tuba in the South Hebron Hills walking to school. For 16 years, the IDF has escorted them because of the threat of settler violence
Children from the village of Tuba in the South Hebron Hills walking to school. For 16 years, the IDF has escorted them because of the threat of settler violenceCredit: Operation Dove
 Ali Awad
Ali Awad

On the first day of school in the occupied West Bank this September, students living in Tuba, a Palestinian village in South Hebron Hills, wait for Israeli soldiers to accompany them to school.

Their route takes them through the illegal Israeli outpost of Havat Maon, built on privately-owned Palestinian land between Tuba and the adjoining village of At-Tuwani. The military escort is not only necessary but, by now, routine.

For the past 17 years, two weeks before school starts, the students of Tuba begin their preparations with activists and educators – not to collect books and begin studying, but to re-establish contact with the Israeli army to ensure they can get to school safely.

The nearest school to Tuba is in the village of At-Tuwani. When the Maon settlement expanded in the early 2000s to link up to a new illegal outpost, Havat Maon, Tuba was cut off from the road leading to At-Tuwani, which continues on to the nearest Palestinian city, Yatta.

The distance from Tuba to Yatta is 3 kilometers (about a 20 minute walk). However, since the outpost was established, Palestinians must travel around Havat Maon, a detour that increases the distance to 20 kilometers. The detour likewise significantly affects students’ right to access the educational facilities in At-Tuwani.

Panorama showing the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani (left) and the Jewish settlement of Havat Ma'on (right) in the West Bank's South Hebron HillsCredit: Nicolas Rouger

Initially, when the outpost was built, students were still determined to use the direct route through Havat Maon to walk to school. However, in 2002, after suffering daily attacks from the settlers, students were forced to stop using the road. Consequently, they would have to walk 10 kilometers (in the hills of South Hebron, around two hours) skirting the outpost in order to avoid settler violence. Students would ride donkeys to school, and sometimes parents, who feared for their children’s safety, would accompany them.

In 2004, a group of American volunteers from the Christian Peacemaker Team, a faith-based group that supports grassroots non-violence, arrived in the region. The volunteers saw the daily suffering of the schoolchildren and spoke with their parents, who agreed to the volunteers accompanying students on the road through the illegal outpost. The parents were still apprehensive, so they decided to join the escort, alongside the international volunteers.

However, during the first week of the semester, the kids and volunteers were brutally attacked by settlers: five masked men armed with a chain and bat. This put pressure on the Israeli government to address the violence directed at small children, carrying only school bags filled with pencils and notebooks and hot bread from the tabun.

Instead of removing the illegal outpost (which violates even Israeli law), it was decided to assign an army patrol to accompany students going to and from school on foot. Ironically, the students became dependent on the IDF for protection: they couldn’t attend school unless the army showed up. Even with the army presence, the illegal settlers still threaten the children.

For 17 years, this strange and morally deficient arrangement has continued.

I started first grade in 2004, under army escort, and studied this way for 12 years. I remember not being able to attend school, or arriving late, because my friends and I were waiting for the military escort to arrive. I remember being attacked by settlers even with the IDF right there. Attending class depended on the mood of the soldiers. If they decided to show up, then I could go to school. If not, I would wait until, whether, the soldiers came.

Children from the village of Tuba in the South Hebron Hills walking to school. For 16 years, the IDF has escorted them because of the threat of settler violenceCredit: Operation Dove

By the time we would get home, our lunch was waiting for us, but it was almost dinner time. At sunrise and at sunset, we were walking. I lived in a permanent state of movement and disorientation: in the early morning, I couldn’t compute that it was really breakfast time, and neither when I finally ate dinner. My mind and body were consumed by the daily trek to school.

And there was no space in our stomachs for much food, because they were too full of sadness. Our bodies were very skinny and weak. Our legs hurt from the long-distance walking. Our minds wandered away from our studies. Much of the time we weren’t really engaged with school – the reason for our tiresome journey in the first place.

Fortunately, I loved school since first grade. I developed a love for English while studying it as a second language. I learnt from a young age to build basic conversational sentences in English, and I learnt some Hebrew, so I could speak with the international and Israeli volunteers who helped us go to school.

These volunteers would call the soldiers when they were late. They would accompany us to school if the army did not show up. They would document the settlers’ harassment. I also explained to the Israeli soldiers how we were attacked by settlers. I asked them to protect me from them.

Growing up like this raised constant questions for me. I was always wondering about what was going on around me. Why do children need military escorts to go to school? Why do these settlers attack me, and what were they thinking when they harassed other people? I remember I felt like I was burning inside but I couldn’t tell anyone what I was feeling.

Author Ali Awad as a child during the years he would walk to school with an army escortCredit: Ali Awad

Every day after school, I would wait for hours in At-Tuwani until the army showed up so I could go back home.

I saw the At-Tuwani kids eating their lunch and doing their homework, while I just sat. I saw them joining their parents tending the sheep in the fields, some carrying footballs and going back to the playground for a game. I saw the settlers driving to pick up their kids from school, while my friends and I waited, starving, for the long walk home, under the brutal summer sun and the freezing winter rain.

Every day I asked myself, and wanted to tell the soldiers: I didn’t choose to be born here and to live like this. Why am I different from other people who work, play, learn and love without being constantly targeted by violence? Am I less worthy? Less human?

I remember one day, when I was in second grade, after waiting more than four hours for the army to take us home, my brother and I and two cousins decided to walk the long route back to Tuba on our own. We climbed the hills for ten kilometers, only a kilometer left to home, and then we noticed settlers near us.

Scared, we decided to run down from the hills into the valley. As we ran, my six year-old cousin fell into a tall water channel, breaking her hand and leg. When we reached her, she was unconscious, her face was full of blood from a broken nose and other head injuries.

We were all just children. We could barely even carry the heavy school bags, deadweights on our aching backs. We had no way of carrying her. We were crying and shouting, we were sure our cousin was dying in front of our eyes, and we couldn't help her. She made no sound. Her eyes were closed: we thought that she was already dead.

Settlers throwing stones at Palestinian farmers near the Hebron Hills, West Bank, earlier this yearCredit: Michal Chai

We decided that one of us would go home and get an adult to carry her. We couldn’t deal with a broken body. An hour later, my aunt arrived and carried her home.

We knew we couldn’t call an ambulance: it wouldn’t be able to navigate the rutted road to Tuba, and the Israeli army won’t let us fix it. We had to find someone with a car, explain the urgency of the matter and convince them to drive her to the hospital in Yatta. It took three terrible hours to get her there.

More thoughts crowded my mind: Would my cousin die? How can we eat? How can we sleep? How can we do our homework? How can we go to school tomorrow? Next time, will it be me ending up in hospital, or worse?

Another day, I got too close to that gnawing dread. It was the end of the school day, I was looking from the window of my classroom at the opposite hill, where the outpost is located. I could see around 30 military vehicles gathering exactly where we met the army every day.

We finished class and headed to the meeting point. When we arrived, all the military vehicles started to accompany us as we walked through the outpost. Passing it, I saw hundreds of settlers blocking the way back home. The soldiers kept pushing us to move forward, even though by now we were properly alarmed.

When we reached the settlers, the soldiers decided to put us inside the military vehicles with the driver while they formed a walking barrier around us. When we drove through the mass of the demonstration, the settlers tried to stop the jeep from driving. Some climbed on to the front of the jeep. I looked all around me and saw settlers were screaming and attacking the IDF jeep I was sitting inside.

This was strange for me to see: It was the first time that I saw Israeli soldiers dealing with settler protesters. Until then, I had only ever seen Palestinian demonstrations in the South Hebron Hills, where, in the very first moments, the army generally declares the area to be a closed military zone.

Israeli security arrests Palestinian activists in Yatta, south of the West Bank city of Hebron, after Palestinian activists set up a tent village to protest the settlement building in the areaCredit: AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi

Within minutes, they confront protestors with stun grenades and tear gas, move on to beating them up and finally arresting them. In Palestinian demonstrations, it is both Palestinians who face this violence and also Israeli and international activists who join us.

That day, it was the settlers who were attacking the military vehicles and soldiers. Hundreds of other settlers, hidden inside bushes, threw stones at us and the soldiers. They violated laws that certainly Palestinians would have been arrested for. However, fearing a direct confrontation, the soldiers simply decided to put us inside the jeep and drive through.

Once we’d passed the outpost, we got out and started walking in front of one military vehicle that was continuing to escort us, along with four soldiers, when, suddenly, stones started falling like rain. Around 100 settlers were attacking us again, and getting closer and closer to us. At that moment, I was sure I would die.

The soldiers could not protect themselves, nor could they protect me or the other children. A stone struck a soldier in the face, and he collapsed unconscious. The soldiers immediately started attending to him, while the settler attack continued unabated.

A masked Israeli Jewish settler tries to block his picture being taken as he argues with a Palestinian man on a hilltop next to the Jewish settlement of Givat Harsina near HebronCredit: AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi

Now, we were all scared, schoolkids and IDF soldiers alike. One soldier, who was scared too, I guess, shot a bullet into the air to try and disperse the mob and save us all.

After almost an hour of this unending assault, and barely withstanding the downpour of stones, another military vehicle and police showed up, and the settlers ran away. Not one settler was arrested. I don’t even remember any investigation being opened. What I do know is that the soldier who fired a bullet into the air, quite possibly saving us, was sentenced to time in military prison for misusing his weapon.

The attacks against the children of Tuba were not limited to my time in school. I finished school in 2016, and the violence persists until today. Another cousin of mine, not yet born when the army escort scheme started, still has to live with the same nightmares I experienced, together with all the children of Tuba since the settler outpost was established.

In 2015, when my cousin Sujood was seven years old, she took a bottle of water to her uncle who was grazing his flocks in the family’s fields, just a few hundred meters from Havat Maon. On her way back home, a group of masked teenagers followed her, throwing stones at her. One of the stones injured her leg, and she fell down. As she lay in the dirt, a settler approached and pelted her head with a rock. It’s not just her head that’s scarred from that attack.

Seven year old Sujuud, Ali Awad's cousin, with a head injury after settlers threw stones at her and hit her head with a rock in her family's fields, near the settlement of Havat Maon, in 2015Credit: Operation Dove

Israel’s new government claims it now wants to "shrink the conflict." You might assume this means ratching down conflict by implementing the law in the occupied territories. Importantly, the affairs of an occupied people are the responsibility of the occupying power, especially including security. You might think that it would mean prioritizing a crackdown on settler violence – at the least, ensuring the full protection of little kids on their way to school.

But in recent months, Palestinian activists in the South Hebron Hills region have documented a rise in settler violence, including hurling stones at Palestinian residents, setting fire to my own family's bales of hay that we use to feed our sheep, and the uprooting of Palestinian-owned trees.

And in an increasing number of cases, IDF soldiers are simply standing by, refusing point-blank to interfere to stop their attacks.

If the Israeli government really cared about "shrinking the conflict," Israeli courts would order the removal of the illegal outpost of Havat Maon. Unlike settlements (themselves considered illegal under international law), outposts, built without official approval and often on privately-owned Palestinian land, are considered illegal under Israeli law.

It is Havat Maon’s establishment that initiated the last decade and a half of attacks by its settlers on children walking to school, and the military escort ‘solution’ should be truly embarrassing to anyone who actually cares not only about human rights but basic law and order.

Near the West Bank village of At-Tuwani, south of Hebron, settlers have left spraypainted messages in Hebrew: 'Death to Arabs' and 'Revenge' Credit: AP Photo/Nasser Nasser

It is unconscionable that the cost of going to school can mean coming back home with a broken body and losing the whole school year. It is almost unbelievable that the Israeli soldier who proactively defended us and his unconscious comrade ended up in jail, instead of the settlers who were attacking small children. It is profoundly depressing that the IDF, while escorting school kids, has a different core task: to support Israel’s expanding settler colonialism.

I keep remembering the questions I asked as a child: Why is this our life? Why is this my life? Another generation of Palestinian children traumatized by stone-throwing, arsonist settlers is growing up under the same shadow. Now, as an adult, I still demand answers. But I refuse to allow terror and injustice to confine me.

I am a writer and human rights activist, an English literature graduate who hopes to start a postgraduate degree. Every day, I walk in spirit on the roads to school with the children of my village, Tuba, while studying and protesting and documenting towards a different, better, safer, fairer path for us and for all Palestinians.

Ali Awad is a human rights activist, English literature graduate and writer, from Tuba in the West Bank’s South Hebron Hills

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