A dirt path that turns into an asphalt road. Girls and boys of school age are walking along it, with a military jeep traveling slowly behind them.
This strange sight has become part of the landscape of the village of Al-Tuwani south of Yatta in the southern West Bank. But on the morning of September 9, something was different. Instead of the military jeep, which was delayed, there was a white civilian vehicle. Its driver tried to block the students and their two escorts, volunteers from the Italian peace organization Operation Dove.
The man, wearing a gray shirt and a kippa, with a gun peering out from under his shirt, got out of the car and shouted in Hebrew: “You’re not allowed to pass through alone.” Then he said in English: “You’re not allowed to pass through before the soldiers come.” An Italian escort replied: “That’s not true. The soldiers are already an hour late.” The Israeli stood his ground and said in English: “They [the children] aren’t allowed, and you aren’t even allowed to be here.”
The group continued on. The Israeli said to someone on his phone: “Are you coming? They’re walking around here, the leftists and the Europeans.” Fearful but determined, the children kept on walking because they had already missed the first lesson and were about to be late for the second.
“You’re a tourist, and you’re not allowed to be here as a tourist,” the man said. “Wait for the soldiers,” he ordered the Italian escort. She photographed him. He photographed her. “Do you feel great scaring the children?” she asked. Operation Dove is a Catholic peace organization that advocates for nonviolence, and its volunteers live and work among the civilian population in areas of conflict.
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The man with the gun and the kippa started walking fast, approached the children menacingly, and kept on with his warnings on his phone: “Leftists and Arabs are walking here alone.” He then ran back and got into his white car, in which two girls and a boy of school age were sitting. With the children inside the man drove on, caught up with the pupils and tried to block them again.
Traumas and nightmares
For the past 14 years, an army jeep has accompanied about 10 pupils from the cave villages of Tuba and Maghaer al-Abeed to and from the school in Al-Tuwani. In November 2004 the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child decided to provide the military escort after receiving testimony about Israelis who were harassing or attacking the pupils and their escorts.
The members of the committee learned that the short and regular path to the school – 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) long – passes near the illegal outpost of Havat Ma’on. For about three years, Israelis seen emerging from there blocked the path to local Palestinians, including the pupils. For lack of choice the children took long bypass roads (about 5 to 7 kilometers long), which required that they wake up early and return late – until the families decided to demand their children’s right to take the short route.
The committee members heard about the masked men who appeared suddenly from the woods where the outpost is located and attacked the children’s escorts. They heard about attacks with chains, about children dropping out of school for fear of the assailants, about traumas and nightmares, and about phone calls to the police that brought no results. Representatives of the police and the army attended the discussion.
The committee members (Michael Melchior, Uri Ariel, Avshalom Vilan – who brought up the subject – Ran Cohen and Yakov Margi) never imagined that year after year, new groups of soldiers would have to escort new groups of pupils because the police and army weren’t putting an end to the Israelis’ violence against the children.
The committee members gave the authorities three weeks to conclude the investigation (to identify those suspected of the attacks), and from the minutes of the discussion we can conclude that they assumed that this would stop the harassment.
“There’s a consensus around the table. This thing must stop,” said Melchior, the committee chairman.
“It’s intolerable – hooligans who attack little children with chains and everything we’ve heard, and with dogs. It’s simply something that isn’t only immoral but also anti-Jewish, anti-religious and against everything that’s good and proper in our world. This thing must stop. We hear that the police are treating the matter with all seriousness.”
Fourteen years later, on September 9, two soldiers who arrived about 50 minutes late (at 8:19 A.M. instead of 7:30) ran toward the frightened children, who were already near the village, and the Israeli who was blocking them.
“Just a minute,” said a soldier to the driver of the white car, who answered in an increasingly loud voice: “What do you mean just a minute, my children live here.” And as he pointed at the Palestinian children he continued to shout: “Those thieves, those murderers, why are they walking around here.” He ordered the soldier: “Stop them, why are you letting them walk around here, first stop them.” Then he ordered the soldiers to take the Italian woman’s passport. (They didn’t listen to him.)
Verbal and physical abuse
On September 12, the escort jeep again arrived about 40 minutes late (sadly, this delay isn’t unusual, according to the Italian volunteers). This time the children didn’t dare walk alone on the path, and waited near the chicken coops owned by the settlement of Ma’on. An Israeli woman who was there shouted at them and entered a car that stopped for her.
Shortly afterward another Israeli appeared in his car, stopped, got out and approached the children while shouting at them. The frightened children moved away a little and then stopped. About 10 minutes later, when they saw that the Israeli who had shouted had left, they approached the chicken coops again. Then the army jeep arrived and escorted them to the gate at the end of the road.
The Israel Defense Forces spokesman said in response that “the IDF has been protecting the movement of the Palestinian children from Tuba to the school in Al-Tuwani for several years, due to events in which the pupils have been exposed to verbal and physical abuse on the road near the Ma’on farm."
"On Sunday, September 9, and Wednesday, September 12, an IDF force that arrived at the spot and formed a barrier between the children and the settlers and enabled the pupils to pass safely. During those events there was a delay in the arrival of the escort, and the IDF is making an effort to suit the times of the escorts for the pupils’ convenience. IDF forces are instructed to prevent any violent incident and maintain order and the proper routine.”
On Thursday morning the escort was 20 minutes late.
Those weren’t the only violent incidents in Al-Tuwani during those days. According to residents and the Italian volunteers, on the afternoon of September 6, an Israeli who emerged from the outpost approached a Palestinian home in Al-Tuwani and threw stones at a village resident. Other residents rushed to her defense, and the Israeli left.
Shortly afterward Ma’on’s security coordinator was seen near the outpost’s fence, and two army jeeps immediately appeared. The soldiers spoke to the residents and showed them an order stating that this is a military area closed to the Israelis and international activists.
On September 7, again in the afternoon, two masked men standing at the woods of the outpost holding slingshots threw stones at people walking on the path toward Tuba. On the evening of Saturday September 8, it was discovered that on the villagers’ land in Wadi Humra, nine olive trees had been chopped down and destroyed.
On the afternoon of September 9 (the day the army escort arrived late), another eight olive trees suffered the same fate. On September 11 two Israelis without masks approached the homes at Al-Tuwani. The residents gathered to block them. Soldiers immediately appeared and pushed the Palestinians into their homes. About 30 soldiers were deployed in the woods and at the outpost, and prevented other Israelis from approaching the village.
The soldiers were followed by members of the Border Police, who kept the Israelis apart from the village residents. On the eve of Yom Kippur, September 18, another destroyed olive tree was found. And on Yom Kippur the army escort for the children arrived, but again half an hour late.
The police spokesman said: “We take seriously any act of violence or hooliganism, and accordingly whenever a complaint is received by the police it is handled and investigated thoroughly and professionally to discover the truth. The Israel Police did in fact receive a complaint about damage to trees, and we opened an investigation that is still pending, and naturally we cannot discuss it at this stage."
“We note that the Israel Police always work both openly and covertly with the other security services in the area and at the centers of friction to prevent incidents of this type and prosecute those involved. When it comes to security in Judea and Samaria, since the abovementioned territories are under the responsibility of the IDF, by law the military spokesman is the address for these matters.”