Children living in southern Hebron hills face daily harassment of Jewish settlers on their way to school.
Their school bus is a donkey, their route a tortuous hour-long trek through the steep, rocky hillsides. For five Palestinian children living in the southern Hebron hills, the daily school run has become a nightmare because of the ritual harassment of Jewish settlers.
As the crow flies, it is two kilometres (1.2 miles) from Tuba village where the youngsters live, to their school in al-Tuwani village at the southernmost tip of the West Bank.
The most direct route to school, however, is a dirt track which runs between the Jewish settlement of Maon and the neighbouring wildcat outpost of Havat Maon – a fact which has aroused the ire of local settlers.
Armed with sticks and stones and accompanied by a pack of dogs, the settlers have undertaken a campaign of violent intimidation against the five children, aged between six and 12, and any adults who walk with them.
‘When we walked to school, the settlers’ dogs attacked us and they threw stones, so now we have to go the long way round,’ said 12-year-old Safiya Jundiya.
Frightened by the repeated incidents of verbal and physical abuse, the children say they would rather endure the 10-kilometre (six mile) donkey ride across the rocky hillsides than face the settlers.
The settlers also attacked Safiya’s cousin, seven-year-old Miriam Jundiya, a tiny figure wearing jeans and a pale grey headscarf, was admitted to hospital after an adult settler hit her round the head with a stick, her family said.
At the time, the group was being escorted by two US peace activists when they were ambushed by a group of masked settlers armed with sticks, chains and rocks who emerged from the woods around the outpost.
The children fled, but the two activists, members of an ecumenical pacifist movement called the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT), were badly beaten, with one sustaining a punctured lung and the other a broken arm.
Just over a week later, another group of peace activists were ambushed by settlers, who broke the arm of an Italian national and stole his video camera.
Israeli police, who are responsible for all settler-related issues, were notified and even given pictures of the assailants, but no one has been arrested.
Since then, the children have resorted to the arduous mountain route which takes them eight kilometres (five miles) out of their way simply to ensure they are not spotted by the settlers.
The day after a debate on the issue at the Israeli parliamentary committee last week, the children once again tried to use the short route, having received official permission to cross from the army’s district office for coordination with the Palestinian District Coordination OfficeÃ‚Â (DCO).
But as they walked up the dusty path around 7:30 am, accompanied by the mayor of al-Tuwani village, their way was once again blocked by the settlers, an AFP correspondent witnessed.
A look of sheer terror flashed across each of their faces as they caught sight of a group of settlers watching them from the edge of the forest, two powerful-looking Doberman Pinschers milling around their legs.
As the mayor ushered them forward towards the path, Safiya’s 10-year-old brother, Tareq, started to cry.
‘What are you talking about – school, school, school?’ a settler shouted mockingly. ‘Stop talking this rubbish about school!’
Several Israeli soldiers including a representative of the DCO soon arrived at the scene and following a heated argument with the settlers, suddenly decided the previously-authorised crossing should not go ahead, unless the children agreed to be accompanied by soldiers.
But, having missed well over an hour of the four-hour school day, the children decided to abandon the mission and return back to Tuba.
DCO spokesman Assaf Adulay said the problem occurred because ‘the regular group of soldiers who accompany the children did not turn up on time because of an unfortunate mistake’.
‘The children have never been attacked while the soldiers were escorting them. Nothing like that has ever happened,’ Adulay said, while admitting the soldiers and police were ‘aware of the problem’ with the settlers