Go to any coffee shop or grocery store in Canada and you’ll be sure to hear it — parents discussing the quality of their children’s schools and education.
But in the region of Masafer Yatta in the West Bank, educational chatter often revolves around whether it’s safe for children to walk to school and if the building will still be standing when they get there.
The 12 Palestinian villages in Masafer Yatta, or what the Israeli military refers to as Firing Zone 918, have lived in what’s known as a closed military zone since the 1980s.
With a decades-old legal injunction that prevents Palestinians from completing any sort of construction or renovation projects, coupled with settler violence that often results in buildings being destroyed, many children don’t have access to schools within their own villages.
This often requires them to walk to and from other villages in the region. These walks can start anywhere from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. depending on how far the children need to walk to get to school.
First-hand look at children’s daily ordeal
I was recently in Tuba, a Palestinian city in the northeastern West Bank, as part of a delegation with the Centre for Jewish Nonviolence. We were engaging in projects that included constructing a playground and filling in a road, as well as interviewing Palestinians, both youth and adults, in several villages in Masafer Yatta about their experiences growing up in the region.
The children I met in Tuba did not need to walk a very long way to get to school, just to the nearby village of At-Tuwani. That is, at least until the school, which is slated for demolition, is destroyed for being built while under a legal injunction that prevents building.
Several high school students from the area, however, leave extremely early in the morning in order to attend a university preparatory school in the city of Yatta.
Despite Israeli settlements and army outposts being deemed illegal in the region, they remain in place without threat of demolition or eviction.
Palestinians are not allowed to enter these settlements, which divide the region, forcing Palestinian villages to be separated from one another. For schoolchildren, exceptions are allowed, and children must be escorted by the Israeli army to reach their nearest school.
Army escorts often prevent the most brutal of settler violence being directed toward these small children, but rocks and vile language are often still hurled at the young people as they trek to and from school.
One morning while staying in Tuba, the Israeli army never showed up to escort young children to elementary school. Two members of our group of international volunteers decided to walk them.
On a day where everything goes as planned, young soldiers with machine guns will roughly shepherd the children through these settlements.
But on this day, like many days, the army is nowhere to be seen. Two members of our group, prompted by the tugs of these learners’ small hands, began to escort them to school without the army. While skipping and playing, the walk to school seemed banal — until the army arrived.
Screaming soldiers wielding rifles
Carrying automatic rifles pointed at the children and volunteers, the soldiers began to scream, first in Hebrew and then in English. They demanded to know what was happening and then insisted on escorting the children by themselves for the rest of the way.
The children, clearly very accustomed to these interactions, continued walking as the volunteers returned to Tuba. But shortly after, the two youngest schoolchildren returned to the village as well. Looking visibly upset, both insisted they were sick and clutched their bellies until their parents allowed them to stay.
In the safety of their community, the children soon recovered from their ailments.
When I was in school, I worried about things like homework, friendships and cafeteria food. But in Masafer Yatta, children learn early that academic success is a form of non-violent resistance they practise regularly.
Dreaming of an education under occupation
During my time in the region, I had the pleasure of talking to several participants of The Storytelling Project.
Gamar, a resident of Masafer Yatta in her final year of high school, shared with me how the occupation has shaped her educational path. Gamar has wanted to become a doctor since she was a young child and has maintained the grades necessary to achieve this dream.
On any given day in Masafer Yatta, studying is not easy. In addition to a serious lack of electricity, internet and water, the Israeli army or Israeli settlers living nearby could come and disrupt these studies. Not only do these conditions make it physically difficult to study, but the emotional toll can often make it challenging to focus.
Despite these difficulties, Gamar was accepted to the science-based high school in the city of Yatta, a pre-requisite for majoring in pre-med at university.
But Gamar’s plans were disrupted when her father was subjected to a brutal attack in their village by Israeli settlers while alone in his garden. As the oldest of three sisters, Gamar decided to make the difficult decision to spend more time at home with her family instead of the multiple hours a day spent commuting to school.
The price of putting her family and well-being first? She will now be majoring in nursing at university instead.
Education is a human right
Article 26 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to education.”
More than 190 countries signed and ratified these rights, but not all signatories uphold these rights equally.
The Israeli government works diligently to suppress access to education for residents of Masafer Yatta. In a place where children learn from a young age what it means to be Palestinian under occupation, education is a battleground for liberation.
The youth of the region understand the power of education in helping them lift up their communities and share their struggles with the world — and they continue to fight for their right to access it.
Anna Lippman is affiliated with Independent Jewish Voices and Labour for Palestine.