In Hebron, the road to education is paved with fear

Students tell of intimidation and searches by Israeli soldiers and attacks by settlers on their way to and from classes.

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Hebron, West Bank // Frequent harassment, accusations, and sometimes even physical abuse.

The eighth-grade students at the Ibrahimiya School were quick to talk about the suffering they endure daily in Hebron – the tensest city in the occupied West Bank.

Wearing a dark track suit, I J, 14, stood up and recounted an incident two months ago when he was stopped at an Israeli army checkpoint near the school.

“The soldiers claimed I had a knife. One was pointing his gun at me and the other was searching me. I told him, let me go to school. He hit me. They made me pull my shirt up,” he said.

“One of the soldiers searched my bag but didn’t find anything. They lay me on the ground with an M-16 pointed in my back. They detained me for a half-hour and then let me go to school.”

Other pupils had similar stories to tell. One told of being stoned by an Israeli settler on his way to school. “I threw a stone back at him,” he said.

The hazards of getting to school have become more acute in the past seven months during the latest wave of unrest in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

They have taken a toll on attendance at Ibrahimiya, a school which takes in students from grade one to nine, and is run by the Palestinian Authority.

The principal, Hasan Emar, said about 50 out of 300 pupils have transferred to schools closer to their homes since October, in the hopes of a safer trip to classes.

There are six checkpoints with a one-kilometre radius of Ibrahimiya. Students coming from the north must pass three, those from the south one, from the east two. Access is closed from the west.

The checkpoints, combined with the school’s proximity to enclaves of militant Israeli settlers, mean that Ibrahimiya has one of the most challenging learning environments in the West Bank, according to Yasser Salih, field director for the PA’s education ministry.

The school is housed in an old stone building a block away from the Ibrahimi Mosque – a site sacred to Muslims, and venerated by Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs.

About 100 metres from the school, settlers have put up a larger-than-life poster of Ginadi Kaufman, a settler who was fatally stabbed at that spot in December by a Palestinian.

As if to illustrate the existing tensions, the blast of a sound grenade, used by the Israeli army to warn off or disperse Palestinians, resonated some distance from the school as the students wound up a class discussion on a recent Sunday.

“Be quiet now and no action,” Mr Emar told his students firmly.

"When there is something like this, we calm the students in their classroom," he explained to The National.

In the schoolyard, teachers stopped pupils from peering through a fence to see the source of the explosion.

But such explosions are not the only disturbances the pupils face. Soldiers sometimes enter the school, saying they are looking for stone-throwers, Mr Emar said.

Perhaps the most challenging thing, educators say, is maintaining calm when word spreads of a nearby “amaliya”, the Arabic word for operation which usually connotes a stabbing or attempted stabbing that almost invariably results in the death of the assailant.

“There is confusion, fear, nervousness,” said Mr Salih. “The pupils wonder how they will reach their home.”

“The phone doesn’t stop ringing from relatives,” Mr Emar added. “And many times we call the families and ask them to come here so the children can leave the school safely.”

Despite these challenges, Mr Emar’s message to pupils is to keep coming to school because education is the best way to resist the occupation.

“Only through education can we rise and develop,” he tells them. “Therefore carry your books, this is your only weapon.”

Mr Emar said he did not explicitly tell pupils not to carry out attacks.

“It is better not to talk about amaliyat [operations]. People like what is forbidden and it will only have the opposite effect. My lesson to them is that education is the only way to liberate our land and the only weapon you have for your future. My lesson is not ‘no violence’ – it’s education, education, education.”

But one pupil said he sometimes had doubts about this.

“Sometimes they frustrate me so much that I get fed up with life to the point I say I don’t need this education if every day I am harassed this way.”

The pupil confessed he had thought about reacting violently before.

“We’re no different from the other martyrs,” he said.

However, M M, 14, said pupils were right not to respond violently.

“If we respond they will close the school and I don’t want the school closed,” he said.

Mr Salih, the PA official, said that after the start of the haba – the Arabic word used to refer to the unrest – in October, the ministry of education appointed 20 educators who met students to stress the importance of schooling and give them an opportunity to vent their frustrations.

“Our message is that education is the best way to combat occupation,” he said.

Student Y R, 14, agreed.

“Education is quite difficult in the midst of what is going on here,” said the boy, whose favourite subject is science.

“But I won’t change schools because I feel I’m a resistance fighter by studying here. The soldiers want to close the school and as long as we are in the school, the soldiers won’t be able to close it.”

Mr Emar said that last year soldiers had warned that the school might be closed if there was stone-throwing but there had been no such threat this year.

The Israeli army has not responded to a request for comment on the pupils’ allegations of abuse on the way to school.