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Children and Conflict in Hebron

These Palestinians children may be left without educational possiblities should this school be closed by the Israeli army. [Classroom pictures courtesy of Christian Peacemaker Teams]

A week ago, Michigan Peace Team [MPT] was invited to go to the large southern West Bank Palestinian city of Hebron. We were invited in part to help prevent the Israeli Occupation Forces [IOF] from invading and closing down two local orphanages and three schools, thus forcing the expulsion of the children those institutions serve.

On February 25, 2008, the IOF raided all of the buildings and institutions funded by the Islamic Charitable Society [ICS] in Hebron. The IOF gave orphanages and boarding schools until April 1 to evacuate students. On March 6, the Israeli army again stormed storage buildings of ICS, confiscating food, children's clothing, and kitchen appliances used to prepare meals for the orphans. The value of property confiscated was estimated at $300,000. Almost 6,000 Palestinian children in Hebron are housed, fed, and educated in these centers.

The Israeli army has accused the Islamic Charitable Society as acting as a front for the militant Islamist organization Hamas by training youth based on jihad principles and other terrorists activities. The Islamic Charitable Society was created in 1962, long before Hamas, and has provided services over these many years to those desperately in need. In a press conference on March 7, Attorney Abd al-Karim Farah, a legal advisor to the Society, said everything was supervised by accountants, the Palestinian Authority’s welfare, and education ministries. Also, the curricula in the Society's educational institutions are identical to those of the PA, according to Farah, who emphasizes, "everything is legal." ICS appealed to the Israeli high court, but the appeal was rejected.

On March 7th, concerned Palestinian groups in Hebron, international human rights workers, journalists, and others held a press conference to announce the rejection of the Islamic Charitable Society’s appeal to the Israeli High Court, and the actions of the Israel military occupation forces [IOF]. All recognized the contributions of ICS in caring for orphans, the education of children, and providing aid to 5,000 needy families. Twenty per cent of the Islamic Charitable Society’s funding is local; most other funding is from abroad. All donations received through bank accounts are filtered and monitored by Palestinian and Israeli financial authorities. Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli organization, denounced the military actions against the Islamic Charitable Society as collective punishment and challenged the IOF to provide evidence for their claims.

On April 2, officials at the local school funded by the Society received word that the Israeli High Court mandated that within four days the Israeli military give the Court full justification for the closure and evacuation. As of April 16, 2008, the IOF has yet to provide any evidence or justification to the Israeli high court for these closures.

In the middle of the night on April 14, the Israeli army invaded a bakery that rents its building from the Islamic Charitable Society. The army confiscated the bakery’s refrigerators, equipment, and most of the inventory, leaving only a battered and destroyed oven. The bakery made, sold, and provided bread for the ICS orphanages.

In the past few weeks, various Palestinian groups and internationals, including Christian Peacemaker Teams, have slept overnight at the schools and orphanages. No further incidents have occurred. The day Michigan Peace Team [MPT] arrived, it was the local opinion that the schools had seemed safe for a few days; Palestinian leaders decided not to send people in at night. While the orders to close the schools still stand, it is unclear when or if this will occur. In the past, raids under military orders may happen immediately, in a few days, weeks, or a few months. The military has yet to document justification to the Israeli Court, but there have been instances in which the military has acted contrary to the High Court’s orders.

Where will these children go if their school is closed down?

MPT heard a report that one very reputable international Christian charitable group has recently lent public moral support for the Islamic Charities with the hope that soon other international groups will follow. This may prevent the continued harassment and destruction of the school properties.

Since 1968, Hebron has had a large settlement of illegal Israeli settlers living inside the city. The settlement has brought many conflicts, including the shooting of 29 Muslim worshipers in the Ibrahimi mosque by a settler in 1994. The Israeli settlers remember the massacre of some Jewish residents in 1929 by Palestinians, which prompted the evacuation of the remaining Jews by the British. During the Second Intifada (a time of uprising of the Palestinian people, begun in 2000), twenty-two Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed by Palestinians. During this period, 91 Palestinians fighters and civilians were killed by Israeli soldiers and civilians. Thus, there is a history of violence in the city. There are also strong religious connections to Hebron by both Israelis and Palestinians because it is seen as the burial place of Abraham and his family, a central figure in the foundation of both religions.

Israeli settler boys building a bonfire at their picnic in a Palestinian olive tree grove.

While remaining available should any developments occur in relation to the school and orphanage, MPT has been working with local children. Each day we have done “school patrol,” monitoring the route through the Hebron neighborhood of Tel Rumeida where Palestinian children must walk to get to school. Israeli soldiers are stationed every few hundred yards along the route to guard the settlers and their children, who often harass the Palestinians. At times, the Palestinian children respond, but not often, because they have no defense if caught by the Israeli soldiers. Punishment (sometimes collective) by the IOF remains unlikely for settlers, but can be severe for Palestinians.Our first day, MPT went with other internationals to a Palestinian owned olive tree grove where Israeli settler school boys and girls [separated] were having a picnic. They were guarded by nine Israeli soldiers. How delightful it was to be in the spring sun on this lovely hilltop, seeing children making lemonade and frying potatoes and bread. (Delightful, that is, if you ignore the fact they were on private land without permission, and the children later become aggressive and abusive with both Palestinians and Internationals.)

Note the presence of the Israeli soldier, at the right, at the picnic guarding the settler children.

Israeli settler girls drinking lemonade out of the large container. Walt, MPT, upper left, is observing the activities going on with the settler children, Israeli soldiers and Palestinians.

What a contrast it was to see armed soldiers protecting settlers and turning a blind eye to the threatening behavior of the Israeli settler children. Palestinians who came to the area were prevented by the soldiers from crossing their own land to go to their home from school or to work—even though the settlers were on private land owned by a local Palestinian family.

This Palestinian school child was denied Israeli soldier's permission to pass to his home because he had to pass through the “picnic area.” He returned a couple hours later.

This Palestinian man, returning from work, was denied passage through the “picnic area” to return to his home. He waited a couple hours to return.

We stayed until after the soldiers left. At this point, the children became abusive, calling us names at the encouragement of their teacher. One child threw sticks at an MPT team member. We felt first hand some of the pain Palestinians must feel to have children being hateful bullies with little recourse to the Israeli authorities. Of course, the tragedy underlying this is the way children are brought up to learn hate and to view those around them as “other” and less than human—unworthy of sympathy or understanding and deserving of the worst possible abuse, even death. The scariest part is the adults such children grow up to be!

The good news is that in the last four months (since MPT was last in Hebron) abusive behavior by illegal Israeli settlers has lessened, mainly because of media attention and work by B’tselem, an Israeli human rights group. However, we witnessed and personally experienced some of this abuse that is still present. We are saddened that children must grow up fearful and unprotected in this society.

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