The concept of school security took on a whole new twist last week when we visited a boys secondary school in the picturesque north central West Bank community of Urif.
Urif is, located half way up a very large hill. It is accessed along narrow winding roads that climb upwards until well past the community. Olive groves and pink blossomed almond trees surround the village. Green fields dot the landscape. Looking out across the valley, one can see the Mediterranean Sea on a clear day. The school is located on the upper outside edge of the village. Visible on the hilltop adjacent to the school is the nearby Israeli settlement of Yizhar Huwwara.
When we arrived at the school, we were warmly welcomed into the Headmaster’s office and immediately offered traditional Palestinian hospitality….a small cup of black Arabic coffee, followed up with a small glass of sweetened tea.
The school is a boys secondary school of 202 students, aged 13-18 years. It is a relatively modern building, with the headmaster’s office having the usual technology common in most schools – telephones, computer, copying machine and fax machine. Sitting prominently on a shelf just behind his desk are several sports trophies won at various Nablus area competitions. The Headmaster, Nabiya al-Najar, spoke to us in Arabic, with our driver and the school English teacher translating. Mr al-Najar’s care and concern for his students was evident.
- Quickly, however, we soon learned of the school’s major problem. Settlers from the nearby settlement of Yizhar Huwwara have been increasingly attacking both the village and the school, as well as the students. Mr al-Najar explained that the settlers are taking more and more land from the villagers, and are preventing farmers from going to their fields for sprig planting. Olive and almond tress have been destroyed. The community mosque was set ablaze 2 1/2 months ago. The school and students have suffered numerous attacks, which occur most frequently as students are being dismissed from school. Settlers, including men, women and children from the neighbouring settlement, have been attacking the building and the students, swearing at staff and students, and throwing stones that break windows and damage school equipment.
On a school tour, students told us of hiding under their desks to avoid stones thrown by the settlers. If students respond in any way, the Israeli soldiers promptly arrive and fire tear gas and sound bombs either immediately outside the building, or directly into the building. Over the last several months, more than 300 tear gas canisters have been collected from the school building and the school grounds, as well as several sound bombs and flares.
There have been numerous students injured in these attacks, including 2 students who were rendered unconscious last year when tear gas was fired immediately outside their classroom window. At times, the school has had to evacuate the students out of the building due to tear gas. Attendance has been affected as students are afraid to come to school because they are afraid of attacks while at school. On some mornings, soldiers position themselves between the school and the students’ homes, leaving students afraid to pass the soldiers on their walk to school.
On Feb 5 of this year, students were dismissed early as one teacher was absent. As they were walking home, an Israeli army jeep containing at least 10 soldiers began to follow the students. They turned back towards the school and were chased into the building by the soldiers. The army officer demanded that the headmaster give him the students, threatening to tear gas and sound bomb the building if he failed to do so. The headmaster refused. The soldiers took the headmaster’s ID and held him for 3 hours, threatening to arrest him. Eventually, the District Commanding Officer was summoned and the soldiers released Mr al-Najada, returning his ID to him.
Understandably, all of this violence has had a detrimental effect on student learning. In addition to the attendance issues, students find it difficult to fully concentrate in class as they worry about the possibility of another attack. School staff worry about the psychological trauma these attacks have caused.
Several needs were identified. The headmaster asked for monitoring of the school. EAPPI will work to assist them with this and will investigate the possibility of providing protective presence on an intermittent basis. Mr al-Najada also asked for tear gas masks for teachers so that they can help to evacuate students and for stretchers to carry out tear gassed students, both of which EAPPI will try to help him locate. He also identified a need to film what is happening, and a need for psychological assistance for the students. NGO’s that provide these services were suggested to him.
As we left the school, Grade 11 students were busy using the spent tear gas canisters in a creative endeavour -writing the word “Palestine” in Arabic on the school grounds.
It’s their way of transforming horror into art, and of bringing light into darkness through creative, nonviolent resistance.
Peace, Salaam, Shalom,