Metal detectors and defiance in Hebron
9 September 2005
Last year, school patrols every morning round the block beyond the Ibrahimi Mosque, where there are nine Palestinian schools, was mostly a routine affair. This time, the situation looks much worse.
We knew that there would be the turnstiles at the Old City gate by the Mosque, and the closure of another way out, to contend with, but the installation of two devilish new devices last week at two other checkpoints was a complete surprise. Suddenly, an old checkpoint was dismantled and what looked like a large child’s playhouse was trucked in to fill almost the whole width of the street. Its tinny sheathing was patterned as faux local stonework. It has two sets of electronically controlled doors on each side, with a walk through metal detector, like at an airport or prison, inside. The soldier inside sits behind a glass screen in the dim interior to operate the doors and let people through. A red handle on each side comes out in jerks to reveal pockets to put ID cards into, which are then retracted into the maw of the machine. This part is not being used yet, just tested out.
The day before school started, a second of these was installed on a road close to the schools, where there was no permanent checkpoint before. 50 metres further on, an intersection where soldiers were frequently stationed has been ‘upgraded’ with fresh concrete blocks, moveable barriers, extra razor wire and lots more camouflage netting. New concrete wall slabs block other access to the area beyond. It all acts like a cattle race for everyone who wants to go past – which includes both local residents and most of the chldren and teachers who go to the Al Ibrahimia Boys School, and the Al Fayhaa Girls School. We rang the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) to protest, and were told that children would be able to go through very quickly - it would be more efficient, with less delay for people. And, of course, that it was ‘essential for security’. We have two people there every morning to see what happens.
The first day, Saturday, things went quite smoothly. Some small children thought it was fun, or even played hide and seek inside it with the soldiers. The children were going through fast and there were few delays – but many boys were humiliated by having to take off their belts, because of the metal buckles. Next day was a terrifying scene for the children. Twelve soldiers - fully armed as usual – were trying to break into a house immediately by the checkpoint during the whole time that the children were going past. No sooner had they gone through the cabin, than they found themselves faced with soldiers on all sides. Several small ones stood bewildered and in tears, too scared to go on or back. And as it was only their second day of school, they did not know the two of us, so our presence, in spite of smiles and Arabic greetings, was not enough to reassure them.
That afternoon we went to visit the Principal of Qurtuba Girls School, Ferial Abu Haikal. as it was our responsibility to organize the school patrols there too last week. Many of her teachers and some pupils had to go through the first cabin to be installed, on their way to and from school. Qurtuba is perched on the hillside between two extremist Israeli settlements, Beit Hadassah on the main street below, and Tel Rumeida up the hill behind. It has suffered for the last ten years from more stone throwing and harassment by settlers than any other. Numbers are down to about 90, as so many residents have been forced to leave the area. The teachers were anxious about the adverse effects of going through the metal detectors at least twice a day – both for those who were pregnant, and more generally: could it be cancer inducing in the long term? The girls too were strongly opposed, as they thought the soldiers could see their bodies through their clothes. So Ferial told us what had happened. She had gone to meet them all beyond the checkpoint, and then had talked to the soldiers on duty. "We are not going through the cabin," she announced, "because it is damaging to pregnant women". "Who is pregnant?", asked the soldier. With a sweep of her arm, Ferial (who is about 60) said "We are all pregnant!" Taken aback, the soldier said "Why?" – "Because we are Palestinians!" she replied. Her commanding presence and determination is such that the soldier moved the barrier to the side of the cabin and allowed them all to pass.
Of course, by a couple of days later, the news had got round to the Al Fayhaa Girls School by the new checkpoint at the other end of the Old City. Girls and teachers together refused to go through the cabin, and eventually were allowed to pass round the side of it – for that one day only. The next day, Thursday, it was more serious, as the soldiers would not let that happen again. A stand–off ensued, with teachers at the Boys School, and other Palestinian men joining in the refusal in solidarity. There were a couple of hundred people behind the barriers. More soldiers were called in. Small children were allowed round the side, and after two hours, neighbours allowed the older girls to go through their houses – for that day only - to reach the school. The teachers continued to refuse to go through the cabin, until eventually, by 10.15am, three hours after the start, they accepted a compromise. The soldiers let them round the side, and the teachers allowed a hand-held metal-detecting wand to be passed over them.
A spokesperson for the teachers said, "We are not satisfied with this arrangement. But we have made a point." Asked what they would do when school resumes on Saturday, she said. "We don't know now. We will meet later to decide about that."
We can’t wait to see how this spontaneous act of non-violent resistance will unfold in the days and weeks ahead. Other dramas of the first week of school must wait for my next article.