Peace Movement Aotearoa   |   Reports from Hebron

On Patrol at Qurtuba Girls School, Hebron

January 2006

When I talk about the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Hebron, people often seem puzzled. Why do we go out on school patrol each morning, and what difference does it make?

I’ll tell you more about one Palestinian school, Qurtuba Girls School, which is in a particularly vulnerable position, part way up Tel Rumeida hill. I wrote about it before, in connection with the new metal detector cabins which were installed at some of the checkpoints last September. The Qurtuba teachers and girls refused to go through these cabins, and staged a successful non-violent protest about this at the start of the school year, when they had just been installed. They were led by their redoubtable Principal, Ferial Abu Haikal.

Principal Ferial Abu Haikal tells a soldier that teachers and girls will not go through the cabin at the checkpoint
Principal Ferial Abu Haikal tells a soldier that teachers and girls will not
go through the cabin at the checkpoint

Since then they are usually allowed to go round the side of the cabins, but they have to negotiate afresh with each new group of soldiers. Since I left, the soldiers are trying to tighten their control and wear down the opposition of the women and girls, making it ever more difficult to stand out against the cabins.

Qurtuba school girls holding their protest placards by the checkpoint
Qurtuba school girls holding their protest placards by the checkpoint

But getting through the checkpoint is only the beginning. The school is caught between two extremely fanatical Israeli settlements, Beit Hadassah below, on the main street, and Tel Rumeida settlement above at the top of the hill. Even Israeli settlers in other West Bank settlements refer to the Hebron settlers as crazy.

Several years ago, the settlers succeeded in barring any direct access to the school up the main steps from the road below.

Main access steps to Qurtuba School, now blocked with razor wire
Main access steps to Qurtuba School, now blocked
with razor wire

Ever since, everyone has to go up another set of brokendown steps instead, and along a track above a steep drop to the road.

Dianne monitors girls going home from Qurtuba School
Dianne monitors girls going home from Qurtuba School

There are two places along the track where settlers can scramble up and attack people going to and from the school, and they also wait for them at the bottom of the steps, opposite the corner of the settlement. There is an army post close by, but the soldiers do not always intervene to stop settler attacks.

Settler girls stopped by Israeli soldier from attacking Palestinian girls going home from school
Settler girls stopped by Israeli soldier from attacking Palestinian girls
going home from school

Usually, it is members of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) who patrol for this school, which takes more people and more time than any other, but sometimes CPT is involved too. To make sure that both teachers and girls are getting through unharmed, there need to be internationals stationed at the top of the road down from the Tel Rumeida settlement, by the metal detector checkpoint, at the foot of the steps, on the track and at the school, for the hour before school and the half hour at the end of school.

Teachers (including pregnant ones) were hit by stones, thrown by settlers who had scrambled up onto the path, before term had even started. This led to all the international groups mustering about 10 people to patrol at the beginning of term. The settlers were outraged at this large non-violent quiet-spoken presence, and the army and police declared a ‘closed military zone’. EAPPI negotiated with the army and police, who said that they themselves will protect the girls and teachers on their way to and from school every day. But they are not always there at the right times. So EAPPI with help from the rest of us internationals, maintain about four people there, to keep them to their word. Those in sight of Beit Hadassah settlement need to be fairly inconspicuous, as the settlers consider our presence ‘provocative’. Sometimes the police, conspicuously armed of course, park their jeep at the foot of the steps, so the girls have to almost squeeze past. Soldiers stand on the upper track, weapons at the ready, so the girls look down the barrel of a gun as they walk by. When I tried to talk to one young soldier – he had no English, and I no Hebrew, but finally I talked to a junior officer in French – he was quite oblivious of what this looked like from a child’s point of view. Though the girls are protected, it makes for a very scary scene.

On a quiet and uneventful day I look down from the shade of an olive tree on the track, to the road below. Small Israeli children are skipping and laughing on their way to kindergarten. Young Palestinian girls are chatting and giggling on their way to school past me on the upper track. What a tragedy for both peoples that they are being brought up to hate each other.

CPTer Jerry with young Qurtuba School pupils
CPTer Jerry with young Qurtuba School pupils

The situation can flare up at any time. It is hard to comprehend the settlers’ attitude. They want their actions to lead to the closure of the school. Maureen, Scottish CPTer with whom I have been on team, describes one small incident in November very vividly:

"I'd not met him before. He's perhaps slightly older than I and he was wearing a green cap, not unlike my red CPT one. By his accent he was clearly originally from London, though he now lives in a settlement. I said hello. "Fuck you. Screw you," he said.

"We were standing across the street from an entrance to the Israeli settlement of Beit Hadassah in Hebron. I was there with Anne and John (both in their late seventies) and some other internationals on school patrol at the foot of steps leading up to Qurtuba School. We were waiting for the girls to come down on their way home. He was there with a group from Women in Green, an organization committed to support for Israeli settlements. They were also there waiting for the schoolgirls.

The girls and women teachers started to make their way nervously down the crumbled steps. The Israeli visitors pushed forward taking photos. We got in between them as best we could. I didn't document at all. I took no photos. I have no idea of what went on around me. All I could see was the fear on the faces of the women and girls. All I could feel was the tremor in their hands as I helped them down. All I could hear was my faltering Arabic as I tried to find something reassuring to say.

And then it was over. The girls and the teachers were all on their way home. But the Israeli ex-Londoner was not finished. "Have you got cancer yet? I hope so," he said to me. "Please don't say that. My husband died of cancer six years ago," I replied. "I am happy about that," he said.

What has this man's life been like that he has such hatred? How is he feeling now? Is he thinking of me, as I am thinking of him? Is he weeping now, as I am? And am I weeping for myself, or for him?"

Maureen on school patrol
Maureen on school patrol

The very next day, a Human Rights Observer from the UK who has been working in Tel Rumeida for a number of months with a different group who have rented a house there, was arrested by the armed Border Police as he was walking home after taking part in the school patrol. During his time there, settlers had thrown stones at him, spat at him and cursed him, as they have at myself and at most other nonviolent internationals from time to time. I always found him calm and supportive in difficult situations. The Border Police told him that his visa had expired. He explained (and showed documents that confirmed) that, before the expiry date, he had been given an appointment for three weeks later with the Ministy of the Interior (MoI) for renewal. This is normal practice by the MoI. However, they held a hearing that evening and ordered his immediate deportation, without hearing any representations from him, or allowing him to have a lawyer or independent witness present.

Both conscripted and regular Israeli soldiers, vary enormously in their attitudes. Some are increasingly fed up with having to defend the extremist Hebron settlers (who often hurl abuse at them as well as at us and the Palestinians). They dislike having to remove the settlers forcibly as in the ODT picture of January 16th. Some soldiers hate our presence and the fact that we live among the Palestinians in the Old City. We tell them that we want peace with justice for everyone, both Palestinians and Israelis, and that we are not against the state of Israel and the Jewish people, but are against the illegal and immoral Occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Sometimes a constructive conversation ensues, but many do not want to listen to anything that suggests there are other points of view than their own.

Without the presence of international observers, the children and teachers at Qurtuba and many other places would be even more at the mercy of the settlers and soldiers, and out of sight of the outside world.

Christina Gibb

Reports from Hebron   |   Peace Movement Aotearoa