Sunday, December 14, 2014

Common, Not Normal

I wanted to write this a few days ago, Thursday, December 11. I started. I realized quickly I didn't have the energy to write what was pulsing from my heart. Friday was also a hard day. Saturday was strangely quiet, so I began to write. Today I will try to finish.

After two days off I arrived back at the office on Wednesday morning to news about the day's school run, the hour during which CPTers stand at Israeli military checkpoints to monitor the passage of Palestinian children and teachers through them. Members of a visiting CPT delegation told me, "The teargas was really bad this morning." Delegation members had gone with us on all our school runs while visiting. Wednesday morning was not their first exposure to teargas. It was their fourth time in four days to witness school-run teargas.

After hearing that, I also heard that two CPTers were at the Ibrahimi School (the school closest to the main checkpoint we monitor), waiting with a 12 year-old boy who'd been so affected by the gas that he needed to be taken to the hospital. It took the ambulance about a 1/2 hour to arrive because it had to navigate the checkpoints and permanent road closures (closed to Palestinians only) that make up the landscape of Hebron. My teammate sat with her arm around the boy, trying to comfort him. She has said multiple times since Wednesday morning, "I just keep thinking of that little body leaning into me. It was so awful." The Ibrahimi School had to close that day because the wind carried teargas fumes into the school. The gas that stung the eyes, noses, and throats of students and teachers alike eliminated the possibility of conducting classes.

The next day two pairs of us went out to different checkpoints for the school run. Around 7:30, halfway through the monitoring, my partner and I heard teargas being fired nearby, though not at our checkpoint. That was the first of seven canisters that teammates at the other checkpoint witnessed. They had to leave after seven because the fumes were so strong.  One teammate's chest was tightening, making it difficult for her to breathe, and when we saw her, her eyes were still red and watery. It took a few hours for her to fully recover.

At our checkpoint the teargas started after two stones were thrown. When the gas started, two teachers from the Ibrahimi School came out to wait for students as they came through the gas and checkpoint. The teachers hoped their presence would help the kids get to school without further problems. After three canisters were fired at our checkpoint, we and the teachers felt such strong burning in our eyes, noses, and mouths that we had to leave our post.

Students at Ibrahimi School recover from
teargas exposure.
We all went into the Ibrahimi School where the office's couches were full of boys with onions or alcohol-soaked pads under their noses. The teachers with us and several others were also recovering from the gas. We stayed in the office for several minutes. The boy who'd been hospitalized the previous day appeared, suffering again from the effects of the gas. Thankfully, he did not have to be hospitalized that day.

A teacher took us to a room where he was conducting his first grade class. His classroom was on the first floor, but the fumes had entered it; teargas displaced the class for at least part of the day.

Thankfully, the Ibrahimi School didn't have to close for a second day, but two other schools did.

Al-Khalil School, an elementary boys school with 270 students dismissed students before 8:30 because four teargas canisters landed in the schoolyard.  We arrived just as an ambulance was pulling in to pick up a boy who'd been hit on the thigh by one of the canisters.  Three teachers were also treated for teargas exposure.

Students from Khadeayeh School try to both leave school
and avoid teargas exposure. 
Khadeayeh School, an elementary boys school with 400 students, closed at 8:30.  Three canisters of teargas landed near the school's entrance.  As we arrived, the boys were leaving.  Teachers shepherded them into the street, but some boys came running back since the Israeli border police were still lobbing gas. Let me be clear: these were little boys. Scared little boys without a safe haven.

At Tarek Ben Zyad School, a boys high school with 473 students, we learned that a student had been hit in the arm with a rubber-coated steel bullet. He was hospitalized. We didn't know before that point that the border police had been using rubber-coated steel bullets.

We visited four other schools in the area that day. The rest, thankfully, reported no other injuries requiring professional medical attention, though the principals at all schools reported that  many students had come to school with the tell-tale drippy noses and watery eyes of teargas exposure. In all, the student population of the schools we visited is about 2,500 students. Two thousand five hundred children who on a nearly daily basis may be exposed to teargas - most commonly - sound grenades, and rubber-coated steel bullets - less commonly.

Two boys watch at teargas explodes on the other side of the
checkpoint, while another boy runs through the checkpoint to
escape the gas. 
Even if they don't have to walk through teargas, many have to walk through at least one Israeli military checkpoint. They have to walk past heavily-armed soldiers. And none can escape the sounds of teargas and sound grenades being shot nearby.

And those are just the kids at those seven schools. Many other kids in Hebron and throughout Palestine have similar experiences.

Sunday begins the school week. This morning, there was again teargas as we monitored. A young boy stood near us, watching both stone-throwing older boys and Israeli border police firing teargas. Our boy was trying to get to school. He was already late. He was clearly scared. We stood next to him. We ran with him when the teargas landed within a few yards of us. When we got a safe distance away, I put my arm around him, expecting him to wriggle away. He didn't. Using our limited Arabic and gestures, my teammate and I offered to walk him to school. Together the three of us watched the clashes and waited for a time when we might be able to safely move beyond the checkpoint.

During that time we watched a father walking hand in hand with his little daughter through the checkpoint, as he does every day. Things were quiet right then. No teargas was visible on the other side. After passing the checkpoint, they walked about 100 meters and all of a sudden the father scooped up his little girl and ran. Clearly the gas still lingered in the air.

As we continued to wait and watch with the boy, the principal and several teachers of Ibrahimi School, as well as students pushing a grocery cart, approached the checkpoint. Without a word, our little friend started walking with them, away from us. He walked through the checkpoint and off he went, finally, to school.

Given the morning's circumstances, the appearance of the principal, teachers, and students surprised us. Then we saw that a car had pulled up to the other side of the checkpoint with reams of paper and boxes of other school supplies. Palestinians cannot drive on the road next to Ibrahimi School, so this is how they have to get their supplies.  Boys and teachers loaded the grocery cart, walked it to school, unloaded it, and came back for more. They were just finishing up when the lull in clashes ended.

Teargas and more teargas
In just over an hour this morning, the Israeli border police set off 23 teargas canisters. At children.

My heart breaks for the Palestinian children for whom this is so common. Common, but not normal. I refuse to call this normal.

My heart breaks for the parents, teachers, and administrators trying to protect their kids. I cannot imagine trying to teach under these conditions. Below is an excerpt of the CPT blogpost I wrote about the two school closures:

Education is a fundamental human right. The context of the Israeli military occupation threatens Palestinian children’s access to this right on a daily basis. Facing the threat and reality of teargas (and sometimes sound grenades and rubber-coated steel bullets) fired at their children on a nearly daily basis, Palestinian parents, teachers, and administrators have to make difficult decisions every day about how best to protect their children from these and other physical and emotional effects of living under military occupation: Should they send their children to school or keep them at home? What time should they send the children or walk with children to school to avoid these threats? How can schools address both the physical and emotional needs of students in this volatile context? On a given day, at what point do the physical and emotional effects make teaching impossible? How can students be kept safe if they need to be released from school due to untenable circumstances? Imagine having to answer these questions every day. Imagine trying to keep your children and students safe and not being able to do so because of the arbitrary nature of the Israeli military’s use of force.

What I have written here is only a small portion of the difficulty Palestinian children and adults living under military occupation face. I had intended to write about more than the school run, but unfortunately, there are too many stories to tell from that daily hour of work.

As in my last blogpost, I beg of you: Notice this. It is not OK. We must do something.

If these stories move you, I ask you to share them. Share them with parents and teachers. Share them with government representatives and people who can influence the fate of Palestinian children. Share them with anyone who will read this or listen to you.

These stories must be known because no child deserves to live in a world where fear is a part of daily life or where collective punishment is the response to the few who dare act out against an oppressive system under which all live.

I pray to God who created every single one of us to have mercy on us, on Palestinian children, on Israeli soldiers who carry out violence against them. May we together create a world in which  violence against children is neither common nor "normal."

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