Cordoba Primary School is one of the most vulnerable schools in Hebron. Situated in H2, the Israeli-controlled portion of the city, most of the 148 Palestinian pupils must travel through checkpoints each day on their way to and from school.
School children walking past soldiers and through a checkpoint on their way to school [Photo: EAPPI/I.Stolpestad]
Walking down Shuhada Street (as introduced in 'Welcome to Ghost Town') is normally an eerie experience given the shuttered windows and doors and the lack of people. However now there is an added fear. The street itself, and specifically the checkpoint and stairs through which the children must walk to get to school opposite the Beit Hadassah Israeli settlement, have been the site of two shootings of Palestinians, one on October 17 by a settler, and one on October 29 by an Israeli soldier. In both cases, the victims were allegedly armed with knives. These allegations and the military's subsequent actions are explored and questioned in Amnesty International's recent report.
Children as young as three years old walk past several soldiers at this checkpoint and are sometimes subjected to schoolbag searches. Here there are obvious discrepancies as settlers often walk down the street with M16 machine guns on their back without challenge, yet young Palestinian children have their bags checked for stones.
The Cordoba school's location makes it particularly vulnerable to attacks from the ideologically-motivated settlers. In the past, settlers have uprooted trees in the school grounds and a 12-year-old settler child physically attacked a Palestinian student. More recently, my fellow Ecumenical Accompaniers and I have observed an increasing number and frequency of unprovoked physical and verbal attacks upon both children and teachers. Parents have reported serious impacts on their children's behaviour including lower self-esteem, bedwetting, nightmares, and greater sensitivity to loud noises due to the sound-bombs which are regularly heard from the school.
Children and teachers prevented from leaving Cordoba School on October 19 by Israeli soldiers [Photo: EAPPI/R.Holmen]
Ten-year-old Qusai who is in the fifth grade told us, "I am afraid of settlers and scared of soldiers. They try to scare us by pointing their guns at us and stamping their feet. Settlers also drive very fast past us". An essential role of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel in Hebron, funded by UNICEF, is to protect the children and teachers through our presence on Shuhada Street and at the checkpoints. When asked how he feels when he sees EAs, Qusai says, "when we see settlers we want to turn back and go home, but when we see EAs we feel safer and keep walking".
However, school attendance is affected by the increased tension in Hebron. Recently there have been fewer children at school and those who do attend are achieving lower marks and have poorer levels of concentration in class.
On October 30, Shuhada Street and the surrounding area was declared a closed military zone by the Israeli army. As a result, only Palestinian residents, schoolteachers, and Israeli settlers are allowed in the area. This also prohibits EAs, and other internationals, from entering and being present at Cordoba School. This is effectively barring these 148 children from safe access to education, a basic human right. According to Article 50 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, as the occupying power Israel must "facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children".
The headmistress of Cordoba School, Nora Nasser [Photo: EAPPI/H.Griffiths]
Nora Nasser, the headmistress, says, "we will not leave the school. This is our educational sumud [the concept of Palestinian steadfastness]".
Cordoba School children during morning assembly, practising sumud [Photo: EAPPI/I.Stolpestad]
EAPPI and other organisations are calling upon the Israeli authorities to fulfil their responsibility as outlined by international law and enable safe access to education for the children at Cordoba and other schools in Hebron. For this to be possible, settlers must be held to account for their actions and their impunity, which is not only condoned but enabled by the Israeli army, must be addressed. Every child deserves to access school and be and feel safe when they do so.