Gill Swain photograph

Settlers Visit The School

November 18th 2007

Click to enlarge all photographs

Re-opening ceremony, November 2007, after Cordoba School was refurbished following the attempt by Jewish settlers to burn it down

Last Sunday morning, the start of a new week at Cordoba School in Hebron, and the first Palestinian children arrive at 7.15am to find the path to the school door covered with big, heavy rocks.

Israeli settlers from one of the city's four small enclaves, or maybe from the large settlement of Kiryat Arba on the outskirts where 6,500 of them live, have been for a visit in the night.

They must have been young men for the rocks have been torn from the wall bordering the school path and spread deliberately across the way so that small children and teachers in long coats would have difficulty in getting round them, and I found they were far too heavy for me to lift. Maybe it was the young men I often see walking along Shuhada Street next to the school with M16 automatic rifles slung over their backs.

Schoolchildren picking their way through the rocks from the wall settlers destroyed in the night.

Closer to the school door, freshly painted in cheerful orange, the children notice there is soil all over the path and broken plants. Inside the door, the school's new little courtyard garden, finished and planted all of 12 days previously, is a scene of devastation.

All the plants have been ripped up and tossed over the wall, leaving yawning holes in the flower beds and earth spread over the new tiles. And on the bit of wall left standing next to the path, the vandals have written a new graffiti in felt tip pen on the new yellow paint, saying in Hebrew: "Death to Arabs."

Head teacher Reem Al-shareef and her staff are angry and upset, but not shocked. The settlers have done this kind of thing, and a lot worse, many times before and they expected they would try to take some kind of perverse 'revenge' after the school held a special celebration.

Head teacher Reem Al-Sharif in the courtyard garden destroyed by settlers

Last year, settlers destroyed the school's well by throwing rocks down it. This August, they tried to burn the school down, causing extensive smoke damage, so it was completely refurbished and decorated in bright colours by the Red Cross.

In recent months there have been no actual physical attacks on the children, which used to be common, so the atmosphere was relaxed and joyous when Reem invited dignitaries of the town and all the internationals who help to protect the school to the celebration of the refurbishment on November 14.

But the school is situated right opposite the settlement of Beit Hadassah in an area of Hebron which the settlers want to take over so, for them, the ceremony was a slap in the face. (Actually, many of the settlers support the aims of the Jewish National Front, whose founder lives near the school, which are to take over the whole of the West Bank and drive the Palestinians out into neighbouring Arab countries: they are just making a start with parts of the city).

There is a continually-manned army post some 50 metres from the Cordoba School gate and the school has had a guard sleeping overnight since August. But on Saturday night the guard's grandfather died and he left to be with his family. And the soldiers at the post, well, we are told they say they heard and saw nothing of the scores of rocks being ripped from the wall and dragged across the path and people jumping down into the courtyard garden.

I was infuriated by what seemed to me a petty crime against an obscure little school of just 116 pupils but a woman from Machsom Watch who came to see the damage put me right. Machsom Watch is an organisation of Israeli women who make daily tours of checkpoints in the Occupied Territories to try to reduce the harassment and humiliation suffered by Palestinians.

Leah Shakdiel is an Orthodox Jew, a member of the Jewish Religious Movement for Peace as well as Machsom Watch, and someone who says it is totally nonsensical for the settlers to claim land in places like Hebron just because the Bible says it was 'promised' to them 4000 years ago.

"This is not a petty crime, it is deadly serious," she told me. "To the settlers, this is not a garden. It is a hold for the Arabs on the Jewish land of Israel."

The settlers are right, of course, the little school is a hold on the land, which is why the Palestinians perfectly understand the message of the broken plants. This is a war of attrition, depressing, destructive and at the moment apparently eternal. I wonder how it can ever be brought to an end.

Machsom Watch,