The walk to school for five Palestinian children has become so dangerous they require an escort from Israeli soldiers and police.
Jewish settlers living along the path have repeatedly ambushed the young students, setting dogs on them, throwing stones and beating one 7-year-old girl with a stick until she bled, according to the children, their parents, their principal and human rights workers.
"It's rare that a day passes and there isn't an attempt to pick on the kids, or even worse, hurt them," said Omar Jundiyye, father of three of the children and the uncle of the other two.
The attacks began after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000, when tensions between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank rose considerably. Dozens of settlers have been killed in Palestinian shooting ambushes, while settlers on occasion clash with Palestinians and rampage through villages.
The staging ground for the children's misery is the ramshackle settlement outpost of Havat Maon, south of the Palestinian city of Hebron. Two months ago, Israeli forces decided to escort the students, after settlers also attacked international aid workers accompanying the youngsters.
On a recent day, the soldiers warmly greeted their five charges, between six and 12 years old, as they prepared to walk home on a road winding through the rocky, brush-covered hills of the southern West Bank.
In a tighter security convoy than many government officials get, an army jeep scouted the path, followed by two soldiers on foot flanking the children while a police jeep brought up the rear.
The children, carrying oversized backpacks emblazoned with cartoon characters, walked in silence as they approached a small clutch of trees that hides Havat Maon. "With the soldiers, at least sometimes I don't feel afraid," said 9-year-old Tarek Jundiyye.
But even the armed escorts have not completely stopped the harassment.
Harassment hasn't ended
As the children walked home one recent afternoon, a settler hiding in the trees screamed curses in Hebrew at them. A soldier stopped to yell back.
On another day, a settler waited for the soldiers to finish escorting the children and then harangued them for helping Arabs. Sometimes, the settlers throw stones, according to the children's families.
When asked about the attacks, a resident of Havat Maon, who only gave his name as Gilad, said by telephone: "This is our country, and they (Palestinians) have no right to be here." He then hung up.
The attacks appear part of broader tensions in the area. A land dispute between Palestinian shepherds and the Maon settlers turned violent in 1998, when hardline settler Dov Dribben was killed and a Palestinian was shot in chest.
The settlers later forced the villagers to stop using the road running past Havat Maon, the main passage in the area, Omar Jundiyye said. "They are trying to get every Arab to flee," he said.
Young children attacked
Before the fighting started, 20 children from the village of Tuba attended the nearby Tuwani Middle School. But most parents, fearing for their children's safety, switched schools, leaving only the Jundiyye children.
Mahmoud Mahamra, the school principal, flipped through a sheaf of reports he has filed to Palestinian education officials detailing the attacks:
- Sept. 17, 2001, settlers stoned the students and pointed a gun at them.
- Jan. 6, 2002, settlers set dogs on the children.
- Sept. 29, 2004, settlers beat a young girl with a stick.
The last attack, on Omar Jundiyye's 7-year-old daughter Mariam, occurred as the children were being escorted by a pair of foreign peace activists. The attackers, five masked young men, jumped out of the trees with chains and badly whipped the volunteers, according to Joe Carr, an official with the Christian Peacemaker Team, which organized the escorts.
One of the escorts was briefly hospitalized with a knee injury; the other spent weeks in the hospital recovering from broken ribs and a punctured lung, Carr said.
Less than two weeks later, eight settlers sprung from the trees again and attacked five escorts in a chaotic fracas that sent another activist, who was recording the attack on video, to the hospital, Carr said.
Soon after, the army and police began escorting the students.
Zviki Barchai, head of the local settlers' council, said anyone attacking the children should be arrested and stopped.
So far, one settler has been arrested and charged with attacking a policeman, said police spokesman Shlomi Sagi. Investigations into the other attacks — especially the beatings of the activists — are continuing, and police hope to make arrests soon, he said.
"We take this very seriously," Sagi said, "It is a big problem there."