“Are we in a school or a prison?”

January 17, 2019

‘We need to save our children but during an attack we are just the same.’

Ibrahim, Burin Secondary School

Like most headteachers, Ibrahim wants the best for his students, even in difficult circumstances – and Burin Secondary School and its students have certainly faced difficulties. This Palestinian school sits in Area C of the occupied West Bank, meaning the school grounds and the land around them is controlled by the Israeli military. The school was built before Area C even existed – in fact, before Israel became a state. But nowadays the school and its students are under military occupation. The walls are topped with wire fencing and a watchtower stands behind the football field.

The Israeli military built the watchtower in 2015 and you can clearly see it from almost anywhere in the school grounds. The military says it helps to keep control and order in the village and to protect the Israeli settlers living in the hills above. These settlements are considered illegal by the majority of the international community and, according to international law, should not have been built here. For the students at Burin Secondary School the tower is a non-stop reminder of the reality of the occupation – that the military are always present, even at school.

Ibrahim, Headmaster of Burin Secondary School

Sometimes the soldiers don’t stay in the military tower but come to the school instead. One break-time in March, a 13-year-old boy was shot by soldiers with a rubber bullet while on the football field. Ibrahim told us how the military came up to the fence separating the field from the tower, pointing their guns at the students and intimidating them. When one of the boys threw a stone at them, the soldiers threw teargas into the school and shot a child in the face with a rubber bullet. Ibrahim showed us a picture of the child on his phone, blood streaming down the boy’s face. Most of the children were badly affected by the teargas and were attended to by the Palestinian Red Crescent. The part of the school housing the youngest students was the worst affected.

The incident was deeply scary for many students. The next day some parents rang the school to say their children were too scared to attend that day, describing their nightmares and bed wetting. Although most were able to return the following day, the incident had an impact on their studies. Ibrahim described how students’ marks have dropped, as they frequently do after incidents like this. Distracted and unable to focus on their lessons, they nervously look outside towards the military tower. Their mind is outside, not with the teacher, says Ibrahim

On an exam day in May 2018 the soldiers threw sound bombs, devices which emit extremely loud and even deafening noises, into the school grounds. Israeli settlers accompanied the military into the school grounds and began breaking the teachers’ car windows. As the soldiers teargassed the school, the teachers made the decision to evacuate the students from the grounds. Incidents like this break down the trust between student and teacher, as the children realise that teachers are not immune to this violence and that ultimately, the teachers cannot protect them. ‘We need to save our children,’ says Ibrahim, ‘but during an attack we are just the same’.

For a year, no-one used the football field. It was too close to the military tower and the students felt unsafe. The headmaster used to sit out on the field and do his work there, sitting between his students and the soldiers. Now the school has surrounded the playing field with fences. It’s safer for the children and they now feel able to use it again, but Ibrahim is clearly uncomfortable about the fences around the school. He repeats a question asked to him by a younger child – ‘are we in a school or a prison?’

Burin’s children are not the only ones in the West Bank to have their lives and education disrupted by the continuing military occupation. The occupation gives soldiers permission to go almost anywhere they want in the West Bank, including inside and outside schools. Children are often harassed by soldiers on their way to school. Many other schools have been closed by the military or teargassed.

According to Unicef, in 2017 there were 170 attacks and threats of attacks on schools, students or teachers, affecting children’s ability to attend school. The Israeli military’s incursions into schools and their attacks on students violate children’s right to an education. How can children access their right to an education when they aren’t safe from teargas and rubber bullets in their own classrooms?

The Israeli military states that these actions are necessary to protect the security of Israel the safety of Israelis in the nearby settlements. All states have a right to defend the safety of their citizens, and it’s important that everyone is safe from violence. However, it’s difficult to see how the harassment of children keeps Israelis safe, or how attacking a school with teargas during lessons is proportionate or reasonable in maintaining public order.

A teacher at Burin Secondary School tends to the greenhouse

Despite a constant military presence, teachers at Burin Secondary School are trying to keep students safe, help them stay positive, and make the most of their education. The headteacher tries his best to keep his students safe, encouraging parents to keep students on their best behaviour and not to behave in any way that could provoke soldiers. He also tries to keep spirits up – as well as the opening of a new music room, the school is particularly happy with their recently opened greenhouses, which feel like a source of pride.

Inside two greenhouses at the side of the school, students learn how to grow and tend to vegetables. We are treated to fresh young cucumbers straight off the plant. The students were involved in the building and planning of the greenhouses and clearly enjoy being able to work with the plants – during our visit, students nip in after lessons to spend some time tending to the vegetables. It feels important for students to be able to create something positive in the midst of violence.

Ibrahim feels that the greenhouses gives students something positive and productive to do, and keeps their minds off the occupation. By ensuring the land is used, he is also helping to protect it from being confiscated by the military – a move which would bring them even closer to the school.

Ibrahim’s efforts make Burin school a happier place for all his students, and gives them a space to flourish. But until the soldiers leave Burin for good, and the military tower stands empty, they will never truly feel safe.

What does international law say?

‘The Occupying Power shall, with the cooperation of the national and local authorities, facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children.’

Article 50, Fourth Geneva Convention, 1949

‘States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse...’

Article 19, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1990

by EA Sophie    –    January 17, 2019

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