EAST JERUSALEM, Occupied Palestinian Territory, 23 July 2012 – Karimeh Khatib wakes up every morning at 6 a.m., worried about her journey to work.
She had been a teacher at the Comboni Convent pre-school centre in East Jerusalem for 20 years when, two years ago, her commute to school turned from a simple 10-minute walk to a daily trial involving escorting 4- and 5-year-olds through an Israeli-controlled checkpoint, with a bus ride at either end.
One of her pupils, 5-year-old Batul, explained the procedure. “Every day we put our bags in the x-ray machine, and we pass through turnstiles so the soldiers will allow us to come to school.”
A long detour
The Barrier, separating East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, wraps around the Comboni Convent pre-school, which remains on the Jerusalem side of the Barrier but is cut off the village of Abu Dis, where its teachers and students live.
Now the children face a long detour and lengthy queues at the checkpoint into Jerusalem for school every morning. The journey usually takes about an hour, but it can take even more.
Crossing the checkpoint on foot, Ms. Khatib has to take the children one-by-one through steel turnstiles, electronic detectors and iron bars, which scare several of the little girls. “There’s usually some sort of problem at the checkpoint,” said Ms. Khatib, 45. “I once got my arm stuck in the turnstile, and I’m always afraid this will happen to one of the children, or they’ll get their hand stuck in one of the machines.”
This has resulted in a drop in school attendance. In 2010, the kindergarten had 56 pupils from the West Bank side of the Barrier. This year it has only seven. “It costs 300 NIS every month [about US$74] for the two buses, and many families can’t afford to pay,” Ms. Khatib said, adding that some parents wonder whether crossing a checkpoint twice a day is safe for small children.
The Barrier is needed for security reasons, Israel says. However it was not built along the Green Line, but inside the Palestinian territory, which is why its route was declared illegal in an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice in 2004.
The Barrier, a 7m high, solid cement and metal structure, encloses the kindergarten and its playground. “This Barrier is not a proper environment for children,” said one of the Italian sisters running the kindergarten.
The sisters have painted colourful cartoon characters at the foot of the Barrier, hoping children would feel more at ease. But Israeli Security Forces recently entered the kindergarten to heighten the Barrier even more.
Parents who can’t afford the bus fare to the convent pre-school say they will see a lower standard for their children’s education. “Many kindergartens in Abu Dis are dirty and overcrowded,” Ms. Kahtib said, adding that one can’t even afford to build toilets.
As their opportunities narrow, change can’t come soon enough for the children in Abu Dis.
“Next year, no children from [the West Bank] side will be coming with me to school. No more children from that side have registered,” Ms. Khatib said. “This can’t go on. The education and the future of our children should be protected.”