"They Are Building Walls Around Us"

With all the excitement and tension most of us Israeli activists did not notice that the place we met our buses following the Ar-Ram rally also serves as another kind of a meeting place. Parents come there from nearby Beit Hanina to wait for their children who are returning home from schools in Ar-Ram. Soon, however, these parents and their children will not frequent the roads leading to and from Ar-Ram. Soon, the meeting place will no longer exist. A wall, seven meters high, is disconnecting Beit Hanina from Ar-Ram, cutting-off the various educational institutions from the pupils. The children will be left on one side of the wall, their schools on the other.

Perhaps a bit more information is in order. Ar-Ram is an important Palestinian center. It is the commercial and educational heart of Jerusalem’s northern metropolitan area. This 60,000 strong community hosts dozens of schools and has a student population of 20,000. Thirty percent of the students, 6,000 children of all ages, come from other towns and villages in order to receive their education in Ar-Ram. The school year of these 6,000 children who returned to classes on September 1 will soon come to an abrupt end. Moreover, 95 percent of the teachers in Ar-Ram live outside the neighborhood; so once the wall is completed, they to will not have access to the schools. It is not so hard to understand what will be the future of the remaining schools in Ar-Ram: Chaos.

The educational system, not unlike other sectors, is on the verge of collapse. This is usually what happens when you take a viable community and surround it with walls. But this is exactly what the Sharon government wants. Think of Ar-ram as an upside down triangular (see map). A wall is being constructed on both legs of this triangular, cutting Ar-Ram from the adjacent neighborhood of Beit Hanina on the West, and from its land, which has now been confiscated, on the East. To the North, the base of this triangular is a road which will become a Jews-only road, serving the nearby settlements (the military is likely to build some kind of barrier between the road and Ar-Ram). As a result, the neighborhood will be surrounded on all sides, with only one entrance (at the notorious Qalandiya checkpoint). A ghetto.

To protest against this outrageous act we came to Ar-Ram, some 120 Israeli peace-activists who took a day off from work despite the busy days before the long weekend of Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year). We joined the neighborhood school children who took to the streets dressed in their blue school uniforms and holding their self-made signs — to demand their basic right: education.

The crowd was big and the atmosphere tense. The wall builders didn’t pause even for a second. Cranes were lifting monstrous concrete slabs, rapidly securing them in the ground, while large military forces stood nearby observing our short march. It was clear that it would be very difficult to keep things quiet and prevent a confrontation between the residents of Ar-Ram and the military personal ghettoizing them. Still, the crowd managed to reach its destination, a gathering place facing the most recent addition to the wall, with only minor incidents.

Along the way the children chanted slogans and when we arrived at the gathering place we all listened to a few brief speeches. Sarhan Salime, the mayor of Ar-Ram’s municipality, described the disaster befalling his community. He also laid out his vision for a non-violent struggle for holding fast to the land, or tsumud in Arabic. “They are building walls around us, perhaps they hope we’ll just go somewhere. But we won’t. We will turn every roof-top into a school and every basement into a classroom. We are going nowhere; this is our home!”

A tenth-grader (whose name I could not get) read a speech she had written. She spoke about her right to learn like all children of the world, and told the audience that the wall will violate this right. She also spoke of various political matters: the refugees and their right of return, the Palestinian prisoners and particularly Marwan Barguti, who would have led this rally had he not been behind bars, and Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. She must be a particularly good student, judging from her speech. But who knows if in the future she will be able to attend high school.

The last speaker was an activist from Ta’ayush, literally dragged to the makeshift stage by the local organizers. This was me; I suddenly found myself with the microphone in my hand. I spoke to Israelis back home, hoping that they were listening. I told them that every child deserves the right to education, and that preventing thousands of children from reaching their school is not the means of achieving security. I spoke to the soldiers and the builders of the wall, trying to explain what it was that they were actually doing. And I also addressed the residents of Ar-Ram and told them that we, Ta’ayush, support their tsumud, that we want peace, not walls.

Then it was time to part. The Palestinian children and adults headed back, and so did we. The inevitable game of cat and mouse developed, with some adolescents throwing stones and the military shooting back teargas. Luckily, this time the demonstration ended without serious injuries. Our activists slowly gathered near the buses, disturbed by what they had seen and by the sounds of the teargas canisters behind them. Hardly anyone noticed the parents coming to the meeting point to take their children back from school, perhaps for one of the last times.

YIGAL BRONNER lives in Jerusalem and teaches South Asian studies at Tel Aviv University. He is an activist in Ta’ayush: Arab-Jewish Partnership and a frequent commentator on the so-called “security fence” and related topics. He is also a refusenik who spent a month in Israeli military prison for refusing to serve on occupied territory. He is a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism.