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Palestinian schoolboys in a Jerusalem suburb have lost their football pitch and volleyball court to a giant cement wall Israel has built through their playground – allegedly to stop attacks.
Pupils returned to class after the weekend to find the latest stretch of Israel’s controversial West Bank separation barrier, an eight-metre high blast wall, had been built in 48 hours.
Commandeered on the “Israeli side” of the wall are the Anata high school’s football pitch and volleyball court, leaving its 800 pupils to a drastically reduced space for play time and sports lessons.
Headmaster Yussef Elayan confirmed that troops rolled up without any warning on Thursday to start building the barrier.
“We got a shock to see the army start the work in the middle of the school on Thursday afternoon. They carried on through the night and Friday,” he said.
Apparently, scuffles broke out between the soldiers and some of the pupils, both on Thursday and when pupils returned to school on Sunday.
The headmaster said some of his schoolboys were arrested in the fracas.
“The wall has confiscated three dunams (0.3 hectares) of the school playground, most of which were sports pitches,” he said.
The land will be effectively annexed to the illegal Jewish settlement of Pisgat Zeev, which Israel claims this sector of the wall will protect from militant infiltrations.
“We feel like we’re in a little prison. We no longer want to smile, nor even talk,” said 15-year-old pupil Hisham Mahmud.
“School isn’t what it used to be. We used to stay here after lessons to play football; but now we go straight home to avoid any friction with the soldiers,” he added.
His friend Suleiman Karshan said the boys were continually watched by soldiers at the entrance to the school. “They used tear gas and stun grenades against us,” during clashes on Thursday and Sunday, Karshan charged.
“The whirring of bulldozers and pneumatic drills stopped us from studying. The teacher had to shout for us to hear over the noise outside,” he said.
Yasser Salameh, 11, said he was manhandled by soldiers on Sunday when he left school. “One of them picked me up before throwing me with all his strength on the ground before another one walked me off and kept me in their jeep,” he said.
In July, the Israeli government approved a route for the wall around east Jerusalem which is scheduled to be completed in coming months.
The barrier will be erected through two Palestinian neighbourhoods, including Anata, walling out 55,000 residents, or one quarter of the total Arab population of east Jerusalem.
Israel justifies building the massive barrier of electric fencing, barbed wire and concrete wall by insisting it is vital to stop potential attackers from infiltrating the country and its illegal settlements in the West Bank.
But the Palestinians have condemned the wall as an attempt to grab their land and undermine the viability of their promised state.
On 9 July 2004, the UN International Court of Justice issued a non-binding ruling that the barrier which criss-crosses the West Bank is illegal and should be torn down.
Although Israel has since modified the route of the barrier along some stretches, the government has vowed to complete the project.