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The long walk to class

Written by admin  •  Wednesday, 20.12.2006, 17:30
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Ilene R. Prusher, The Christian Science Monitor , 20 December 2006

Ahmed Malhi is just 25 feet from school when Israeli soldiers stop him and demand ID. It’s the third checkpoint he’s encountered during a commute that takes him from one side of Jerusalem’s security barrier to the other.

The soldiers wave Ahmed and other students through. He’s relieved. He’s got a history test on World War I, and the last thing he needs is to be late again.

“I’m at an important stage right now,” Ahmed says later. “If I’m not able to be there on time, how can I pass the graduation exam?”

This day he made it to class after about an hour’s walk and a five-minute taxi ride. Prior to barriers being built, he would arrive in 20 minutes. But the new reality for Ahmed’s family, and many other Palestinian Jerusalemites, is that a range of measures designed to increase Israeli security and a demographic majority mean they’re being left outside Israel’s barrier despite Israeli-issued IDs that identify them as legal residents of Jerusalem entitled to services similar to those offered to Israeli citizens.

Now, in many cases, receiving healthcare or an education or going to work can be a long, complicated process for Palestinians who have to cross through the barrier – which runs through Shuafat and is being transformed from a fence into a concrete wall – to reach the rest of the city.

It’s an ordeal that human rights groups such as Btselem say is an unjust burden on Palestinian Jerusalemites. They say Arab residents are being increasingly cut off from basic services with political goals in mind: increasing security for Israelis, and decreasing numbers of Palestinians, including those with Israeli-issued residency.

Of course, this new reality was not chosen by Ahmed or his family. He didn’t ask to attend school in Dahiyet el-Barid, a neighborhood that straddles the barrier, but was assigned to study here by an educational wing of the Jerusalem municipality, which oversees all schools throughout the city.

Though his school and home are both part of the capital city, they’re now wedged between a maze of checkpoints. The area where the school is – past several security checkpoints – has become a bottlenecked, almost mysterious passageway.

The policies of who can pass and when seem to change almost by the hour. Other areas here and in the West Bank have “flying checkpoints,” as Palestinians have dubbed them – here one day and gone the next.

A year ago, life wasn’t like this. That was before the wall began winding through this area, drawing landscape-altering lines between who is and is not able to enter Jerusalem. That was also before Ahmed’s father, Omar Malhi, died at a checkpoint near their house. His family says he died from complications related to a heart attack because he couldn’t reach the hospital soon enough. Witnesses say his ambulance was delayed at the checkpoint.

Thereafter, Ahmed’s father was declared a shahid il-mahsom, or checkpoint martyr.

Ahmed’s commute

Most days, Ahmed sets out sometime around 6:45 a.m. On this morning, running a little late, Ahmed downs his tea (he eats breakfast at school, he says), kisses his mother goodbye (he’s a good crammer, she boasts) and heads down the stairs close to 7 a.m.

Just down the narrow main drag of the camp, Ahmed stops to meet his cousin, Thaer, who is in the same grade. They begin to trudge along, discussing the best of three ways to go based on the delays they’ve encountered in recent weeks.

“If it’s a tough day getting through checkpoints, I start feeling bad early in the day, and I stop concentrating,” says Ahmed, who is slim and tall with a serious mien.

Ten minutes into the walk, they’re on the Anata Road, which looks almost like a small highway: It leads into a tunnel and is surrounded on both sides by high walls. The left one is made of corrugated metal, shielding the enormous site for a rail system that is being built.

Overhead, the high-rise buildings of Neve Yaakov, a Jewish neighborhood added after Israel annexed East Jerusalem, tower over the road. Thaer points up to a security camera perched on a pole high above the road, noting that a friend of his got caught throwing stones because of it.

They traipse with other school kids, some teenagers and some hardly bigger than tots, all with backpacks and some in uniforms, past the second checkpoint of the day.

Seeing others their age up ahead, they continue walking down the road. A soldier holds out his arms to stop them, and redirects them to a single-file line of smaller kids off to the side.

“There?” Ahmed asks.

“Yes, go!” the soldier replies. “It’s closed here.”

Ahmed obeys, following the younger schoolchildren. “If I had said another word,” he whispers, “I would have been arrested.”

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