ECHO provides a protective environment for children in need
Hebron, State of Palestine, 2014 - Randa Makhrameh is a remarkable 14-year-old Palestinian girl. She is still laughing and talking after being detained and interrogated by Israeli settlers and police, accused of stealing cherries from an orchard while on her way home from school.
But her younger sister, Rasha, just 7 years old, sits in silence, avoiding eye contact and any discussion of her own ordeal.
Even now, weeks after the incident, with wounds healed and bandages removed, Rasha only raises her eyebrows in a yes or no response, to questions about the day settlers from Ma’on threw stones at her, hitting her in the head, turning what had been a daily stress into a full-blown drama.
“She was always scared,” says Randa, describing her younger sister’s fear of walking the long dusty road to and from school. “But now, she’s so scared to cross that area where she was hit that she has nightmares.”
The sisters live in Al Tuwani, a small Palestinian village that lies next to Ma’on, an Israeli settlement.When Rasha was attacked, she was walking home with her mother and 12-year-old brother, Azadeen.
She had left school early, before a contingent of Israeli security forces (ISF), assigned to escort the students past the settlement, had arrived. The following day her brother Azadeen went to the officer leading the escort to report what had happened.
Azadeen pointed to his sister, whose head was bandaged. “But the officer refused to get out of the car and talk to her,” Azadeen said.
The ISF have been escorting Al Tuwani students since 2004. However, the students and human rights groups say the attacks often go unimpeded and none of Ma’on’s assailants have ever been convicted.
Several weeks after Rasha was assaulted, Randa and another sister, Noor, were detained by settlers. This time, the ISF were not only present, they even complied with the settlers’ demands.
Having just finished an exam, Randa and Noor were walking with a group of students on 27 May at about 11 am when a settler from Ma’on and the settlement’s head of security stopped the children, who were being escorted by an army jeep.
The grove owner accused four of the students, girls aged 11 to 15, one of whom was mute, of picking cherries.
He called the police and demanded that the ISF detain them. An hour later, the police arrived and took the girls to the police station in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba where Randa and Noor were interrogated.
“They were asking questions about why we were stealing cherries and how we had cut the fence,” Randa says. Randa says they were accused of using tools to cut the fence even though it was the ISF that had escorted them there.
Although the girls were allegedly interrogated only a few minutes, they said they were held four hours before being handed over to Palestinian police. They arrived back home around 7pm, about eight hours after their protectors had detained them.
“The settlers aren’t afraid of the ISF and when they attack us the ISF doesn’t do much,” said Ali Zain, 16, who was walking home with Randa and Noor, and witnessed their detention.
The eldest of the four girls, Dallal, who cannot speak, has since left school.
Al Tuwani teachers say every year at least one child is intimidated into dropping out. “The ISF can’t protect us the way we want them to protect us,” Ali said.
Indeed, with funding from the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) and support from UNICEF, counselors at the YMCA provide psychosocial support to Al Tuwani students, and say the children live with constant feelings of fear and insecurity.
“Monitoring and documenting grave violations against children such as Randa, Rasha, and Noor is important,’ says Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF-State of Palestine, Bruce Grant. ‘Thanks to the financial support from ECHO, and with YMCA, we were able to provide urgently needed psychosocial support for children and their caregivers,’ adds Bruce.
ECHO’s support to YMCA and other NGOs enabled counselors to reach more than 60,000 children and caregivers with needed support across the State of Palestine. Often, counselors work in group sessions with the children after an encounter with settlers, encouraging them to express their feelings through drawings or play.
“When I ask them to draw a place where they feel safe, they have trouble drawing anything. They often leave the page empty,” says Hisham Shadafan, a YMCA counselor.
However, when he asked the children to draw how they felt after Rasha was hit in the head, Mr. Shadafan says they all drew the settlers attacking her.
He says that settler intimidation is so frequent, the YMCA’s intervention should be weekly.