As the mischievous ones among us may remember, very few things were more “liberating” than the sound of that 2:30 bell at the end of a long school day. No matter what you were doing during those final moments of the day, after hearing the bell, it would only take a few seconds to pack your rucksack, wait for the teacher’s signal (the release order), and sprint your way out of the school gates. Perhaps this was partly because the journey home from school was -as we then believed- in itself a more exciting educational experience, a small extra-curricular excursion of which we were the masters of our own destiny; free to indulge in all sorts of adventures and explorations, including the purchase of “essential” after-school treats such as, most notably, chocolate and ice cream!
I am now 32 years old, and on the loose to eat any “forbidden” treats any time, but when I hear the end-of-the-day bell of the elementary school across from my office at MIFTAH in the east Jerusalem suburb of Dahyet Al-Bareed, my memory never fails to evoke in me familiar vibes of excitement, albeit vague and distant ones.
I am sure that the little girl I saw from my office window yesterday must have been experiencing the same magical after-school joy as she was about to eat her own ice cream, until she was harshly interrupted by the sound of tear gas shots fired by Israeli soldiers less than 100 metres away. She panicked. The poisonous dust of the tear gas must have quickly penetrated into her unspoilt lungs, and temporarily blinded her. The little girl’s brief moment of ice cream euphoria was tragically shattered and replaced with uncontrollable coughing, spitting, and a stinging sensation in her eyes.
The heartbreaking gesture that followed was haunting; as if to say “I cannot take this any more,” the girl slammed her barely touched ice cream on the ground in protest, and ran away; back to school. The liberation bells have failed her this time.
Earlier, a group of around 50 or 60 elementary school students had gathered opposite the main Israeli army checkpoint that divides Dahyet Al-Bareed. They were protesting the Israeli soldiers’ obstruction of their journey to school that morning. As part of the Israeli government’s declared policy to finalise Israel’s borders unilaterally in the West Bank (including Jerusalem), the Israeli army has recently completed the Dahyet Al-Bareed section of its Apartheid Wall, thereby separating Palestinian residents from their schools, hospitals, and workplaces. Apparently, instead of choosing to stay at home and call it a day, the students decided to defend their basic right to education. They marched towards the checkpoint in full momentum with protest signs, Palestinian flags, and even a marching band, whose sound could be heard throughout the entire neighbourhood.
In a matter of minutes, as if Israel was being invaded by rogue tribes, a dozen Israeli army patrols rushed to the scene and began to fire tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets at the young crowd. The demonstration was dispersed in less than half an hour. The students, like the ice cream girl, were blinded by the gas and fled.
Since the outbreak of the Intifada (popular uprising against occupation) in September 2000, the Israeli army has killed 576 Palestinian school students, injured 3,471, and detained 669.
There is no statistical category in which to place that little girl’s misfortune; her detention is a denied joy, her injury is a broken spirit, and the only death in her case is that of a simple longing to enjoy the taste of ice cream on a warm spring day.