TUWANI, West Bank — Ten years ago, Israeli lawmakers convened a special meeting to hear testimony about Palestinian children being menaced by Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. The politicians called for an unprecedented emergency solution: Israeli soldiers would walk the children to school until their assailants could be stopped.
A decade later, a dozen Palestinian children trudge up the rocky hilltop here flanked by Israeli troops in full body armor. The soldiers are escorting them past a Jewish settlement harboring teens and adults who have attacked the youngsters with sticks and stones.
The now decade-old scene has become what critics call a metaphor for the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in which solutions devised as ad hoc and temporary have become, like the conflict itself, a permanent status quo.
“I thought this problem would be solved long ago,” said Avshalom Vilan, a former member of an elite Israeli army commando unit who served on the Knesset committee that called for the soldier escort in 2004.
“This is the heavy price we are paying for being conquerors. This is a terrible example to Israeli society. It’s like a cancer,” said Vilan, who now leads the Israeli Farmers Federation.
About 350,000 Jews live in 121 West Bank settlements that most countries consider illegal because they are built on land occupied by the Israeli military — land Palestinians hope to claim for a sovereign state. Many are bland suburbs; others are ideological centers where Israeli activists clash with their Palestinian neighbors.
One of the hot spots is Havat Maon, a Jewish settlement established in 2000 on a pine-covered hill overlooking the Arab town of Tuwani. Since then, Palestinians say they have been displaced from agricultural land, their sheep have been shot, hundreds of their olive trees have been destroyed and poison has been scattered in the fields.
A Palestinian who was stabbed by a masked man in 2011 is suing for negligence because Israeli soldiers didn’t arrest the assailant as he ran past them into Havat Maon, according to his Jerusalem attorney, Eitay Mack. Israeli news reports say international volunteers, and even a few Israeli soldiers, have been attacked by Havat Maon settlers over the years.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said Tuwani is the only Palestinian town in the West Bank that has an Israeli army escort for schoolchildren, but he noted that soldiers also ride on Israeli school buses in West Bank settlements to protect them from rock and firebomb attacks.
The army says there were 3,900 rock-throwing incidents by Palestinians in the West Bank in the first nine months of this year. Palestinians and human rights activists argue, however, that Israeli authorities are far tougher on alleged violence carried out by Palestinians than by Israelis. The conviction rate for West Bank Palestinians in Israeli military courts exceeds 99 percent, according to the U.S. State Department.
United Nations reports of incidents of settler violence against Palestinians have nearly quadrupled since 2006, to 399 last year. Only 8.5 percent of the complaints result in indictments, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group.
Escorts of Palestinian children to their schools by international volunteers have spread to other West Bank hot spots.
In Tuwani, Keifa Jundiyye, 14, a slender girl with a head scarf, walks at the head of the group of escorted schoolchildren, some as young as 5. Their families can’t afford warm coats, sturdy shoes or notebooks.
On April 9, masked men from the hilltop threw stones at the children as they walked with soldiers, bruising Jundiyye.
“They want us to stay ignorant. Because they know education is a mighty weapon. It is the only weapon we have,” Jundiyye said, adding that she is thinking of becoming a lawyer “to defend us in the courts.”
The family of another girl hit by stones, Dalal Awad, 14, pulled her out of school.
In late April, masked men threw stones at first-grader Rascha Makhambi, 7, and her mother. Her injuries required five stitches, and her parents moved her to another school.
“The soldiers ran after them to scare them” in April, said Achmed Jundiyye, 22, who walked with the soldiers when the escort began in 2004. “If it was Palestinian kids throwing rocks, they would arrest them.”
When townspeople complain, said Ayed al-Jundi, 30, deputy principal of the Tuwani school, “the army tells us that the settlers are crazy and they can’t do anything.”
On a hot day near Tuwani recently, an Israeli army jeep idled as a soldier urged international volunteers to help keep the kids together as they walked.
“I can’t follow the ones who ran up there and Ali at the same time,” the soldier said, referring to a 6-year-old boy. “We can work together. Ali is like a friend.”
Havat Maon is considered an illegal outpost by the Israeli government. Its members have weathered police accusations of crimes, including rock-throwing and links to terrorist plots, that ended with acquittals or pleas on lesser charges.
Yehoshafat Tor, the founder of the Havat Maon community, denied that its 60 or so settlers attack Palestinians. On a recent day, he was tending newborn lambs while his wife, Shira, an aspiring singer, listened to recordings of her songs.
“You know the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves?” he said. “The Arabs tell a lot of stories. They start to believe their own lies.”
The Palestinians “don’t want us here, and we don’t want them here,” Tor said. “That’s the problem.”
In general, “the Muslims, they like blood,” Tor said. “Even if we give them Tel Aviv, they will continue to attack us. The leaders can say they want peace, but it’s not the truth.”
For now, each side is relying on other measures to protect the children, if not solve the larger problem.
In 2013, the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel expanded an “access to education” program that monitors 21 schools in the West Bank where Palestinian children risk “humiliating body searches” at checkpoints or “intimidation and harassment” from settlers, said Manuel Quintero, the group’s Geneva-based international coordinator.
Dani Dayan, the former head of the largest Jewish settlers organization, said settler schoolchildren are protected from Palestinian stone-throwing by armored buses.
“The buses are bulletproof,” Dayan said. “I don’t remember a serious incident.”
The group Christian Peacemaker Teams posts volunteers at checkpoints in Hebron — where rock-throwing by Palestinian boys sometimes escalates into deadly confrontations — and volunteers from Operation Dove, an Italian Catholic group, live full-time in Tuwani.
On Nov. 2, 2004, when experts testified that Palestinian schoolchildren at Tuwani were suffering from nightmares, anxiety and learning disabilities, legislators suggested that in a country with sophisticated surveillance and intelligence, the “thugs” at Havat Maon could be swiftly apprehended.
Instead, the outpost has become a symbol of settler resistance: Vandals sprayed “Havat Maon” on the walls of the Dormition Abbey outside the Zion Gate near Jerusalem’s Old City during a spate of extremist vandalism in 2013.
Reut Zimmerman, a regional settlement spokeswoman, dismissed the controversy as “manipulation from anarchists” — a reference to international volunteers — “using the kids as provocation.” She added that an Israeli soldier rides her daughter’s school bus to ward off Palestinian rock-throwing.
“They’re looking for trouble,” she said.