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Thank you for all your support and solidarity with the Hope Flowers School (HFS). I am trying through this letter, to share with you what happened on 6 December 2023 at the HFS. It is a bit long; I believe that some of you have received a big number of pictures and
videos on that day.
It is almost 21 years ago, when James Bennet wrote an article in the New York Times about HFS: “Arab Coexistence school falls victim to violence” you can read this article on:
Between December 2002 and December 2023, HFS battle for Peace continue
The school-day at HFS starts early in the morning. Children and staff start arriving at 07:15 A.m. It is quite difficult to predict the day and whether clashes between Palestinians and Israeli army will erupt that day. Clashes could erupt at any moment of the day. HFS staffs have to be prepared to act in case any violence erupts at a sudden.
On Wednesday, December 6th 2023, in my way to HFS at 7:15 AM. I have to pass Deheisha refugee camp and Al Khader village. In my way I found tens of Israeli military vehicles and armed personal carriers about to enter the refugee camp and the village. Despite military presence on the way, but I managed to reach HFS at 07:30 A.m. The neighborhood of HFS was quite. I did not see any Israeli soldiers in the neighborhood. I started to receive calls at about 07:45 from HFS staff that they could not reach the school because of Israeli army presence and clashes between the army and Palestinians. So we decided to start the school day with the absence of two staff members who could not reach the
At 8:30 am, I was in my way from HFS to another meeting. On the corner of the school, I was stopped by tens of Israeli soldiers who were just arriving to the street and started to block the road with large concrete blocks using a bulldozer. The soldiers were very tense, especially I found myself with my car surrounded by big number of soldiers. The one soldier asked me to continue driving while another asked me to return backwards to HFS. I decided to stay unmoved because of unclearity in soldiers demands. Any wrong movement at this situation may be interpreted as an attack on soldiers and could kill me.
At this moment a military vehicle stopped next to me and there was apparently the commander of the unit. I talked to him in English and explained the situation that one soldier is asking to drive backwards and the other is asking me to drive forwards, I asked him if I could drive backwards (back to HFS), but he refused and asked me to continue driving forwards. He also instructed the soldiers to allow me moving forwards. I also told the army officer that I am a principle of a school located on the corner, and that I have 350 children aged 4-13 years old right now in the school with some children with special needs, and that I would appreciate if the army could give me 30 minutes to evacuate the school before they enter further in the neighborhood. The commander refused and he told me that in one hour they will finish their operation and that the army will reopen the road.
I cancelled my meeting and decided to stay nearby the HFS. I immediately called the staff at the HFS and asked them to take all measures (according to emergency plan) to protect the children and staff at the school and warned them that soldiers are in the neighborhood near the school.
At about 09:00 I received a call from vice-principle of HFS informing me that soldiers are near the school and that few armored vehicles have blocked the school parking and the main gate of the school and that leaving the school or entering the school is not possible.
At 09:10 I received another call informing me that children with autism spectrum disorder (32 out of 358) are terrified and that social workers and staff need help to calm them down. Then I continued to receive calls from HFS informing me that children are totally in panic after soldiers started to fire teargas and heard of sounds of explosions nearby HFS due to clashing with Palestinian youth outside the HFS.
At this point I asked teachers and all staff of HFS to pay attention for the physical safety of children and to avoid sitting beside windows or even trying to look outside from the windows. I also informed the education department in Bethlehem that we have an emergency at HFS and explained the situation inside the HFS. Everyone was concerned that the situation will get worse especially that some schools in Bethlehem and in the West Bank have encountered similar problems in the past few weeks.
Some children have reacted strongly to fear like inability to breath, others were crying, etc. Therefore, I asked the health department to help sending ambulances to help the staff to deal with stressed and fearful children at HFS. Indeed, 6 ambulances from Palestine Red Crescent Society arrived few minutes later, but the Israeli army prevented the ambulances to reach the HFS justifying that the area is “a military closed area”. At this moment I started to realize the danger that children are in and started to call the Palestinian -Israeli military coordination office and asked them to speak to the Israeli military to allow the ambulances to reach the school. I decided to call other international organizations and asked them to urgently reach out for Israeli army to allow ambulances to reaching HFS.
The Israeli army has finally agreed to allow the ambulances to reach the school and finally allowed me to get back to the school in one of the ambulances. A detailed inspection of each ambulance was conducted by the army before it was allowed to move ahead. All ambulances were accompanied by an Israeli patrol.
At HFS, children were extremely fearful; in addition we were concerned that clashes between Palestinian and Israelis will erupt further. Therefore, in consultation with the paramedics in the ambulances, we decided that it would be better to evacuate the whole school and take children to transport children to a safer place. The ambulances started to transport groups of children (maximum 10 in each ambulance accompanied by one teacher) to a nearby hospital.
Due to intensity of the situation, the general director of Education department has arrived at HFS with one of the ambulances to support HFS’s staff and children. With heroic work of paramedics of Red Crescent society we managed to get all children and staff safely. During the evacuation, it was clear that a 'demolition order' was being carried out, and three neighbors' houses right next to the school were razed to the ground by heavy demolition machines. Much violence was used by the army. Soldiers tried to prevent photos or videos from being taken, neighbors' and teachers' phones were roughly taken and broken. Three neighbors were injured, one seriously, he was shot in the head. Some children have seen this happen. Hundreds of parents have heard about
evacuation of the school. Parents started to reach the area of the school asking about their children. They were very scared. We asked parents to wait in hospital, you can imagine hundreds of parents were waiting every ambulance to arrive to see of their child/ren is/ are being safe. At the end of this difficult day, three families were left homeless, three people are injured, one of whom is in danger of life, and hundreds of
children are further traumatized.
The impact of this violence on children, families is immense. Teachers and counselors at HFS will have lots of extra work to do in trauma care in the weeks
and months to come. It is therefore as urgent as ever that HFS work continue to provide trauma counseling for children and their families. We are very thankful for all of you who helped us on December 6th and many thanks for your solidarity and support to HFS. The trauma counseling program at HFS aims to:
• To provide help for the children at the school and for families in Bethlehem to address the effects of the downward-spiralling cycle of violence and trauma that has arisen from violence
and the occupation, and to remove the basis for future hostile behaviour.
• To create a model for wider use in Palestinian schools, to become a centre of excellence and dissemination for psychological support for people of the West Bank, and to share our accumulated knowledge and experience with the wider world.
Your support to HFS and trauma counseling program will be highly appreciated. Our battle for peace will continue!
Director of HFS