It's Back-to-School Day for Israeli Children on Gilo's Front Line

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the besieged Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, clowns, balloons and well-armed police greeted thousands of children and teens Sunday as they arrived for their first day of class knowing that some of their schools are now within Palestinian mortar range.

Four-year-old Shirli Afriat, her eyes looking as wide as silver dollars, clasped her mother's hand tightly and peered around her kindergarten classroom. The teacher was welcoming children and giving words of assurance to apprehensive parents. For this first day, at least, Shirli's mom, Ricky, stayed with her for the entire session.

"The mortar bomb landed right here next to the school!" Ricky Afriat said, referring to an attack last week. "It's very scary. But I don't want her to panic," she said, nodding toward the little girl, hair pulled back in a long ponytail, who was fingering her pink Princess Sissi backpack.

Across Israel, 1.5 million children were attending the first day of school Sunday in a very different atmosphere from the one at this time last year. Eleven months of blood-soaked turmoil have turned the worlds of Israeli and Palestinian children upside down and left them traumatized, uncertain and pessimistic about the future. That goes double for their parents.

About 1 million Palestinian children began school Saturday, many forced to pass through Israeli army roadblocks to reach their destinations, which Palestinian officials said included nearly 100 schools badly damaged by Israeli shelling. Other Palestinian schools have been seized or closed by the army because of their proximity to Israeli installations or Palestinian firing positions.

And the children of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip rode in armored buses to their schools, some arriving late on Sunday because there weren't enough buses to go around. A Palestinian bomb ripped through a settler school bus last fall, killing two teachers and maiming several children.

For Israelis, Gilo represented a special case. The community on Jerusalem's southern outskirts has come under repeated gunfire from Palestinian shooters in the nearby Palestinian-controlled village of Beit Jala. Although no Israeli has been killed and fewer than a dozen have been seriously injured, the stakes were raised again last week when the Israeli army invaded Beit Jala to stop the shooting and Palestinians responded with potentially more lethal, and longer-range, mortar fire.

Israeli authorities were so worried about renewed attacks on Gilo that they contemplated not allowing schools to open. And parents threatened to hold back their kids if classrooms weren't adequately bullet-proofed. The army withdrew from Beit Jala on Thursday after Palestinian leaders promised to prevent more fire; it is this tenuous truce that is now being tested.

Early today, a car bomb exploded in Gilo, injuring two people, and almost simultaneously a car bomb in a northern neighborhood injured three, Israeli radio reported.

Israel built Gilo on West Bank land captured in the 1967 Middle East War and then annexed it. Israel regards Gilo as a part of Jerusalem and any attack on it as an assault on its capital. Palestinians see Gilo as an illegal settlement.

At the Gilo Comprehensive School, ninth-graders on their first day back received a two-hour emergency course from "soldier teachers" on what to do if mortar shells start to rain on their classrooms or playgrounds. All grades will eventually receive the same instruction and practice drills.

The instructor in Class No. 4 was having a hard time getting the restless teenagers to take her seriously. She patiently explained the state of emergency that governs Gilo, the relative lack of accuracy of mortars, their size and range, and where to run (away from windows) and how to crouch (with arms overhead) when the shells land.

A wiry boy in a sleeveless red T-shirt and spiky hair interjected, "Why doesn't the government do something like just take out a whole row of houses over there [in Beit Jala]?"

A girl in the back row, Mital Maimon, was also impatient. A mortar shell fell in her front yard last week. It destroyed the family car, punched holes in the pavement underneath it and shattered a couple of windows in the front of the house.

"I had gotten used to the shooting, but the mortars were something else," said the energetic 14-year-old, who wore a halter top that said "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." "I don't know what we can do about it. Whatever God wants, will be."

One of the mortar shells fired by Palestinian gunmen last week landed in the patio of the Comprehensive School, leaving a faint imprint in the concrete and pocking a nearby wall with shrapnel. The Gilo community center abuts the patio, and a network of kindergartens is across the street.

Outside one of the kindergartens, 4-year-old Sapir Matiau was twisting her two braids into a single strand while her father, Matti, explained how worried he was.

"We never thought it would come to this, and it's only going to get worse," said the 31-year-old marble worker, who took the day off to accompany his children to school. Matiau said his 8-year-old son, Adir, is so terrified that he insists on having the lights on at night when he sleeps.

Also Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon chose Gilo to make his rounds. He and Education Minister Limor Livnat greeted first-graders at an elementary school and promised there would be no more shooting at the neighborhood, where many homes along the hillside streets that face Beit Jala are sandbagged.

"You have stood up to a hard battle, as if it was no battle at all," the prime minister told a student assembly in the school's gymnasium. "I promise you that I will take the issue of security upon myself, and I won't allow more shooting on Gilo."

The Israeli army has erected concrete panels along much of the roadway that faces Beit Jala--and local groups have in turn painted the wall with a mural that represents, ironically, Beit Jala, its pastoral setting, trees and valley.

Three schools sit along this front-line route. At one, State School D, another high concrete wall shields the front of the school, while locked metal fences enclose the rear. As at most of Gilo's schools Sunday, a specially hired armed guard stood watch; soldiers or paramilitary border police armed with M-16 assault rifles backed them.

The principal, Miriam Shachaf, sat at her desk before meeting a new crop of first-graders. She leaned back and tapped the windows. Newly installed bullet-proof glass. All of the school's windows will soon be replaced with bullet-proof glass, she said, and the concrete wall will be extended 50 yards or so to better protect the students. Until then, none will be allowed onto the playground.

"Unfortunately, and surprisingly, the children feel safest in school," she said. "They're together. We are doing so many things that they're not thinking about what's going on outside. Sometimes we don't even hear the bullets because we are so busy."

The D school has grades first through sixth and an enrollment of about 300. A few families left the area it serves after the shooting started last year, Shachaf said, but the enrollment is holding more or less steady.

Ronit Ben Dror, a Gilo social worker who has been dealing with young children and teens for the last year, said the mortars have meant that everyone, not just those living on the front line, is afraid. She's seen children regress: Some who were fairly mature have begun to be too afraid to go places alone. Younger ones have started wetting their beds, or they have trouble sleeping.

This year, community leaders brought in a volunteer group whose members dressed as clowns and Tweety Bird to greet students and hand out balloons. School hours will be extended so pupils can stay for more of the day.

"The situation is very different this year," Ben Dror said. "The excitement of going back to school comes with lots of fear."

Police said about 7,000 officers were deployed for the day but acknowledged that that level of security cannot be sustained for more than a few days.

As it turned out, the first day of school ended peacefully for Israel's Jewish children. But Israel's 400,000 Arab children (who, unlike Palestinians, are citizens of Israel) stayed home as part of a three-day strike to protest the miserable condition of Arab schools and to demand equality and an end to what Arab leaders say is systemic discrimination.

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