Education in Palestine

Today (28 March 2020) people have been taking part in a global day of digital solidarity with Palestine. Tom Ramplin, who has recently returned from an international delegation to Palestine, reports on the state of education there following Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’. 

Palestinian school
Many Palestinian schools are under threat of demolition. See video by NRC.

In the wake of Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’, the Israeli state has been emboldened in its efforts to drive Palestinians from their land and suppress any expressions of Palestinian identity and nationhood. Education is a key battleground for this struggle, with Palestinian students and teachers at the fore.

Schools across the West Bank are beset with staff shortages, inadequate buildings, demolitions and underfunding. Palestinian students seeking an education are confronted with checkpoints, arrests, military detention and attacks from settlers. Meanwhile, a fierce struggle is afoot over the contents of school curricula. In recent weeks the Israeli armed forces have closed the office of the Directorate of Education and arrested the Director of Education in Jerusalem, putting thousands of final year school children’s exams in jeopardy. The purpose of all this is clear: to strip future generations of Palestinians of their identity and pave over the collective memory of the Palestinians’ struggle against occupation.

On a recent visit to Palestine, as part of an international delegation, I had the opportunity to visit schools across the West Bank and to speak with many Palestinian teachers and students about the issues facing their school system.

As part of the Oslo accords signed by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel in 1993 and 1995, the West Bank is divided into three zones. Zone A, which covers 18% of the West Bank is, in theory, governed fully by the Palestinian Authority (PA) including security. In truth however the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) are easily able to extend their jurisdiction into these areas at will. In Zone B (21% land), PA governs education, health and the economy. Zone C covers 60% of the land and is fully under the control of Israel. It is home to 300,000 Palestinians and around 400,000 illegal settlers.

Building restrictions

Across the West Bank, illegal settlement building continues at a breakneck pace with new construction happening everywhere. These illegal settlements tend to be on higher land as Palestinians lack the funding and infrastructure to extend roads, electricity and sewage systems up to the higher land. The UN has found evidence of settlements contaminating the water sources for Palestinian villages on lower land with their sewage.

Once construction has started, the IDF erect a security cordon around the settlement which snatches up huge swathes of arable land and bars Palestinians from entering their own lands. Settlers attack surrounding Palestinians, including pupils on their way to school, on a regular basis by throwing stones or even firing at them with guns.

Properties in these new settlements are often cheap or even subsidised to encourage new settling. Trying to drive in as many settlers as possible has been a key feature of settler colonialism throughout history from the ‘Plantation of Ulster’ in Ireland to the ‘Manifest Destiny’ of the US and the ‘Sinicization’ of Tibet. The purpose is to drown out the indigenous culture, reduce their ability to respond collectively and normalise the occupation of the territory.

At the same time as the settlements expand and new ones pop up, Palestinians are unable to gain planning permission from the Israeli authorities to build schools, hospitals and homes on their own land. Those built without such permission are bulldozed by the IDF. There are around 600 Palestinian properties demolished each year. This means that many of the schools in the West Bank are crumbling or often not fit for purpose and pupils and staff are unable to extend. The lack of available space means that pupils are often crammed into tiny classrooms with an average class size of 41.2. Many schools are based in repurposed buildings meaning they often lack playgrounds, creative arts and sports facilities.

Journey to school

As part of their daily journey to school, pupils must often cross multiple military checkpoints. These are often closed meaning that those children are unable to get to school. Arrests and detentions are also common for both pupils and teachers.

Many teachers regularly have to teach from their homes in order to ensure that pupils receive the 180 days a year of education required. If pupils do not have a high enough attendance, they are obliged to restart the year.

Some teachers that I spoke to from the General Union of Palestinian Teachers (GUPT) told me they had initially attempted to gather the children around in groups to teach whilst waiting for the checkpoints to open. However, on several occasions, tear gas was fired into the groups and the teachers were arrested and detained.

One child I spoke to in Hebron, a city in Zone A with some of the heaviest restrictions to movement, Airia, told me that she has to pass through three checkpoints in the morning just to get to school and she had been struck by the soldiers on more than one occasion. She also reported that pupils in her class have had bicycles taken from them by soldiers at the checkpoints. Hebron is in a permanent state of siege due to a small enclave of 700 illegal settlers in the centre of it. As a result, the Israeli army have cordoned off huge chunks of the city to defend them. Hebron has 121 obstacles to movement for Palestinians including 21 permanent checkpoints. In the event that one of those three checkpoints are closed, for example on Jewish holidays, Airia is unable to get to school.

UNRWA schools

The education system in Palestine is a patchwork of PA schools, private schools, religious schools and UNRWA schools. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) run 274 schools in Gaza and 96 schools in the West Bank to give Palestinian refugee children access to education.

However, these schools have had severe cuts to their budgets as a result of Donald Trump’s withdrawal of $300 million in funding to UNRWA in an effort to force the Palestinian Authority to sign up to his ‘Deal of the Century’. As Trump bragged to American Jewish leaders in September 2018:

What I will tell you is I stopped massive amounts of money that we were paying to the Palestinians… You’ll get money, but we’re not paying until you make a deal. If you don’t make a deal, we’re not paying.

Whilst some countries have increased their aid to UNRWA to reduce the shortfall, the impact on refugee schools has been devastating. Teachers that I spoke to reported staff shortages, complete lack of teaching resources and programs to support traumatised pupils axed.

Jerusalem

Schools in Jerusalem are under particular pressure. Pupils and teachers also face the previously mentioned problems of checkpoints, attacks from settlers, insufficient space and in adequate buildings. Each day around 8000 children must cross checkpoints to get to school.

At one school that I recently visited, a former doctor’s surgery, teachers reported having to teach in the kitchens due to a recurring rodent infestation.

One primary school that I visited was surrounded by some 500 settlers meaning that both children and staff had to run a gauntlet of insults and attacks just to get to school.

In addition, PA schools in East Jerusalem are unable to access the same curriculum as the rest of the West Bank as their text books are censored by the Israeli government. This process of censorship removes PA logos from textbooks along with anything referring to Palestinian identity or nationhood. All references to the Nakba (‘the catastrophe’: 15 May 1948) and the Naksa (‘the set-back’: 5 June 1967) are also removed. Some teachers and pupil have gotten around this by smuggling uncensored textbooks from the West Bank into their schools at great risk to themselves.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem have no national status. They are ‘residents’ not citizens: ‘foreigners in their own country’. This residency can easily be revoked by the Israeli authorities. The ‘centre of life’ law means that they must prove their social lives and work lives are in Jerusalem or risk losing their residency. At least 15,000 Palestinians have lost their residencies to date. In addition to this, the recent amendment to the ‘Entry to Israel’ law nicknamed the loyalty law gives authorities the power to take away residencies on the basis of a ‘breach of allegiance’ such as political activity. Twelve residencies have so far been lost due to this.

Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem also have a severe shortage of teaching staff. This is because schools in this area that teach the Israeli curriculum pay teaching staff up to three times the salary of those that teach the Palestinian curriculum. They are able to do so because they receive, according to the GUPT, around $500,000 of additional funding from the Israeli government in return for taking on the Israeli curriculum. Again, this is an attempt to deny Palestinian their collective history.

Child detainees

A key way in which the Apartheid is enshrined in law is the two parallel legal systems. Where Israelis and settlers are subject to civil law, Palestinians are subject to military law with no appeal process of legal recourse.

According to Defense for Children International Palestine (DCI-Palestine), every year 500-700 Palestinian children are arrested. Military law is used to terrorise the Palestinian population with frequent night raids. Indeed, 66% of child arrests occur at night. During these night raids, the child’s family is held in a separate room while children are often beaten, slapped and hit with guns. They are then taken to a military base where they must wait until the morning with no food, water or sleep.

The detained children are then interrogated in the absence of their parents or legal counsel in order to make them confess or to be recruited as an informant. Solitary confinement is also common for an average of 14 days. Finally, the child is made to sign a document in Hebrew (a language not spoken by most Palestinian children) before being taken to court. These military courts have a conviction rate of 99.4%. Charges or a trial are also not certain. Currently around 500 Palestinians are being held without charge as a part of administrative detention.

In fear of this, many pupils families are choosing to keep their child at home and withdraw their child from education to prevent their having to cross so many checkpoints each day and potentially be detained.

Palestinian and Israeli curricula

On 11 March 2020, new Conservative MP Jonathon Gullis initiated a parliamentary debate about the alleged promotion of hate and radicalisation by PA textbooks. In the debate, Labour’s Steve McCabe claimed that the Palestinian school curriculum, ‘seeks to pass on old hatreds and prejudices to a new generation of young people. It is a barrier to reconciliation and co-existence. It is pernicious and simply unacceptable.’

However, according to Samira Alayan of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Palestinian textbooks do not frame the conflict in racial terms but as a continuation of the European settler colonial project, placing Britain and the Balfour declaration as central. The textbooks also aim to develop Palestinian identity and nationhood.

At the same time, Israeli school textbooks have been found to have derisive representations of Palestinians as terrorists, backward or untrustworthy. Indeed, in Israeli textbooks, the identity of ‘Palestinian’ is only invoked in the context of terrorism. Instead, Palestinians are referred to as ‘Arabs’. As Nurit Peled-Elhanan also of the Hebrew University states: ‘The Arab with a camel, in an Ali Baba dress. They describe them as vile and deviant and criminal, people who don’t pay taxes, people who live off the state, people who don’t want to develop.’

Even the killing of Palestinians, such as the Massacre of Deir Yassin where Zionist paramilitary groups killed 117 people, are presented in the context of their necessity for the long term goals of Israel.

Gaza

The ongoing blockade of Gaza has severely hampered the education system. Israel has produced a list of ‘dual use’ items that are prohibited from being brought into Gaza. This list includes many vital construction materials such as cement, steel bars and wood thicker than 1 cm. This has meant that Gazans are unable to build new schools despite having many schools destroyed in Israeli bombing raids and attacks of recent years. In the most recent conflict, 258 schools were damaged and 26 entirely destroyed. This lack of schools has led schools to operate on either a double or triple shift basis.

The bleak state of the economy in Gaza has also increased the dropout rate, particularly among boys, so that they can work and support their families.

Deal of the Century

In speaking with many Palestinians about the ‘Deal of the Century’, it’s clear that this new deal shows up the peace process for the hoax and delaying game that it has been the whole time and the two state solution for being utterly unworkable. The plan, which seems to have been heavily drawn from Netanyahu’s 1994 book, A Place under the Sun, has been rejected by both Palestinians and their inept leaders in both Fatah and Hamas.

In the face of Palestinian Authorities with no authority, the Great March of Return protests of 2018 have shown the world that Palestinians will continue to fight for their human rights including their right to education against all odds. However, with a power imbalance so great, the solution is going to have to come from outside of Palestine. That is why the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is so vital. In recent years, the BDS campaign has had some huge successes, including last year’s Eurovision where the Israeli government hoping to pinkwash over their Apartheid only received a tenth of the expected 50,000 visitors, thanks to a massive international campaign.

Here in the UK, we must continue to build on the BDS movement by challenging institutions such as councils, sports teams and universities to be accountable for their supply chains and investments. Part of this means organising to prevent Eric Pickles and fellow Conservatives in their attempts to stop councils from being able to divest. As Israel’s reaction to the UN releasing a list of companies that profit from settlements in February shows, their greatest fear right now is deligitimisation. Through the BDS campaign we can shine a light on this Apartheid.

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