By Stephen Lendman
A 2007 UNESCO/Save the Children UK report titled, ‘Fragmented foundations: education and chronic crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory’ addressed issues ‘in emergency and reconstruction situations, as well as in chronic conflict.’ It explained that in 1994, the Palestinian Authority established the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MoEHE) with formal responsibility for the system, including planning, budgeting and coordination throughout the Territories.
Through at least 2007, it administered about three fourths of OPT schools, handled two-thirds of its students, and, as able, requires 10 years of basic education, two additional non-compulsory ones, then higher education for those qualified. See below.
UNWRA runs 13% of schools for 24% of the students, the private sector another 11% of schools and 6% of students as of 2006, according to World Bank figures. Israel maintains authority in East Jerusalem although MoEHE supports a number of its schools.
In the 1990s, school enrollment increased substantially. A priority was placed on new construction and rehabilitation, and efforts toward greater inclusiveness was stressed, especially for girls and children with disabilities. Technical, vocational, and early childhood education were also addressed, as well as a curriculum reflecting Palestinian history and heritage, culminating the the final year Tawjihi (university entrance) exam that assesses student readiness for higher education as well as their qualifications in certain fields.
An education system depends, of course on the quality and number of good teachers, the report saying that under the PA, "teacher training has been relatively piecemeal, with no concrete standards or coordination mechanisms for higher education institutions engaged in teacher training." A number of teacher strikes earlier also took its toll.
The second Intifada especially impacted education, the result of Israel’s harsh response and its human and structural toll. Earlier momentum was lost. As a result, educational access and quality suffered, and the more repressive Israel becomes, the more adaptive MoEHE had to be to function under conditions of chronic instability, conflict and crisis.
Throughout decades of occupation and dispossession, education has been a bedrock of survival, for youths and the nation. Yet as long as occupation continues in a conflict-plagued environment, normal OPT functions will be severely impeded, including for education. The report drew conclusions but no solutions or condemnation of Israeli practices.
Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) on Palestinian Education
IMEU asked "What kind of education do Palestinian children receive," then gave a capsule account of its state, explaining that students at all levels comprise over one-third of the OPT population. In addition:
— among the 15 – 24 year olds, literacy is 98.2%, and overall adult literacy is 91.1% – both figures much higher than in America, the National Right to Read Foundation reporting in September 2007 that:
— 42 million American adults can’t read at all;
— 50 million read at a fourth or fifth grade level;
— each year, over two million adults swell the illiteracy ranks; and
— 20% of high school seniors are functionally illiterate at graduation.
In addition, America ranks low in math and computer skills, and given an agenda to privatize public education, these numbers will grow because millions of kids won’t be educated – what the Bush administration called reform and Obama’s "Race to the Top" will continue.
Education under Occupation
OPT schools face numerous obstacles under occupation. Israel ordered many West Bank ones closed, while checkpoints, free movement restrictions, curfews, and other civil liberty violations impede access to classes as well as a conducive learning environment in them.
Since September 2000 (the onset of the second Intifada), hundreds of students and dozens of teachers were killed, many more injured, and over 2,500 others arrested. In addition, Israeli shelling destroyed hundreds of schools and damaged dozens more. More on that below.
Gaza under Siege
Over half the population is under age 18. Pre-Operation Cast Lead, over 640 schools operated – 383 government ones, 221 by UNRWA, and 36 private schools for a student population of over 440,000. Under siege, however, university and post-graduate students are impeded from studying abroad, some having to forgo scholarship grants as a result. From July – September 2008, 70 students got exit permission through Egypt, while hundreds of others were denied, the result of Israel’s diplomatic escort requirement most can’t get and some who do are still rebuffed.
Each year, over 1,000 Gazan students apply abroad to study, yet no official body or channel handles their requests or ability to exit so most of them can’t go even if accepted.
Gaza overcrowding was a problem pre-conflict, forcing most government and UNWRA schools to use a shift system for the growing student population. Under siege and post-conflict, construction of new schools is impossible and repairing damaged ones challenging at best with basic materials unavailable or allowed in only in token amounts.
In April 2010, "confidential information" supplied by international groups listed items Israel permits. Among less than seven dozen are wheat, cooking oil, dates, chickpeas, rice, beans, lentils, some fruit, frozen vegetables, canned meat, frozen meat and fish, cinnamon, soap, detergent, toothpaste, toothbrushes, coffee and tea, combs, and potatoes.
All of these are in restricted amounts that can be changed or cut off arbitrarily any time for any reason or none at all.
Prohibited items include common ones like jam, vinegar, chocolate, fruit preserves, dried fruit, sage, fabric for clothing, fresh meat, writing implements, notebooks, heaters and newspapers.
Pre-siege, thousands of items were permitted (including essential construction materials), and Gazans could export produce and other goods. No longer with rare exceptions under a siege nearing its third anniversary, one so strict that it’s strangling 1.5 million people, causing widespread malnutrition, serious illnesses and premature deaths – slow motion genocide affecting the entire Territory, and to a lesser degree the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
IMEU reported that in north Gaza, 9,000 students from 15 damaged schools were accommodated in 73 others, 4,000 in two schools alone. Also, 1,200 secondary school students in north Gaza government schools got no accommodation during the 2009-10 school year.
In government schools overall, attendance and performance suffered because of aging, destroyed and damaged infrastructure, overcrowding, and frequent military attacks. Even in the 2007-08 first semester, only 20% of 16,000 sixth graders were able to pass standardized exams in math, English, Arabic, and science because of hardships placed on study.
As a result of Operation Cast Lead, hundreds of schools and kindergartens were damaged, and another 18 destroyed (eight government, two private, and eight kindergartens). Six are in north Gaza, affecting 9,000 students, forced to relocate elsewhere if able.
In addition, six university buildings were destroyed and 16 damaged. According to the Education Ministry, 98 students were killed in north Gaza, another 454 injured and five teachers. For UNRWA schools, 86 children and three teachers were killed, another 402 students and 14 teachers injured. As a result, the entire Strip is traumatized, especially children. Those who lost family members need psycho-social support under very trying conditions, especially for the numbers in need.
Various other problems are endemic from basic nutrition, clean water, sanitation, medical care, shelter, essential goods and services, and the urgency to end the crushing siege and regular Israeli attacks, targeted killings, occasional incursions, and an occupation designed to inflict pain and suffering, besides its harm tp education.
Education in East Jerusalem
A September 2009 Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) report titled, "The Arab-Palestinian School System in East Jerusalem As the 2009-10 School Year Begins" highlights the plight of Palestinian children because Israel denies them free public education under administered system, although it’s required under the Compulsory Education Law and a High Court of Justice (HCJ) ruling to provide it (in The Community Administration for the Development of Beit Hanina et al v. Jerusalem Municipality and Ministry of Education).
Even so, thousands of East Jerusalem’s 95,000 school-age children can only partially register for regular schooling. Many others are entirely denied. As a result, in 2008, less than half the youth population attended municipal public schools. If able, parents send them to private or unofficial ones operated by private firms, churches, the Islamic Authority (Waqf), UN, or other Palestinian organizations.
Given widespread poverty, tuition is a problem, so thousands lose out altogether. Others able to enter public schools are forced into "unsuitable structures" that are small, overcrowded, unventilated, and lack support classes or playgrounds.
In fact, over half of East Jerusalem classrooms are sub-standard, over 200 of the nearly 1,400 total classified "unsuitable" by city authorities.
A core problem is overcrowding because of a shortage of public classrooms – for the 2007-08 school year estimated at around 1,000 from pre-school through secondary and special ed. By 2011, an estimated 1,500 shortfall is forecast.
Nonetheless, the HCJ ruled that the Education Ministry and Jerusalem municipality are obligated to construct schools for Palestinians as well as Jews. Yet despite repeated promises, they’re not built, and no authority compels it. As a result, each year, public schools deny large numbers of children access for lack of space, a problem continuing to grow.
The Jerusalem municipality says it’s because of a land shortage even though property mapping given the Court showed otherwise with many vacant spaces for construction, enough for hundreds of classrooms.
An earlier 2002 Master Plan for Arab Education lists many lots suitable for school construction. It’s no different today.
In recent months, some softening will allow 60 classrooms to be built on five lots, and appropriation procedures began for 90 more on another five. In total, up to 650 classrooms may be built on 25 lots if the Ministry of Education approves a proposed appropriation. Even this falls far short, however, of growing needs for at least 1,500 new classrooms by 2011 as explained above.
So given current shortfalls and new proposals, little more than one-fourth of needed classrooms will be available in the new year. Once again, government schools will deny most Palestinian children for lack of space. Jews, of course, come first, and authorities make it hard administratively for Palestinian parents in all respects. As a result, children go on waiting lists and remain there, besides, at times, being charged service fees, an unauthorized practice of up to hundreds shekels, unaffordable for most parents.
ACRI calls the situation "a severe violation of (the) fundamental rights (of children) to development and self-realization. Clearly the result will be irreversible damage to the(ir) ability to develop as they grow older. It is imperative to end the ongoing travesty" and injustice. "It is unconscionable that education reforms in other parts of Israel should preempt the most basic obligation – the provision of free public education in East Jerusalem" and throughout the Territories.
Preventing Gazan Students from Studying Abroad
A November 2009 Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) report titled, "An Education Denied: Report on the Impact of the Closure of Border Crossings on Students from the Gaza Strip Studying Abroad," explained that Israel’s illegal siege denies a fundamental right and the futures of many thousands of students.
As a result, hundreds have sacrificed dreams for limited home opportunities, in Gaza alone as third level study in the West Bank is also denied by travel restrictions.
Before the second Intifada, Palestinian students could travel abroad through Gaza’s Rafah International Crossing, Ben-Gurion Airport, Gaza’s International Airport when it operated, and the West Bank’s al-Karama International Crossing to Jordan.
During the Intifada, things changed. Beit Hanoon (Erez) crossing (the only one to Israel) closed. Gaza’s airport was destroyed. Rafah became the Strip’s only exit. Then, since mid-2007, it closed under siege.
Because of more limited opportunities in Gaza, students depend heavily on studying abroad, especially in medicine, the sciences, and engineering. In addition, Gazan universities don’t offer doctorate level study.
Cast Lead delivered another blow, destroying or damaging many facilities and buildings, preventing reconstruction for lack of materials, and inflicting numerous other acute hardships, in all, more than ever impeding education. Gazan students had to cancel foreign registrations, give up scholarships, and stay home. Some examples include:
Rashid Jamal Hmeidan Sha’at, hoping to become an engineer, joined the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport in Egypt. But under siege, he changed fields and longtime ambition, explaining:
After high school in 2009, he applied to the faculty of engineering at the Egyptian Academy and was admitted. He immediately applied for the right to travel but couldn’t through closed borders. As a result, "I joined the Faculty of Commerce at Al-Azhar University. (There, he) found many students who preferred to study majors available in Gaza to waiting for an unknown future."
Osama Al-Jadi was admitted to Cairo University to study medicine, attended for four years, then returned home for three months "due to urgent family circumstances." He now fears that his "future will be devastated because" he missed two months of the new semester of his fifth year, and has to deal with border closures that may prevent him entirely, besides not having returned to Cairo before his residency permission expired.
Asma’ Emadeddin ‘Awad Shhada "was admitted at Damascus University, Faculty of Law," but can’t leave Gaza to attend despite having "all required documents (and) fulfilling travel conditions." Now she fears having to forgo her education entirely.
Mohammed Mahmoud Tabasha received "a scholarship to study medicine at Hodeidah University in Yemen," then obtained a visa through its embassy in Cairo. He registered at the Interior Ministry to travel but so far has been denied. This "means destroying my future as I will lose the scholarship and I will lose the chance of studying my favorite major."
Many other students expressed the same fears – lost scholarships and futures in their chosen careers, some in fields Gaza vitally needs like medicine, engineering, and the sciences.
Israeli harshness even prevents them from studying in the West Bank, and those there fear expulsion under Israel’s new military Orders No. 1650 (Prevention of Infiltration) and No. 1649 (Security Provisions) that subject anyone in the Territory without a permit to arbitrary deportation.
Effective April 13, 2010, they’re presumed to be unlawful "infiltrators," and may be told to leave on short notice or be fined and/or imprisoned, then expelled. Some have already been deported.
Prior to military restrictions, thousands of Gazan students studied in the West Bank. Then on March 12, 1996, a military order expelled 1,200, at most let a few dozen remain, before during the Intifida Israel tightened restrictions further. Then the siege sealed off Gaza entirely, allowing only small numbers to leave, and now West Bank Palestinians may be arbitrarily expelled.
Berlanti Jaris Boulus ‘Azzam was one, deported to Gaza on October 28, 2009 after she was stopped at a military checkpoint, detained many hours, then charged with illegal West Bank residency. She was arrested, interrogated, handcuffed, blindfolded, detained, then taken to the Erez crossing and expelled to Gaza. Since 2005, she’s been a Bethlehem University business administration student, in her last semester, two months short of graduation.
Gisha, the Israeli Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, intervened in her behalf to Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ) to no avail, even though it ruled that the IDF failed to follow proper procedures by not letting her present her case. Israel’s government and military routinely disregard Supreme and other court rulings. Follow-up judicial action is absent.
Yet denying Palestinians their right to education violates fundamental international human rights and humanitarian laws, including Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating:
"Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. (Higher) education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit."
Also, Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) stating:
"The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. (It) shall also enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society (and) be made equally accessible to all…."
As a signatory, Israel is legally bound to ICESCR provisions, yet its actions defile it like other human and humanitarian rights laws. As the occupying power, it’s legally obligated to fulfill its responsibilities. Yet as a belligerent, it refuses in all respects, so far with impunity.
Not condemned or opposed, Israel not only denies Palestinians education and other vital services, it’s unaccountable for high crimes and abuses, including mass incarcerations, murder, torture, slow motion genocide in Gaza, and to a lesser degree in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
PCHR calls on other nations to fulfill their obligations "to immediately act to stop the policy of collective punishment" against defenseless Palestinian civilians – so far not achieved, but with continued pressure, it’s coming.
– Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.