Education in Palestine in world spotlight

The impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinians’ right to education has previously not received enough attention. (Khaleel Reash/MaanImages)

GAZA CITY, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - The focus on people’s movements in Palestine continues to gain momentum with growing nonviolent demonstrations in Gaza, the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, and with a Palestine-wide call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

Years of the nonviolent demonstrations throughout the occupied West Bank against Israel’s wall have finally generated some media interest in the issue of the wall and annexation of Palestinian land. Yet the behind-the-scenes work of Palestinian unions, Palestinian and international BDS groups, video conferences bridging Palestine to the outside world, and the struggle of Palestinian students to access an education continues largely unnoticed by the cameras.

In July 2010, the United Nations IRIN news reported that roughly 39,000 Palestinian children from Gaza would not have schools to attend, following the destruction or severe damage of some 280 schools and kindergartens during the 2008-2009 Israeli war on Gaza, and the continued inability to repair or rebuild due to the severe Israeli-led siege on Gaza and lack of construction materials.

The UN also reports that 88 percent of schools run by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) and 82 percent of government schools operate on a shift system as a result, still resulting in serious overcrowding.

On the heels of popular protests against the G-20 summit in Toronto, and branching from the annual World Social Forum (WSF), the first World Education Forum (WEF) in Palestine began 28 October and in regions throughout historic Palestine. From Jaffa to Nazareth, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip, forums on education and Palestinian culture were held until 31 October.

Dubbed “Education for Change,” the forums included global points of focus on education — including adult literacy and gender equity in early education — but delved further into Palestine-specific topics: occupation and emancipation; the psychological needs of Palestinian students traumatized by occupation and war; keeping Palestine’s history and culture prominent in educational programs; the physical and bureaucratic roadblocks to higher education within and outside of Palestine; and the innovative means Palestinians use to educate themselves under six decades of occupation.

“Education is not only a basic human right, one that cannot be postponed or neglected during conflict or emergency, but also has a key role to play in protecting and sustaining the lives of children and youths,” says Dr. Mazen Hamada of Gaza’s al-Azhar University and one of the WEF Gaza organizers. “The effect of siege on Gaza Strip has exceeded the economical, agricultural, heath and environmental levels to reach also the educational sector. The academic achievements of the students at all levels has decreased after the last war on Gaza, and the number of students not attending their classes has increased.”

Hamada notes that the siege’s simple act of banning paper and educational materials needed for schools affects students’ ability to study. He adds, “Because of the siege, many parents are unemployed and are not able to cover the tuitions of their children at universities and schools. And university students aren’t able to continue their studies abroad, nor are professors able to participate in international conferences or obtain further training outside.”

The WEF-Palestine, during its four days of forums and events, addressed these problems, while reiterating the need to include Palestinian culture and history in curriculums and activities.

“When I was a student, we studied Egyptian history and geography; we never even saw a map of Palestine in school,” says Abu Arab, 30, of his studies in Gaza under Egyptian control. “Palestinian culture wasn’t a part of the education program then, especially since the Israelis could censor any information they didn’t want studied.”

“Ironically, I learned more about Palestine when I was in prison,” says Abu Basel. “I was imprisoned by the Israelis when I was 16 and hadn’t yet finished high school. Since they kept me for nine years, I had to finish my studies in jail.”

Like many Palestinians, Abu Basel used his time in prison to study from others who had an education. “Some had finished university, some had their masters, some had studied abroad. We’d study together, like workgroups. We also studied Palestinian history and learned about Zionism.”

Specific to the WEF-Palestine is the problem of access: with all of Palestine’s borders controlled by Israel and Egypt, other means of communication and participation are vital. With group participation from Japan, Canada, Latin America, Africa and Europe, the WEF-Palestine included video conferences and live streaming on the Internet, as well as interactive workshops, visits to important areas and cultural sessions.

In Gaza, participants joined a popular demonstration in Gaza’s northern Beit Hanoun, as well as meeting fishermen whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the siege and by attacks from Israeli gunboats in Gazan waters.

For farmers living in the buffer zone, the need to enhance education and international understanding is not simply a question of their children’s futures but also of their livelihoods, routinely destroyed by Israeli invasions.

The Garrara elementary school in southeastern Gaza is but one of many schools suffering from multiple problems under siege and under attacks by Israeli soldiers along the border. “We are under one kilometer from the border and the students experience regular firing from Israeli soldiers,” says Umm Mohammed, a teacher at the school. “Many of our students have classmates who were killed or injured by these attacks, and that affects their psychological state and ability to study,” she says.

The school itself is still in shambles after the Israeli invasion of Gaza, and many of the students study in tents year-round.

The WSF a decade ago set out to promote notions of sustainable development, fair trade and social justice. The WEF-Palestine by virtue of necessity focuses on the urgent educational issues at hand, but likewise harnesses the knowledge of grassroots activists, civil society groups and educators, citing education as means of resistance, for peace and equality.

Al Azhar’s Dr. Hamada is positive about the outcome. “The WEF is a good opportunity to exchange information and experiences between Palestinians and other international educational organizations towards improving the educational system and teaching methodologies in Palestine,” he says.

As statement from WEF-Palestine reminds everyone, “Transforming the world and liberating humanity from colonialism, racism and exploitation requires a struggling and educated population. Therefore education is an indispensable tool for liberation.”

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