Schooling at Gunpoint: Palestinian Children’s Learning Environment in War Like Conditions (part 1 of 2)

This report was first published on 1 December 2002 and offers a devastating look at the effect of the Israeli occupation on one aspect of Palestinian civil life — school education — in one area, Ramallah.


Above: Palestinian children have to navigate Israeli checkpoints and tanks to get to school. Photo by Musa Al-Shaer.

The new school year was scheduled to begin on August 31st 2002 for over one million Palestinian children, comprising more than a third of the total population in West Bank and Gaza Strip. Only seven years ago, the newly established Palestinian Ministry of Education and the Palestinian community began to confront the huge task of reconstructing and rehabilitating the education sector, which had been left in shambles by the Israeli ‘Civil Administration’ through deliberate obstruction and neglect. Today, two years into the Second Palestinian Uprising (Intifada), resistance and re-occupation, the education system is near collapse again, leaving yet another generation of young Palestinians without proper schooling, the essential tool that is to prepare them for their challenging role in rehabilitating their society and building its future state.

The past academic year was particularly traumatic as spiralling poverty gripped the nation, and as environmental and infrastructural destruction, home and institutional demolition, death, injury, disability and arrest of loved ones as well as the Israeli military reoccupation of the entire West Bank became the new and ongoing way of life. The school system was not spared this destruction. By the end of the 2001-2002 school year, the Ministry of Education reported that:

  • 216 students were killed, 2514 injured, and 164 arrested
  • 17 teachers and staff in the education sector were killed and 71 were arrested
  • 1289 schools were closed for at least 3 consecutive weeks during the Israeli invasion between March 29 and up till the end of the school year
  • Approximately 50% of school children and 35,000 employees in the education sector were prevented from reaching their schools. Scores of teachers and students were unable to commute between the rural villages and the urban centres before and after the invasion.
  • High school final year tawjihi students suffered particular difficulties during the whole year of preparation, and the scheduled examinations were disrupted by military operations and postponed for over a month

    Most of these children, especially in the northern West Bank, spent their extended 2-3 month ‘summer break’ imprisoned at home under strict military curfews and external closures. Many neighbourhoods, especially densely populated urban centres, refugee camps and poor villages, suffered recurrent military incursions, bombardments, extra judicial executions combined with indiscriminate killing and injury of civilians (nearly half of them children), as well as nightly intrusions of soldiers into private homes, arrests and brutalisation of family members. There has been continuous destruction of homes, agriculture, and other private and public property like shops, offices, workshops, and service institutions.

    Despite all efforts and hopes for better conditions, the new school year took off badly for the majority of children in the West Bank, who have been physically prevented from attending their schools during almost the entire first month of the new school year - except in Bethlehem and Gaza - which are now re-occupied again and under continuous heavy military attack. Curfews and closures remain in place and/or were re-imposed on most towns, refugee camps, and many villages in the West Bank. Larger towns were even divided into several ‘military security zones’ and separated by internal checkpoints. The fears expressed by the Minister of Education were confirmed:

    ‘Besides the threat on the lives of students and teachers accompanied with the destruction of schools and educational institutions, our gravest concern remains, without a doubt, the policy of continuous curfew and tight closures with all the inherent restrictions it creates on the movement of people and goods within Palestinian areas.’
    This damage assessment study focuses on the Ramallah/al-Bireh/Beitunia urban area only because of our inability to reach other districts because of continued closures and siege. It can be seen as a case study elaborating the details of the humanitarian damage that occurred during the past academic year in the school environment, and demonstrates the type and extent of the psycho-social and health impact of war on the school community: students, teachers, and parents.


    This study includes all of the 48 schools that are operating in the towns of Ramallah, al-Bireh and Beitunia on the West Bank. After an initial period of informal investigation and consultation with educators, a piloted semi structured questionnaire/interview instrument was used to solicit responses from the administrators/teachers at the schools. The field work was completed during the month of October. One questionnaire/interview was obtained per school. The data was then coded and fed into the computer. The Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) was used for data analysis.

    The schools

    The three towns, including Amari and Qaddura refugee camps, are parts of an urban area that was physically separated in the past, but has over time come to form an urban complex that is spatially inter-connected. For all practical purposes, these towns and refugee camps can be seen as representing different neighborhoods of one small city. They have also undergone the same experiences of invasion, destruction, curfew, closure and siege during the past academic year 2001-2002.

    The triplet towns are populated by about 60,000 inhabitants (PCBS, 1997 Census). They house 48 schools, 2 located in Amari camp, and the rest are found in the three towns. Of the total 5 (10%) are located in Beitunia, 20 (42%) in Ramallah and 23 (48%) in al-Bireh. These schools cater to the primary, preparatory and secondary educational needs of children with ages ranging from 6 and up to 18 years.

    Thirty seven of these schools (77%) provide primary schooling for children under the age of 12, either with or without the preparatory and secondary levels. We found that 17 schools (35%) are governmentally operated, 14 (29%) are private for profit operations, 13 (27%) are private non-profit operations, mostly religious or parish schools, and 4 (8%) are operated by UNRWA that caters to the educational needs of refugees living inside and outside the camp. Thus in this metropolis, 56% of the schools are operated on a private, profit and non-profit basis, reflecting the large share of private educational operations in this urban center. Three of these schools provide education to disabled people on a non-profit basis.

    At the time of the survey, the schools housed a total of 19,130 students, with 54% of the student body composed of females an the rest males, raising questions as to a higher level of attrition from schools among boys. The results may also be suggestive of observations that some have made, but have yet to be substantiated, of well to do parents sending their male children abroad to study because of the current conditions, while keeping their girls in local schools because of the local moral code.

    There is a high percentage in this group of schools that educate both boys and girls in the same classes, with 25 (52%) reporting that they are mixed schools, 20 (42% and 10 of each type) offering schooling for only girls or only boys, and 3 (6%) that include boys in the first few years of elementary schooling and then continue as entirely girls schools. Of the 25 mixed schools, 22 (88%) are operated by the private sector. The Ministry of Education operates 3 mixed (boys and girls) schools, at the primary and preparatory levels. That is, the governmental school system completely separates boys from girls who are 15-18 years old, and largely separate those who are younger.

    Proximity to Danger

    Only 8 (17%) of the schools reported that during the past academic year their physical locations happened to be in relatively safe areas of the urban center. The rest were located within what was perceived as danger zones where clashes occur, or where military attacks take place: at different points in time throughout the year, 8 (16%) were close to a fixed Israeli military checkpoint, 22 (46%) were located close to a moving military one, 16 (33%) to an Israeli settlement, and 17 (35%) to a building taken by the Army and used as a military outpost . Six of the schools (13%) reported that at some point, the schools themselves were occupied by the Army and used as military control center. Six (13%) additional schools also reported that the schools themselves were turned into army detention centers, perhaps because they are conveniently located near Israeli settlements.

    Gunfire, Shelling and Damages

    With 28 (58%) of the schools reporting that the schools were not directly affected by gunfire, we found that the remaining 20 (42%) were directly affected: 10 reported that they were shot at when the school was convening and with children inside, while the remaining 10 were subjected to direct gunfire, but after school. One additional school reported that it experienced indirect gunfire that incidentally hit the school. Shooting directly at schools was reported as having happened more than once, and ranging from once (4 schools) to up to 10 counted incidents (one school). However, 4 schools reported that they were shot at so many times that they were not able to assess the exact number of incidents.

    Among the schools that were affected (20, almost half of the schools), physical damage ensued to varying degrees. Reports indicate a wide range of destruction: destruction of retaining walls, broken glass, broken walls and doors, destroyed school furniture, school loudspeaker systems, computers, libraries and books, solar heaters and water containers located on school rooftops. In one school, the damage was so severe that the school relocated altogether. Another school (the Beitunia Secondary School for Boys) was so badly damaged that it was shocking to witness that it was still being used as a school this year, at the time of our field work visits.

    Of the total schools, 12 (25%) reported that they experienced serious clashes in the immediate vicinity of the school during the past academic year. Of these, 4 reported one episode, 5 reported 2-5, and an additional 3 not less than 5 and up to more than 10 episodes. In one case, a student from a lower elementary school in Ramallah was hit by an Israeli Jeep as it was chasing a Palestinian car near the school.

    Five of the schools (10%) reported that the school premises were directly shelled during the past academic year. An additional five (10%) schools reported that they were shelled, but incidentally, and not because the attack was intentional, while 2 reported having been shelled directly and indirectly. The rest, or 75% of the schools, did not report any direct or indirect shelling at all. Of those shelled (a quarter of the schools), three quarters reported that they were shelled once or twice, and the rest up to 5 times. Serious destruction of premises invariably ensued, interrupting the academic process, and adding budgetary burdens to an already resource starved school system. We noted that many of the schools were still in major need of repair and reconstruction during our field visits, a testimony to the need to address the destruction of the school infrastructure financially and otherwise. Of the total, 14 schools (30%) reported that students were detained at school for extended periods as a result of shelling in nearby areas or because curfew was suddenly clamped down.

    Military Invasion and Occupation of Schools

    A high of 48% of the schools (23) reported that they were invaded and some occupied by the Israeli Army during the past academic year. Of those, 14 were invaded once, 7 were invaded twice, and two were invaded three and four times respectively. All suffered serious destruction as a result. During such invasions, the reported experience varied: some schools reported that they were occupied for more than one day. Reports indicate a high level of destruction and plunder of premises: entry of several tanks and other large army vehicles into the school premises, and, needless to say, destroying much that was in their way, including playgrounds and paved areas; barbed-wiring the school entirely to prohibit access; occupying the schools as barracks and dormitories for use by the Army; exploding doors, shattering glass, destroying laboratories, bathrooms, libraries, cafeterias, records, visual aid rooms, children’s toys, and even electrical wiring; urinating in classrooms, lecture halls, libraries and on the school furniture; stealing of television sets, computers, films, and even money. Some books were also stolen, and some even reported that Islamic religion books were thrown in bathrooms! We also have reports that on the occasion of an invasion when the school was in session, some students were used as a human shield by the Army in their escapades outside the schools.

    Index of Exposure to Traumatic Events

    Constructing an index of exposure to traumatic events (exposure to gunfire, shelling, clashes outside school and invasion/occupation of school) we found that of the 48 schools, only 10 (20%) reported not having been exposed to any one of these events, with 20 schools (41%) reporting exposure to one such event at least once, 9 (19%) schools reporting two types of events at least once, 7 (15%) 3 types of events at least once, and 2 of these schools reporting having been exposed to the four types of events at least once.

    The schools’ locations influenced the severity of exposure to these events. In this survey, we found (as we had expected from the impressions gained from the field work), that Betunia’s schools were most affected. All five schools situated in Beitunia reported having been exposed to one or more types of attacks at least once. In the scale of severity of experience, the al-Bireh schools were second, with 20 out of 23 (87%) schools in the town reporting having been subjected to these events, compared to 13 out of 20 (65%) Ramallah schools. With Beitunia located very close to a military camp, and literally split in two by the road leading from Jerusalem/Tel Aviv to Ramallah, and with al-Bireh also providing entry to the towns via at least three main roads to the north and south, compounded by the presence of Israeli settlements in its outskirts, all explain these variations in severity of onslaughts, especially as Israeli settlers frequently combined their activities with those of the Army, or even independently by attacking civilians and schools throughout the year.

    Interestingly, boys’ schools were more affected than girls’ schools or even mixed schools, perhaps because boys’ schools tend to be situated on the outskirts of town. All ten boys schools reported having been exposed to at least one form of attacks at least once, compared to 6 out of 13 (46%) of the girls’ schools and 19 out of the 25 (76%) mixed schools.

    Governmental schools were also more affected than others, with 15 out of 17 schools (88%) having been exposed to at least one attack at least once, compared to 20 out of 27 private schools (74%) and 3 out of 4 (75%) UNRWA schools.

    Suitability of School Premises for Children’s Protection in War


    Of all the schools, only one reported that the school premises contained an adequate shelter, 34 (71%) reported that although without shelter, children are housed in ‘safe places’ (usually with few windows, away from roads and surrounded by walls, but with no provisions or emergency equipment and materials) at school during emergencies, and the rest (13) have neither a shelter nor a safe place to protect the children during emergency. Reports also indicate that the absence of shelters relates primarily to the previous inability to imagine that in fact, war conditions would grip the country in this severe way, combined with the fact that premises are older and have been constructed without planning for shelters to begin with, as well as the lack of budgets to pursue such a scheme at the moment.

    Most reports for those with safe places or shelters, or 28 schools (78%) indicated that the safe place or shelter can house everyone in the school, with the rest stating that space is also a serious problem. Some consequently resort to using the Gym, which is not very safe, or hallways, relatively safe buildings, or even leaving students where they are but asking them to lie on the floor during a shelling episode.

    Infirmaries, First Aid, Injury and Trauma Management

    The large majority of the schools, 46 (96%) reported that the premises do not contain a first aid room, infirmary or any other kind of space to care for the sick or the injured. What they do have are meager first aid boxes or cabinets, and fire extinguishers that are hardly suitable to handle this current emergency. On the other hand, 40 (83%) reported that there is a trained first aid person at school who can also handle shock and gas suffocation, 41 (85%) schools reported that teachers have been trained in evacuation procedures during the course of last year, and 37 (77%) also reported that students were trained in evacuation procedures last year. These results indicate a minimal level of preparedness to handle war conditions, but with a maximal initiative to manage despite circumstances. Judging from the data we have, it appears that the private for profit schools are the least prepared or responsive to these conditions, and that UNRWA and governmental schools the most.

    Dangers/Difficulties in Accessing the Schools


    Of the total, a high of 41 schools (85%) reported that their students faced a variety of difficulties in reaching the school during the past academic year. Of those, 30 (73%) reported that the biggest problem students faced were the checkpoints that they had to cross to reach school, with some reporting that they must cross more than one checkpoint to arrive. In the case of one school, 80 students withdrew because of the checkpoint problem.

    Some schools pointed to the problems faced by disabled students as being severe: we have reports of incidents involving 5 disabled students who were beaten up at one checkpoint, 4 disabled students who were subjected to rubber bullet gunfire, and three who were detained at the checkpoint until dark. These are highly traumatizing experiences, leading to serious hesitation to cross, and setting the stage for dropping out of school altogether.

    Others reported incidents where students were beaten up at checkpoints, in front of parents, and leading to a struggle between parents, crossing children, and the Army at the sites. Student exposure to ‘rubber bullets’ (rubber coated metal bullets which are dangerous as they especially destroy the eyes, and can kill if entering the skull or if shot from close range) and sound bombs were also reported, where, in one case, a student was burned and hospitalized as a result of a direct hit by a sound bomb. In one extreme case, 17 students coming from nearby villages could not get back home because of a sudden blockade and invasion, forcing them to remain at the school for 1 week, and being cared for by the school administration; then having to move out because the school was in a clash zone, and into another school, and then another, for a period of several days, with minimal food and supplies.

    Almost 30% (12) of the schools reported that the partial occupation of the towns posed a serious problem in accessing the schools as well, and the rest provided various answers including having to reach school from back roads because of the presence of tanks on the road to school, the suddenly spiraling costs of transportation resulting from having to take convoluted roads to reach their destination, and the unavailability of transport in some affected areas, necessitating them to walk a good part of the journey. About half of the schools reported that such problems affected 10% or less of their student body, a quarter reported that these problems affected 12-25% of their student bodies, and another quarter reported that 30% and up to 90% of their student body was affected by these problems last year. We found that al-Bireh schools were more seriously affected by the crossing problems than Ramallah or Beitunia.


    Teachers too have had serious problems accessing schools to work. Of the total schools, a high of 45 (94%) reported that some of their teachers have serious problems trying to get to work. About half of the schools have 1 and up to 5 teachers facing these difficulties daily, while the other half report that such difficulties pertain to 6 and up to 40 teachers, with a range of 10% and up to 61% of the faculty facing difficulties getting to school. On the average, crossing problems affected 6.5 teachers out of an average of 26 teachers per school, or a full 25% of the teacher population in this urban area.

    We were also told that lost teacher workdays ranged from three and up to 88 days last year, specifically because of the daily problems of access, and bringing the average lost days of work per school to 23 days per school. That is, blocked access of faculty seems to be a substantial impediment to the routine flow of the academic process, affecting a high proportion of the faculty, and raising questions as to the impact of this problem on the quality of education, as well as the financial/ budgetary dimension of operating schools.

    The type and range of problems teachers face in getting to school are almost identical to those reported for students. There were problems with delays in reaching the schools because of checkpoints and tanks; problems with being exposed to shooting, tear gas and stun grenades; problems related to even having been beaten at a checkpoint by the Army, being detained for a period of time at a checkpoint, or not being able to access the school altogether when the going got tough, and simple and pure humiliation exercised as a matter of routine, it seems, by the Israeli Army. Serious physical difficulties, exposure to daily traumatic events, combined with the loss of dignity are key features of the daily lives of teachers in this urban area.

    Sudden Shifts in Student Enrollments

    On the whole, 33 (69%) schools reported important shifts in student enrollment this year compared to last year, and beginning during the past academic year. About 40% (19) of the schools reported a decrease in the number of students attending the schools beginning last year and continuing this year, 29% (14) reported an increase in the student body, and the rest reported that the number remained more or less the same. It appears that attrition affected mostly students who are 12 years or older, a reflection of the natural move from primary to preparatory and secondary levels of education and the need to commute from villages to the city to get to schools, or perhaps from one neighborhood to another.

    Schools reporting attrition noted that about 1/3 of the females who left school, on the average, left because they got married, when there was not one single case reported of attrition as a result of marriage for boys. Given the seeming endlessness of war like conditions in the country, it is worth the while to investigate this point further, as it is suggestive of the phenomenon of early marriage for girls, but not for boys.

    In explaining these sudden shifts in student enrollment, we find that private schools tended to report drop outs because of increasingly difficult parent financial conditions, pushing them to change their children’s schools, while governmental and UNRWA schools reported an increase in the number of students coming from private ones, again for the same reason. In one particular private school, overnight, the school lost about 20% of its student body because of parent financial problems. Other explanations of this shift in student enrollment include movement of students to schools that are close to their domiciles, either in another part of town or in villages, parents moving students away from schools that are located by clash points or army posts, or migration of families out of the country altogether.

    A high of 24 schools (50%) noted out migration as one of the important reasons for the children leaving school, counting at least 422 students who the administration of schools knew definitively had out-migrated with their families. Out-migration seemed to be affecting private schools to a larger extent than public ones, with almost three quarters of the private schools pointing to out migration as one of the reasons for attrition, compared to a third for governmental schools and none for UNRWA schools. Moreover, views gathered from school administrations indicate that most of those who out-migrate are either well to do, or from the middle classes. These results of course make sense as it is usually the upper/middle class who has the money and the access to travel out of this difficult situation, while the poor remain here as a matter of no other alternative. These results are worrisome in more than one respect, especially as an indication of a possible serious brain drain of professional educated urban dwellers out of the country altogether.

    And so by the beginning of this year, some private schools had lost what seems to be a good number of students, while some governmental and UNRWA schools were reported as becoming over-crowded, adding to the burdens of an already burdened faculty, administration and students, and requiring attention by policy makers and planners.