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


Interruptions and Lost School Days in Siege and Curfew

All schools reported that they have lost school days at different times during the past year, and not only during the March April invasion, but also because of the off and on curfew state that has predominated since the March invasions and continues up till the time of writing this report, where we have been placed under curfew for three consecutive days, with no end in sight. The average loss in this survey was found to be 36 days, with a minimum of 4 days (for a school housing interns only) and a maximum of 90 days (the Deaf School). The average number of made-up schools days was found to be 16, leaving about 20 days that were completely lost, that is, almost an entire month of schooling if we count weekly days off, and about 10% of the school year. These results represent the minimum average lost teaching time, as in some badly affected schools it was impossible to estimate lost teaching time because the school records were destroyed by the Israeli Army during an invasion or occupation.

Methods of Coping

To cope with these interruptions and delays, all schools began to make up classes, when possible, during off days and holidays. Others extended the working day, cramming extra classes into the extra hours. Many resorted to canceling physical education, computer and art classes in order to make up for the lost classes in what is seen as essential subjects (language, math, science and social studies), taking possibly important methods of coping away from the students. Recesses were contracted. Class projects were cut in some instances, while some others cut down on examinations, or speeded up their lectures so that they can complete the required curriculum, all raising questions as to the utility of completing the curriculum without the required understanding and learning by students.

Given the student life conditions during the course of the year, and some serious exposure to traumatic events not only at school, but also because of the shelling and destruction and occupation of homes, one must seriously consider these methods of coping as limited to mechanically completing the curriculum, while neglecting and perhaps undermining the students’ healing and learning processes in trying times.

Clearly, the problems entailed in rethinking our approach to education with interruptions during war are huge, especially if one takes into consideration the last 1-2 years of high school when students must sit for the general high school examination (Tawjihi) that can in fact determine their futures, and the need to have completed the curriculum by then, irrespective of conditions. On the other hand, the question remains as to whether curricula completion is more important than the process of healing and learning, and the level at which schools need to address the problem of necessarily completing curricula because of considerations that are beyond their control, as is the case with graduating students.

The school systems evidently used the experience of last year to prepare for this academic year by setting in place coping mechanisms to better handle emergency. Those were already in the process of being developed by the summer of 2002. By the time of field work in October, a high of 41 schools (87%) had plans ready for compensating lost time in seemingly better ways than the impromptu emergency measures taken to catch up during the past academic year. Some of the measures implemented immediately at the beginning of the school year include an increasing reliance on studying at home; utilizing specifically developed student work sheets; relying on the help of parents for student assistance; cutting down on holidays and time off; adding sessions to the working day. Again, focus is centered on what is called essential subjects, while omitting physical education, vocational education, library and the like, relying on popular community education, distance learning computer/internet based contact with students, and, more recently, defying curfew and attempting to get to school, especially in the case of the last 2 years of school, where the situation is pressing.

The school systems furthermore worked to organize emergency management operations a well. A high of 42 (89%) schools report that at the beginning of this year, they had already in operation special emergency committees with the specific responsibility of managing exceptional circumstances. The tasks of these committees include: organizing evacuations without chaos, phone linkages with parents, the provision of emotional support to students and calming then down, first aid operations, working with students to handle mental health problems and worries, general daily supervision and reconnaissance, to pre-empt surprise attacks and problems, coordination with official and unofficial bodies for cooperation, and to control and cooperate with parents. It has also been brought to our attention that coordination among all schools in this urban area in fact began early on in September, an attempt not only to collectively deal with problems, but also to assist each other in facing possibly even more trying times. Indeed, it does appear that the school systems and their staff have exhibited a remarkable amount of resilience and ability to adjust and cope with impossible situations, and have effectively used the experiences gained last year in forward planning in order to minimize damage to children and save the education of schoolchildren this year.

Consequences: academic process, students, parents and teachers

Negative Effects on the Academic and Learning Process

Other than destruction of premises and property that the schools have encountered during the year, several other untoward effects ensued that can have a lasting imprint on the academic process as well as the consciousness. The school administration and teachers faced a serious burden and extra workload in attempting to get children to safety, either within the school premises, or by calling parents to get the needed help from them, or by having to deal with an increasing number of difficult cases attending school, as well as setting up make-up schedules during days off and holidays. In addition, they were themselves also traumatized and worried about their loved ones who where elsewhere during an attack, and sometimes, not within reach by telephone.

In cases when traumatic events took place while schools were in session, the consequences were apparent on the entire school community. Reports indicate that fear and confusion ensued, especially with constant calls by parents to ascertain the safety of their children, interruption of classes and moving the children into relative safety until the incidents subsided, and then sending them home, or resuming classes, depending on the situation.

Administration and teachers also had to face the problem of the shattered infrastructure, in some instances calling for school relocation. In view of the severity of the situation and the new imperatives of the times, developmental plans were abandoned, as schools were barely able to cope with managing daily events and picking up the pieces. Moreover, serious budgetary problems ensued because of the need for repair left by this destruction. In one school, parent and communal assistance allowed for repair, only for the school to be invaded and occupied once again, thus leading to despair.

The ramifications of these circumstances were severe, with the majority reporting these events as having serious consequences on academic life. The process of learning was greatly disturbed, given the destruction that took place in schools, children’s and teachers’ traumas, daily difficulties in reaching schools and completing the school day, relatively high absenteeism, frequent interruptions of the academic process, sudden and unexpected attacks, increasing financial strife, and the lack of preparedness of school to handle these situations, among the daily life problems that the schools faced. Thus the majority reported that successive interruptions proved to be very difficult for the children to manage. Our reports indicate that often, resuming classes entailed starting all over again from the beginning, as students seemed to have forgotten everything they learned before a traumatic event: they had to live through the violence that is taking place around them, the interruptions, and at the same time learn effectively and cumulatively, a task that was not possible to achieve. In addition, reports indicate that development plans were cancelled; and some schools even had to close for a period of time in order to rehabilitate the premises after a serious attack.

All schools reported a serious decline in academic achievement by the end of the academic year, pointing to traumatic events at school and at home as causes. Traumatic events of course extended to children’s homes and included: frequent shooting and shelling all night, being subjected to house searches by the Army, arrest and injury of loved ones, and specific neighborhood invasions. In one case, we were told that this year’s 7th grade scored by far the lowest level academic performance of all 7th grade classes in years, pointing to the events of the past year as well as lost and interrupted study time as causative factors.

Children’s Mental Health and Impact on Performance

When prompted to respond to the question of the impact of such events on the children’s mental health, principals and teacher reported that several students were clearly traumatized, with fear and feelings of being physically threatened and violated dominating their state, a state that could not have possibly allowed them to concentrate on their studies. Many fell into serious worry episodes, either fearing coming to school, or fearing getting back home or both. In cases when attacks took place while school was in session, there were reports of some students fainting in shock and fear. Others also reported episodes of continuous crying for no immediate or apparent reason, crying at night, unexplained bouts of screaming, enuresis, an unusually high level of hyperactivity, and fainting. Some older students apparently handled trauma by making up stories about themselves, such as the martyrdom of a brother, the need for a medical operation, or a catastrophe hitting the family, all proven to be imaginary, perhaps in order to draw attention to their need for assistance. The impact of exposure to trauma was reflected in the younger children’s drawings and play. We were told that many younger children began to only draw ‘gloom’, in black and white or red (for fire) colors, tanks, army, and clashes; or acted out in play Israeli Army versus the Shabab (the young men) confrontations, funeral processions for martyrs, and even the so called ‘suicide bomber’ themes during recess. These themes seemed to have dominated their consciousness.

Some principals reported that students began to rush out of class immediately after hearing any noise outside, thinking it must be shooting, with some even reported as getting into the hysterical behavior mode, with the school not being able to control this type of behavior. Others reported that students began to imagine that the Army is always at school, making it difficult for them to concentrate. Students were also reported as fearing being seated by windows, reacting fearfully to any evidence of previous Army presence, as in a flashback, extreme sadness and negative change in facial features. Reports also indicate that symptoms of psychological distress among these children include frequent headaches and other aches, children spacing out after exposure to trauma, and even nervous collapse among some students. It appears that some students reacted so fearfully to such events that they began to attempt escaping using classroom windows irrespective of safety. In one school for the blind, reports of great fear, especially during sleep, and refusal to sleep alone dominated the interview. This particular school was shelled badly, and one can imagine the reaction to such traumatic events by blind girls! But above all, a sense of hate and a wish to revenge dominated the feelings of students last year.

The impact of children’s exposure to these types of traumatic events on the ability to concentrate on studies cannot be under-estimated. Reports indicate that teachers and principals noted an increase in the students’ inability to concentrate or absorb the material at hand, with a high of 41 schools (88%) noting that this was a major problem, and the rest reporting other similar problems such as noting that students are constantly distracted, or a concentration fixation on the general living conditions and what will happen next, or the presence of anxiety and confusion among the students. Schools reported that some students could only focus on the possible dangers in the streets, and worry about getting home more than on what is happening in class. Some reported students as being simply stunned, and not being able to learn at all. Over half of the schools noted a decline in interests to study altogether, and a drop in homework completion. Here, students were characterized as not having the needed energy to study, or wanting to talk non-stop rather than listen. Older students who were about to graduate from high school began to seriously worry about the imminent possibility of never completing their studies, and the bleak futures that lie ahead.

Insecurity and Violent Behavior

A terrible aspect of these children’s experiences is the loss of the needed sense of security and safety at school. In some cases, students began to refuse to attend school without their parents attending with them. Some respondents reported that daily attendance rates declined, and many left high risk zone schools altogether. In one particular school that was very badly affected, a large number of students dropped out: last year, enrollment reached 400 students. This academic year, only 11 students are attending. In other cases, notably with older children, students reacted to these traumatic events by exercising self control, and overcoming their fear through agency: they would follow other school children to throw stones at the nearby army post or jeep after school, or even simply leave classes and go out to join others in the raging clashes just outside. This act is seen as a response to violation and an attempt to redress the onslaught on community and loss of dignity.

When asked, administrations reported a noticeable increase in violent behavior among students in half of the schools, and a contrasting increased cooperation and good relations in the other half. The highest reports of increased violent behavior came from Beitunia and the lowest from Ramallah, perhaps reflecting the severity of onslaughts in these neighborhoods, and implying that increased exposure to violence increases violent behavior. Reports of increased violent behavior were more frequent in boys and mixed school schools (two thirds each) compared to only one tenth for girls schools, with no differences among the types of schools operating in the area (governmental, public, private).

We also found that half the schools reported an increasing difficulty in dealing with the children inside and outside class, again corroborating the above findings. Examples of changed behavior include: an increase in violent play, constant fighting, cursing and beating. In contrast, increased active cooperation among students was also noted, as well as increased collective play, and a noticeable rise in children caring for others. In one particular school, reports indicated the rise in children’s spirit of solidarity and support, which was apparently very evident in recess but not so much in class. In this case, children were noted as exhibiting happiness and great satisfaction at seeing and interacting with each other after having been denied schooling for long stretches of time because of curfew. They appeared to be fighting much less, and behaving much more in sympathy to each other, supporting those who have been traumatized by violent attacks especially in their homes, in their neighborhoods or elsewhere, caring for them and even pampering them in seeming compensation.

Parents Under Stress

The parents were not spared either. Other than the constant calls to ascertain children’s safety when an incident took place, parents tended to immediately rush to school when an attack occurred or was thought to be about to occur, in order to pick up their children before the school day ended. This brought in more worries and fears among those children whose parents did not appear at the time. With time, schools began to prohibit parents from such actions, but were not always successful, as many parents were caught in the circle of fear. Parents began to exhibit serious worries about their children attending school, being denied the needed assurances of children’s safety, which have of course been obliterated for objective reasons.

Some parents cooperated with the schools well in bringing down the level of fear among students, and in assisting in sending children home safely during a particular incident. Others were simply not capable of cooperation or self control, given their mental health state. Parents were also reported as worrying about even getting their children to and from school, as the roads were often unsafe, depending on the time and the neighborhood. Some stopped sending their children to school for periods of time, as the danger was perceived as too great and not worth the while. Others began to visit their children regularly during the school day to ensure all is well.

By the end of the year, some parents simply withdrew their children out of the urban schools, moved to villages, or out-migrated altogether. In one particular private school, we found that 10% of the children that attended last year had out-migrated with their families by the beginning of this academic year.

When school administrations were asked about their opinions regarding how parents were treating their children in these trying times, a high of 27 schools (63%) reported that their impressions were that the children were treated badly at home, and the rest (37%) reported that the children were especially cared for during these times. It is important to note that none of the UNRWA schools reported supportive parent behavior. They explained this problem, as others did, in terms of spiraling poverty and severe life conditions given the particularly heavy Israeli Army attacks on refugee camps, leading to neglect, calling on children to stop studying and trying to find work instead, excessive irritability with their presence, not being able to appreciate the mental health dimensions of children’s problems, and excessive harshness in dealing with children, including physical abuse it seems. Ten out of the 13 private for profit administrations also reported problematic parent behavior towards their children. In contrast, 5 of out 12 private non-profit schools and 8 out of 14 governmental ones reported problematic parent behavior towards their children. While these results are merely suggestive, especially as they reflect only the perceptions of administrations, it is worth the while to pursue this specific issue in the future, especially as it relates to UNRWA and for profit private schools.

Indeed, when asked about signs of violence against children at home, 18 schools (38%) indicated that they have evidence suggesting the problem exists, once again, in all UNRWA schools, in almost half of the for profit schools, four tenth of the governmental schools and in less than a tenth of the private non-profit operations. All girls’ schools seemed to have higher reports of violence against children at home with two thirds reporting signs of violence against the girls, compared to a third of boys’ schools, and a third of mixed schools. When prompted to provide detailed examples, schools gave us a range of physical abuse measures: severe beating of children, beating of girls by brothers, even, in one case, mutilating her face, father beating wife and children each time he gets into anxious attacks, father beating son and disfiguring his face, father beating child when the school reports a specific problem with the child, verbal abuse, evidence of having been beaten with metal string, attempt of father to beat his son at school in front of the other children, and evidence of having been beaten up by parents on the faces of girls, even some cases of rape. These tentative results are very worrying, and reiterate the call for attention to be paid to physical abuse at home, especially among girls.

Teachers Under Stress

As for teachers, there is no question that the past academic year proved to be very difficult, and traumatizing. They had to face the problem of frequent interruptions of classes, the cancellation of the school day, the increase in workload, and the problem of managing traumatized children, as well as the daily life problems that ordinary citizens were facing at home, especially shelling and bombing in the area of their domicile and the crossing problems.

These events reflected on teachers’ behavior. We found that 33 schools (73%) reporting changes in teachers’ behavior during the past year. Those were described in both negative and positive terms. Some teachers were described as being chronically exhausted, with a noticeable decline in their performance. Others noted that some teachers began to exhibit quicker irritability, a reduced threshold for withstanding pressures, and even sometimes more signs of violent behavior in class than previously, in addition to increased aggressiveness towards other teachers. Reports indicate that some in fact resorted to using sedatives/tranquilizers to be able to manage work and life in these circumstances. Some teachers were reported as having been gripped by so much fear during specific attacks that they escaped out of the school area during an incident, leaving others and the children behind! These severe stressors also reflected on attendance, with 9 schools (20%) reporting a higher level of teacher absenteeism last year, compared to the previous years, over and above absenteeism due to the inability to cross and reach the schools.

In contrast, we also have reports of teachers perceiving the events as the ultimate challenge of survival, increasing their sense of belonging, commitment and responsibility, surpassing personal interests and moving to embrace public ones. They were described as working very hard to cover other delayed or absent teachers without complaining, exhibiting a strong sense of understanding among each other, providing special care to the children, preparing loads of self learning packages and distributing them to children whenever this was possible. In short, they fulfilled their responsibilities as educators in ways that can only be termed exceptional and certainly beyond the call of duty.

Administrations were also very supportive by re-working schedules to suit better crossing times, by continuing to pay teachers full monthly salaries even when attendance was impossible, by asking the affected teachers not to attend school when particularly dangerous conditions prevailed, by providing temporary housing close to the school, and even by meeting the teachers at the checkpoint with the school bus.

Needs in Emergency

When asked about what they thought could be done to increase children’s safety while at school, a wide range of responses was obtained that we then categorized into manageable for the purposes groups. Of the total, 32 schools (66%) emphasized organizational aspects as a priority. Such organizational elements included planning out role distribution inside the school and outside with community, to help in evacuating children in case of need, improving directives issued by the Ministries of Education and Health to handle emergency, including a call for more visits by the MOE to the schools, coordinating transport of students out of schools with parents and community, and coordinating first aid activities with the relevant groups within the community.

Twenty six schools (54%) stressed that assistance in medical and health matters in emergency are a priority. Those included the setting up of school infirmaries, the acquisition of first aid boxes, training of staff and students in first aid, and training on how to increase safety at school in these circumstances, as this was not very evident. Twenty (42%) emphasized the need to acquire what is necessary for the overnight stay of faculty and students when needed. Such needs included food, water, lights, carpets and covers to allow for sleep, as well as medications and fire extinguishers. Nine schools (18%) emphasized the need for having a shelter, as well as sand bags to protect the children and the faculty during an attack. Five schools (10%) focused on the need for the help of counselors and psychologists at school to handle the problems at hand. Finally, 2 schools reported that no one is safe anywhere, even in homes, and that no matter what is done, children’s safety cannot be assured.

When asked about other needs to suit these difficult times, the flood gates opened, and the discussion extended to the ordinary wish list that one would imagine in a resource starved and contextually constrained environment: computer laboratories, resource centers, documentary films, extra telephone lines, activity centers and entertainment for students were among some of the demands. Interestingly, some called for public education in order to reduce the panic attacks that ensue as a result of an incident, and in order to reduce rumors that negatively affect community at large.

However, among the immediate and pressing demands is financial assistance to rehabilitate the schools, especially among the schools that were badly affected by violence last year. Those in particular stressed the need for physical reconstruction in order to make the schools more hospitable to children and safer. In addition, the schools also emphasized the severe financial conditions of students’ families, and the financially difficult conditions of the schools as a result, requesting financial assistance to help students who can no longer afford an education to continue to attend school. Finally, as the schools were increasingly coming to the realization that this stage of emergency seems to have no end, shelters equipped with what is needed for overnight safe student protection remains one of the important priorities for the schools in this urban area.

Concluding Remarks

Contrary to what is being transmitted by the Israeli propaganda machine, the Israeli Army’s so called ‘targeted attacks’ in fact primarily affected the civilian population and their institutions, especially children. This study demonstrates the various elements of the humanitarian damages that have been accrued by the school community, administrations, teachers and above all, children, as a result of the unilateral war that Israel is waging against the Palestinian civilian population.

As this school survey demonstrates, the ramifications of the Israeli onslaught of the past academic year on school children surpass the infrastructural damage of their habitat, both at school and at home, and have had a deep negative influence on children’s ability to learn, their sense of security, their mental health status, their dignity, and indeed, their consciousness. These children have been violated in every way, and are growing up being dominated by a sense of hate, a sense that can only pre-dispose to what is called ’ a tendency towards violent behaviour’. Indeed, violent behaviour is not a genetic predisposition, but is socially constructed. In the Palestinian case, the construction of violence begins and ends with Israeli Military Occupation.


1. Ministry of Education Appeal on the occasion of opening the new school year, released August 27, 2002.
2. Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 1999, Population, Housing and Establishment Census, 1997, Census Final Results- Summary (Population, Housing Units, Buildings and Establishments) Ramallah and al-Bireh Governorate, Ramallah, Palestine.