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Palestine – Education Under the Gun

December 6, 2011

This is the first of two articles by Linda Baily about her experiences in Palestine. Linda previously allowed me to reproduce her article about the work of an Israeli activist group monitoring the treatment by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) at the checkpoints between Israel and the territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

 Linda works for Quaker Peace and Social Witness as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). Here she describes her visits to various schools in the West Bank, and the corrosive effect of unemployment on the prospects for children in Palestinian communities that prize education and have an exceptionally high literacy rate:

 “The occupying Power shall….. facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children.” (Article 50, 4th Geneva Convention)

Many parents today worry about sending their children to school. In Britain if you go back two generations many children walked to school but today most are delivered to the door by parents worried about their children’s safety. Whilst in the occupied Palestinian territories, as an Ecumenical Accompanier (EA), I have visited a number of schools and in some of them any parental concerns over their children’s safety is totally justified.

In Tuqu, near Bethlehem EA’s regularly observe the children of the village going to school. The girls and small children’s school is at the top of a hill with a busy road running past the school, and the boys school is down the bottom of the hill and halfway up the next, in between is a large area of wasteland. Running alongside the busy road is a wall with a large chain-link fence on top to prevent children throwing stones at the cars, also standing on the wall are four armed Israeli soldiers. The EA’s stand and observe from the wasteland as children appear from all over the hillsides. Some are going up and some are going down, some are only six years old, but all have to walk on the wall past the soldiers and their M16 assault rifles. We are there, monitoring the situation, at the request of the headmaster of the boy’s school, after soldiers had been searching the boy’s school bags and had even entered the school the previous week. The soldiers are there to protect the passing motorists not the children.

In a Bedouin community north of Jericho in the Jordan Valley a school is being constructed out of mud bricks. They previously had two caravans in which they taught fifty to sixty children but these were removed by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) as they had no permit and they are in Area C (under the Oslo Accords the West Bank was divided into areas A,B and C. Area C, is 60% of the West Bank and under Israeli military control which allows no building, (except for the settlements, which are illegal under International Law, they are under Israeli civil control and are able to build and expand) The mud brick building now has a demolition order on it.

Further up the Jordan Valley is the village of Al Aqaba also in Area C where 95% of the village buildings have a demolition order on them including the school and kindergarten. The pupils here not only have to deal with the normal difficulties of education but are also in the middle of a military exercise area. These happen regularly without warning and can involve up to 1000 soldiers, tanks and planes. The children have been ordered off the school bus by the military and made to walk to school, not surprisingly; both teachers and pupils report being scared and finding it hard to concentrate on lessons when the army is about. One pupil in September had to be informed by his teacher that whilst he had been in school the IDF had demolished his home. Maybe that is why when we asked him, what he wants to be when he grows up, he responded “a lawyer”. Full marks for attempting to find a way he can try and prevent the destruction of his community without resorting to violence.

The Palestinians as a nation are well educated and put a great emphasis on educational attainment. According to a youth survey carried out by The World Bank and Bisan Centre for research and development in 2003, 60% between the ages 10-14 indicated that education was their first priority. Youth literacy rate (ages 15-24) is 98.2% while the national literacy rate is 99.8%. Sadly, due to the state of the Palestinian economy, even those who work hard and go on to further education often have little hope of finding meaningful employment. The headmistress at the girl’s school in Tuqu told us that there were 3000 new teachers from Bethlehem University, but the Palestinian Authority only employed twenty. A young graphic designer asked us if there was any way we could help him leave the country to find employment and it is not unusual to discover your taxi driver has more qualifications than his passengers!

These young people are the future of a Palestinian State, they have so much to offer and have achieved their education under difficult circumstances and often at great cost to their families, they need to see the world encouraging them on to a better and brighter future than the one that they find themselves in now. They need to experience the richness of life in peace, not the bitterness and futility of life under occupation.

Depressing reading, and deserving of a wider audience than I can provide. How many more generations will be blighted in Palestine before the politicians finally do the right thing by them?

In her next article, Linda discusses the plight of Palestine’s dwindling Christian community….

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