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Palestinian schools in occupied East Jerusalem face existential threat

Jerusalem24 – Yara Alnazer – Jerusalemite children in occupied East Jerusalem face a particular set of challenges among Palestinian children, including a high number of arrests at the hands of Israeli police, frequent prison or house arrest sentences, high poverty levels, and lack of access to services and infrastructure.

This is in addition to a convoluted school system that is increasingly under threat by Israeli authorities, who seek to “Judaize” the occupied city (which they annexed in 1980 in a move not recognized internationally) and have even launched a 5-year plan to that end, which involves taking control of the Palestinian education sector in occupied East Jerusalem – and, more generally, the Palestinian narrative.

“The essence of our identity”

“In Jerusalem we have four education systems,” Fadi Al-Hidmi, the Palestinian Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, tells Jerusalem24. “We have the Palestinian, we have the Israeli municipality-funded schools, we have UNRWA schools, and we have private schools.”

All but the Israeli-funded schools teach the Palestinian curriculum. Yet with these three different options available, just around 50% of East Jerusalem’s 95,000 Palestinian students end up going to Israeli-run schools and learning the Israeli curriculum.

This high percentage is a result of deliberate Israeli measures to limit the capacity of the Palestinian education sector, says Al-Hidmi, which include preventing the construction of new schools, the closure of offices of the Palestinian directorate for education in Jerusalem, and even preventing the presence of Palestinian officials in East Jerusalem. Private schools face similar pressures, he says, as they also teach the Palestinian curriculum.

“Since the city has been occupied in 1967, Israel has been trying to overtake the Palestinian presence in the education sector,” explains Al-Hidmi, “because education is the essence of our presence, identity, generations, children. So it’s one of the Israeli strategies in East Jerusalem, to overtake the Palestinian education sector and to impose the Israeli curriculum – or the Israeli version of the story – in our Palestinian schools.”

A means to an end

This attack on education is just one of many tactics in Israel’s stated goal of Judaizing the city, as per the 5-year-plan launched in 2018.

Al-Hidmi cites house demolitions, illegal Israeli settlement expansions, and settler provocations at Islamic and Christian holy sites, as just some of these tactics.

“This is an effort to make East Jerusalem a sort of ghetto, to be very marginalized within what they call the Israeli municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, their vision for Jerusalem. [It’s] the same as they did for Jaffa and Tel Aviv, where Jaffa used to be the hub, the center, and now it’s a small entity within the municipal boundaries of Tel Aviv.”

“They want to distort the demographic presence of Palestinians, and create a sort of imbalance, and introduce Jewish presence to East Jerusalem.”

According to Al-Hidmi, chief among these tactics is the attack on education, because “it touches our core identity as Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem.”

A question of narrative

Al-Hidmi explains that the curriculum Israeli authorities are trying to impose on several Palestinian schools in occupied East Jerusalem presents a “distorted version” of the Palestinian story. “This is a real violation of basic rights of the people living under occupation for free education.”

“If you do a simple comparison with West Jerusalem where Orthodox Jews live and have their own education system and curriculum – no one from the Israeli side is questioning the way they are educating their children.”

The Palestinian curriculum, on the other hand, is subject to strict Israeli and even international scrutiny, with the European Union going as far as withholding financial aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hungary charged that its contents were “inciteful” against Israel.

“The Israelis want us to learn their version of the story,” says Al-Hidmi. “They want us to use their own vocabulary, their own dictionary. As an example, we call the wall surrounding Jerusalem an “apartheid wall”, they may call it something else, they may call it for security reason. In our Palestinian dictionary we use the vocabulary of shaheed [martyr].”

“They don’t want us to use such vocabulary, which is part of the Palestinian composition and part of the Palestinian struggle for independence and freedom. They want our children, our future generations to forget about our history, our core struggle against the illegal – illegal,” emphasizes Al-Hidmi, “occupation of Palestine and East Jerusalem.”

Where harassment has become routine

Beyond the attacks on the Palestinian curriculum and the educational institutions themselves, Palestinian schoolchildren must overcome on a daily basis numerous obstacles not imposed on their Israeli Jewish counterparts.

These include flying checkpoints established in the vicinity of schools at which students can be searched or detained, or physical attacks on both students and teachers such as the firing of teargas or sound bombs at the school entrance or even inside classrooms.

“Children and youth, while they are on their way to or from schools, they are arrested, they are harassed, and subjected to all measures of harassment, just because they are Palestinians,” says Al-Hidmi.

This experience mirrors the treatment of Palestinian Jerusalemites elsewhere in the city, points out A-Hidmi. “Palestinians are not even allowed to sit in Damascus Gate: the presence of Palestinian youth in Damascus Gate provokes the Israeli occupation authorities. They come and arrest Palestinian youth, just for being present on the streets of Jerusalem, the Old City of Jerusalem.”

An effort to displace Palestinians

All of these measures combined put the children and their parents under pressure, says Al-Hidmi, so that they end up going to an Israeli municipal school.

This is in addition to Israeli-run schools receiving better funding than their Palestinian counterparts. “They have the facilities, they have the money,” says Al-Hidmi.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem face discrimination in terms of access to services and infrastructure, even though they pay equivalent – or higher – taxes to the Israeli states than Jewish Israelis. This has been a contributing factor to the astronomically high figure of 80% of Palestinian Jerusalemites living in poverty.

This policy of heavy taxation on Palestinian merchants in the Old City, the restrictions on construction, and the negligence of the economic sector in East Jerusalem are “an effort to force Palestinians to leave Jerusalem”, says Al-Hidmi.

And when it comes to the Palestinian education sector and the restrictions on construction and expansions (even additional classrooms) it faces, “it’s an entire cycle, a vicious cycle where the Israelis impose occupation and restrictions on a daily basis which result in poverty, and a situation where Jerusalem people find it very challenging to live there.”

“This is a total violation of human rights, especially the right of education, which are guaranteed by the Fourth Geneva Convention by all international humanitarian rights,” decries Al-Hidmi. “We are not here talking about numbers, we are talking about human beings, real cases of violations of international law and basic human rights.”

A drop in the ocean

Regional and international donors are working to support the education sector and improve the overall environment of teaching and learning in occupied East Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority signed a $6.3 million agreement with Norway and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on 19 October in support of the education sector in East Jerusalem.

The funding will provide for the construction of a secondary school consisting of 12 classrooms for 350 girls, and will also fund the establishment of 15 science, technology, engineering and mathematics laboratories, in addition to supporting extra-curricular programs for 25 schools, according to Middle East Eye.

In addition to improving facilities and infrastructure, the grant is also “focusing on solar systems and solar panels, in order to save the running expenses of schools […] so this will help with the sustainability and saving a lot of the expenditures of the schools,” says Al-Hidmi, who explains that schools in East Jerusalem often struggle with running expenses.

But with such strategic and systemic attacks leveled against it, is this funding no more than a drop in the ocean for the Jerusalemite Palestinian education sector?

Al-Hidmi says yes and no. “It’s an important contribution from Norway. But we are struggling from a brutal occupation, whereby they have the facilities and the funds for schools, [whereas] definitely we are always in shortage of classrooms and new facilities.”

He also says the education sector is in contact with donors other than Norway. “As for our strategic plan for Jerusalem and for the education sector in particular, we have projects for new schools in order to counteract the percentage of Palestinians attending Israeli municipal schools.”

“It is crucial to pay attention to the education sector.”

Al-Hidmi also hints at “new opportunities coming from the Arab world” via a conference of the Arab League, which is to be held on 12 February in Cairo, Egypt. “We will be presenting new projects for education.”

“We hope [the conference] will tackle important issues when it comes to adding new classrooms, adding more incentives to teachers, and improve the infrastructure of the education sector, introducing new laborites, new facilities, so we can attract more students.”

Until the conference takes place, Palestinian schoolchildren can only sit tight, and keep affronting their daily difficulties with the same resilience they have demonstrated so far.

Listen to the full interview with Fadi Al-Hidmi on Vibes.

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