Back to school, tear gas and rubber-coated bullets


ISRAEL:Palestinian education is ruptured by the conflict with Israel and between Hamas and Fatah, writes Michael Jansen

ALMOST 1.1 million Palestinian students went back to school at the end of last month, eager to see their friends and return to class. But Palestinian students face unique risks and challenges.

The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which looks after refugees, reports that at least "82 children, including 21 UNRWA students won't be going back to school. They were killed this year, victims of the violence that frames daily life here for children: 76 were killed in the conflict with Israel and six in intra-Palestinian violence."

The Palestinian Authority's school system - serving 70 per cent of students in the West Bank and Gaza; the UNRWA system serving 24 per cent; and private schools serving 6 per cent - face severe problems. Eighty-five per cent of UNRWA schools in Gaza and 20 per cent of authority schools in the West Bank operate two shifts a day, reducing learning time. While 80 per cent of children of school age are enrolled, increasing numbers are staying home because families cannot afford uniforms, books and transport. Standards are falling.

Traumatised by constant violence, children are disruptive and do not focus on their books.

In the West Bank, children and teachers cross Israel's 600-plus roadblocks and checkpoints, risking harassment. Israeli troops raid schools and playgrounds. When students respond with stone-throwing, Israeli soldiers fire tear gas, sound bombs, and rubber-coated steel balls which kill and maim. The Fatah- dominated Palestinian Authority closed West Bank Hamas- affiliated and Muslim charity-run kindergartens, orphanages and schools.

In Gaza, many children and teachers cannot attend school be- cause of a lack of fuel for transport due to Israel's blockade. Israel has not allowed school supplies into the Strip, leaving Gazans to buy expensive items smuggled in from Egypt.

Hostility between Fatah and Hamas also threatens to disrupt schools. On August 24th, the first day of school, the Fatah-run teachers' union declared a strike. Hamas retaliated by firing absent teachers (60-65 per cent) and replacing them with new graduates. Striking teachers fear punishment by Hamas while those who go to their jobs anticipate re- prisals by Fatah.

Although Israel barred the importation of building materials for the agency's $90 million (€63 million) school building and upgrading programme, UNRWA opened 200 new schools and gave each student $25 for supplies. UNRWA is providing 120,000 of its students with noon meals.

Israel has allowed only 58 of 600-odd Gazan students to take up places at foreign universities. Although an unknown number was allowed to leave through the Rafah terminal which Egypt opened recently, many students did not bother to apply because they thought they would be trapped.

Compounding the politically motivated disruption, all university employees at nine West Bank and Gaza universities are observing an on-and-off strike, demanding an 80 per cent increase. Ghassan Khatib, vice president of the West Bank's Birzeit university, said: "Salaries are so low that they are affecting the quality of education. Teachers are leaving the profession."

Palestinian parents are dismayed and distraught. Since Israel was founded 60 years ago, displaced and dispossessed families have relied on education to secure a decent future for their children. Today education seems to be a fading dream.