Blog: Occupied, a warm welcome in hostile territories
Fórsa’s Head of Education ANDY PIKE has recently returned from a field trip examining education provision in the occupied Palestinian territories, organised by the Trade Union Friends of Palestine. Andy was joined by 17 trade unionists, including education sector activists from Fórsa, the INTO, NIPSA and UNISON. They travelled to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Jordan Valley. Andy writes here about how the delegation were not fully prepared for what they found, the dedication of the teaching and other staff they met there and concludes “We can have nothing but admiration for those struggling to provide an education to students under occupation in the most trying of conditions.”
Our field trip’s mission was to examine education provision in the occupied Palestinian territories. I was joined by member activists including school secretary Kathleen O’Doherty, SNAs Annette Murphy and Niamh Jordan and Shelley Healey from the union’s Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown branch.
We received a briefing at the outset about the legal status of Palestinians in Israel, occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank respectively from independent human rights organization Adalah and the community led initiative, Grassroots. This was helpful in outlining the ways in which Palestinian rights differ depending on location and status.
Rights are segmented, in East Jerusalem Palestinians can be granted rights of residency – but not citizenship – rendering them technically stateless no matter how long their family has lived in the city.
In the West Bank Palestinians have no right to enter, work or study in East Jerusalem or Israel without permits. Permits that are impossible to obtain.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has control of some areas in the West Bank. However, most areas fall either under joint Israeli / Palestinian control or under direct Israeli control. Israel maintains a tight security presence across all areas.
The education system is similarly fragmented with services provided by the Palestinian Authority, the UN, Israeli Municipal Authority (in Jerusalem) and also by private providers.
The Palestinian Ministry of Education briefed us on the difficulties parents in East Jerusalem face in ensuring that their children are educated under a Palestinian curriculum. All new schools established in East Jerusalem only teach the Israeli curriculum, which Palestinians believe distorts history and denies their heritage.
The first school we visited was the Al Fataa Al Laji’a Primary School for girls which is just outside the walls of the old city. As the Israeli authorities refuse permission for the construction of Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem, this school operates in converted residential buildings. The school is funded by the Palestinian Authority but its status is not recognised by Israel.
The school staff gave us a warm welcome and introduced us to the children. They are the same as children anywhere. Excited, curious and proud of their school and their culture.
Next we visited the Al Wifaq primary school, inside the old city of East Jerusalem situated in a residential building on the first floor. The school is mixed and provides education under the most difficult of circumstances.
The playground is a small internal courtyard with no space for children to run or play. The classrooms are cramped and dark, but are decorated with the same artwork and pictures you see in any classroom in the west. The children were lively, friendly and curious. Israeli settlers have occupied the adjacent building and use the same stairwell as students entering and leaving the school. This has led to tension and some clashes, deterring parents from sending their children to school.
We met the head of the Jerusalem branch of the Palestinian Authority’s Education Ministry Samir Jibrel, who explained the difficulties in coping with cuts in funding to the PA to the extent that staff salaries were not paid for several months last year.
He outlined the difficulties across East Jerusalem in finding premises, the incursions of Israeli soldiers into schools, arrests and abuse from Israeli settlers. Notwithstanding these severe difficulties he said parents wanted children educated according to the official Palestinian curriculum.
We left the tense atmosphere of East Jerusalem hoping that in the West Bank things would be easier. They were not.
We visited the Al Aroub refugee camp near Bethlehem which has existed since 1948. Israeli settlers have established a large settlement close to the camp, protected by a watchtower and checkpoint at the main entrance to Al Aroub.
As we entered the camp it was clear that clashes had taken place between Palestinians and security forces earlier in the day. This is apparently commonplace, as is the arbitrary arrest and detention of young people.
We met with staff in the UN Health Centre to discuss child health issues. Dr Azziz is in charge of 22 similar facilities across the West Bank, and reported high incidents of anaemia and other medical conditions linked to poor diet and depravation.
He discussed the main health issues affecting children and young people. Heightened anxiety, poor mental health, and risks of abuse as well as physiological problems associated with poverty.
The main health issues affecting children and young people include heightened anxiety and poor mental health, risks of abuse as well as physiological problems associated with poverty.
The UN is struggling to maintain services in the wake of recent a $400m cut in US funding and will try to maintain primary healthcare across the West Bank, but this effort will come at a cost as the international peacekeeping body will have to draw back from funding secondary or acute hospital care as a consequence.
We visited the after-school centre in the camp. This was an impressive facility funded by local residents and staffed by volunteers. The centre aims to provide a home-from-home for children aged between six and 16. Defence of Children Palestine’s work documents abuses of children across the occupied territories. A number of children act as points of contact for young people experiencing difficulties such as problems in the home or at school.
It’s impossible to express just how much these young people impressed us. They were fully aware of the daily risks of living under occupation and also of the political context. Yet they were level headed, positive and practical in their approach to helping other young people deal with complex problems.
It’s impossible to express just how these young people impressed us.
We visited a school in Hebron situated in the middle of the old town where thousands of Palestinians live in a militarised zone with multiple check points.
We witnessed teachers and others undergoing several physical checks on their way into work. Perhaps the most distressing spectacle was the treatment of the school children on their way to school. Their bags were searched and contents upturned on inspection benches, boys were required to lift shirts and show their torso and legs in front of heavily armed soldiers.
Speaking to their mothers it was clear that the process causes untold stress for parents unsure of the safety of their child on the way to and from school. The old City of Hebron has witnessed many atrocities over the years including the Ibrahim Mosque massacre in 1994. On the morning we arrived a Muslim woman was shot in the leg close to the Mosque.
Another warm welcome awaited us, we found the local school vibrant with students keen to meet us and find out why we were visiting. The staff were frank about the difficulties of funding and concerns over the safety of their students. Even in these conditions we could sense the determination that the school would continue its work under very harsh conditions.
Their bags were searched and contents upturned on inspection benches, boys were required to lift shirts and show their torso and legs in front of heavily armed soldiers.
As anyone who has visited can testify, Hebron is a grim place. On the surface it can seem devoid of human kindness. We all found the military system of checkpoints and armed soldiers on literally every corner threatening and de-humanising, a system designed to reduce the Palestinian population. A place where every Israeli settler is ‘protected’ by at least one soldier. Yet the process of educating Palestinian children continues. Within its schools life continues, children are loved and cared for and encouraged to succeed.
Dr Samah Jaber Head works in Mental Health at the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health. She explained the ongoing effects of the conflict on young people and how essentially the trauma had become institutionalised. She talked about the numbers of young people in Israeli detention, and how the system of military justice deals with young people.
We also met with the human rights NGO Al Haq in Ramallah. They explained the context to a recent teacher’s strike and the difficulties in asserting trade union rights with the Palestinian Authority which employs education staff.
We had an interesting meeting with the Official General Teachers Union of Palestine. Their General Secretary was frank with us: 14,000 Palestinian teachers and support staff had taken 33 days of strike action seeking pay rises and better conditions without leadership or support from the official union. He said the union had now held elections for the first time in many years and had representatives from the unofficial strike on its new Executive Committee.
We could not delve too deeply into these claims and counterclaims but it was clear that the Palestinian Authority, as an employer, gave cause for determined continuous strike action for over a month. At least the GTUP admitted past problems but we spoke to one activist who told us that nothing had changed and the leaders of the strike had been forced to take early retirement. Very early retirement, in one case at the age of only 33.
Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS)
The final phase of the trip focused on the expert views of Dr Al Butmeh, Dr Nimer and Dr Jacaman from Birzeit University. They explained the effects of the conflict on the mental health of students, the ways in which the conflict compromised the right to education for Palestinians and the need to build the movement for the Boycott of Israeli goods, disinvestment from Israeli assets and impose sanctions.
We witnessed the huge grey walls built all around Palestinian neighbourhoods and visited the dead towns walled off from places of work and worship and left to decay.
We visited the Bedouins in the Jordan Valley who live alongside their livestock and raise their families, determined to stay on their ancestral land, under the shadow of the armed watchtowers.
Clearing the land of people appears to be the policy.
We found a swimming pool, the only one we saw on our visit. It was in the basement of an apartment block which had been the home to four families. The building had been denied planning permission so seven Israeli bulldozers had arrived a few months before giving residents only 30 minutes to remove their belongings.
It took them three hours to demolish the building, leaving only the underground basement. The remains of the swimming pool was filled with rubble. One can only imaging the effects on the children watching their home being destroyed in front of them. Amongst the rubble we found a child’s abandoned pushchair.
This story was repeated everywhere we went. No permission for the houses or the schools. Fines have to be paid for the lack of permissions but even when the fines are paid buildings can be demolished without notice. Clearing the land of people appears to be the policy.
All our delegates returned with concerns over just how these conditions continue to affect children and their education. The dedication of the teaching and other staff we met was tremendous and we can have nothing but admiration for those struggling to provide an education to students under occupation in the most trying of conditions.
We must redouble our efforts to ensure that Israeli and Palestinian children are given equal life chances. Education offers hope of a better life, such hope is scarce in Palestine and those sustaining hope deserve our wholehearted support.
Please support the BDS Campaign to which Fórsa is affiliated you can find out more on the BDS website.