Palestinians’ battle for education pivotal to their fight for freedom
Several Palestinian students, along with teachers and officials, were wounded in an Israeli army attack on a school south of Nablus in the West Bank last week. The students of the school that serves the villages of As-Sawiya and Al-Lebban were challenging an Israeli military order to shut it down based on the ever-versatile accusation of it being a “site of popular terror and rioting.”
“Popular terror” is an Israeli army code for protests. The students, of course, have every right to protest, not just the Israeli military occupation but also the encroaching colonization of the settlements of Eli and Ma’ale Levona. These two illegal Jewish settlements have unlawfully confiscated thousands of dunams of land belonging to As-Sawiya and Al-Lebban.
The “Israeli citizens” that the occupation army is set to protect by shutting down the school are, in fact, the very armed Jewish settlers who have been terrorizing this West Bank region for years.
According to a 2016 study commissioned by the UN, at least 2,500 Palestinian students from 35 West Bank communities must cross through Israeli military checkpoints to reach their schools every day. About half of these students have reported army harassment and violence for merely attempting to get to their classes or back home.
However, this is only half of the story, as violent Jewish settlers are always on the lookout for Palestinian kids. According to the report, these settlers “also set up their own checkpoints” and engage in regular violence by “throwing stones” at children, or “physically pushing (Palestinian children) around.”
“UNICEF’s protective presence teams have reported that their volunteers have been subjected to physical attacks, harassment, arrest and detention, and death threats,” according to the same UN report. In other words, even the “protectors” themselves often fall victim to the army and Jewish settler terror tactics.
Add to this that Area C — a major part of the West Bank that is under full Israeli military control — represents the pinnacle of Palestinian suffering. An estimated 50,000 children face numerous hurdles, including a lack of facilities, access, violence, closure and unjustified demolition orders. The school serving As-Sawiya and Al-Lebban is located in Area C and is, therefore, at the total mercy of the Israeli military, which has no tolerance for any form of resistance, including non-violent protests by schoolchildren.
What is truly uplifting, however, is that, despite the Israeli military occupation and ongoing restrictions on Palestinian freedom, the Palestinian population remains one of the most educated in the Middle East. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the literacy rate in Palestine (estimated at 96.3 percent) is one of the highest in the region, and the illiteracy rate (3.7 percent among individuals over the age of 15) is one of the lowest in the world.
If these statistics are not heartening enough, bearing in mind the ongoing Israeli war on Palestinian school and curriculums, consider this: The besieged and war-stricken Gaza Strip has an even higher literacy rate than the West Bank, as they stand at 96.8 percent and 96 percent respectively.
In truth, this should not come as a total surprise. The first wave of Palestinian refugees that were ethnically cleansed from historic Palestine were so keen on ensuring their children continued their education that they established school tents, operated by volunteer teachers, as early as 1948.
Palestinians understand that education is their greatest weapon for obtaining their long-denied freedom. Israel, too, is aware of this truth, knowing that an empowered Palestinian population is far more capable of challenging Israeli dominance than a subdued one; thus the relentless and systematic targeting of the Palestinian educational system.
Israel’s strategy of destroying the infrastructure of the Palestinian schooling system is centered on the allegation of “terror.” That is, Palestinians teach “terror” in their schools; Palestinian school books celebrate “terrorists;” schools are sites for “popular terror,” and various other accusations that, as per Israeli logic, compels the army to seal off schools, demolish facilities, and arrest and shoot students.
Take, for example, the recent comments made by the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, who is now leading a government campaign aimed at shutting down operations by the UN organization that caters for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. “The time has come to remove UNRWA from Jerusalem,” Barkat announced this month. Without any evidence whatsoever, Barkat claimed that “UNRWA strengthens terrorism,” and that “this is what children of Jerusalem are taught under their auspices: Terrorism. And this must stop.”
The Israeli military has no tolerance for any form of resistance, including non-violent protests by schoolchildren.
Of course, Barkat is being dishonest. The jibe at UNRWA in Jerusalem is part of a larger Israeli-US campaign aimed at shutting down an organization that has proved central to the status and welfare of Palestinian refugees. According to this skewed thinking, without UNRWA, Palestinian refugees would have no legal platform, thus closing down UNRWA is closing down the chapter of Palestinian refugees and their right of return altogether.
The shutting down of the school serving As-Sawiya and Al-Lebban, the targeting of UNRWA by Israel and the US, and the numerous checkpoints separating students from their schools in the West Bank have more in common than Israel’s false allegation of “terror.” Israeli writer Orly Noy summed up the Israeli logic in one sentence. “By destroying schools in Palestinian villages in Area C and elsewhere, Israel is forcing Palestinians to make a cruel choice — between their land and their children’s futures,” she wrote earlier this year.
It is this brutal logic that has guided the Israeli government strategy regarding Palestinian education for 70 years. It is a war that cannot be discussed or understood outside the larger war on Palestinian identity, freedom, and, in fact, the very existence of the Palestinian people.
The students’ fight for their right to education in As-Sawiya and Al-Lebban is by no means an isolated skirmish involving Palestinian schoolkids and trigger-happy Israeli soldiers. Rather, it is at the heart of the Palestinian people’s fight for their freedom.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is “The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story” (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud