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Tala Abu Rahmeh, Student of Birzeit University, 20 May 2005
In Palestine, almost everyday a life is lost, young children are shot on their way to school, playing outside or just sitting in their homes. Parents feel incredibly helpless in the face of daily danger, in the face of a monster that snatches their lives and dreams so recklessly.
In Palestine there are a million reasons that could drive us slowly to our own end everyday, but there are also a million other reasons that help us stand up fiercely.
Each one of us gets to experience his personal victory: we win every time we stand for hours on a checkpoint or a road block in the burning sun or pouring rain and eventually pass it and reach our destination; every time we survive a night of continuous bombing with our souls and minds intact and not fractured; and every time we refuse to capitulate while walking in a child’s funeral.
In the midst of all this, it would be so much easier to give up the fight for education just like everything else, but our resilient hunger for knowledge keeps us from falling and crumbling in ignorance.
Knowledge picks us up from the depths of sadness, agony and death that invade our smallest details. When you are living in the middle of a chaotic, unjust conflict, you need something overwhelming to cling on to in order to find liberation, salvation and freedom.
In Palestine education is our liberation, salvation and freedom.
I will never forget one night in the middle of April 2002. Back then April stopped having dates and names, it was just an endless month of wind and curfew, where particles of dusty monsoons hung on my window and inside my throat and splashed upon my body and mind.
On that night during the reoccupation of Ramallah – my city that never rested from the occupation to begin with – we were bombarded by Israeli tanks and helicopters from all directions, as if the bombs were falling on every single home. I remember lying on the bed with my eyes wide open, waiting for the pieces of a coming bomb to fall on my face. I simply lay there thinking that tomorrow will never come.
During the countless moments, I remembered school where I was only two weeks before. My friend had told me then that he was so stressed from our senior year exams and wished for a long vacation. I had smiled and wished the same, not foreseeing that our wish could turn into this living nightmare.
That endless night was prolonged for 25 days, 25 days of continuous curfew, shelling, bombing, house searches, arrests and a completely paralyzed existence.
During that year more than 18,000 senior high school students, just like me, were due to take their ‘Tawjihi’ exams, which is equivalent to SATs or GCSEs. The Palestinian Ministry of Education usually holds these exams in June, with the results due two months later. These results determine your admission into the college and specialization of your choice: the ticket to getting accepted into university.
During the April reoccupation we lost an entire month of preparation for those exams. Even when the 24-hour curfew ended, the Israeli forces imposed a 12-hour curfew starting from 6:00 pm till 6:00 am every night, sometimes they did not even lift the curfew for the next day.
The situation deteriorated even further in June. When our exams were due to take place, Israeli forces roamed the streets with jeeps and tanks and prohibited students from reaching their exam halls. Tests had to reassigned several times, and some tests had to be retaken because curfew was imposed in the middle of the exam and students had to run home so as not be shot or arrested.
I remember one incident when the curfew was supposedly lifted, and I was getting ready to leave my house and head to the exam hall when a tank pulled over in the street and started bombing the next street leading to the exam hall!
Not only did the Israeli forces make it practically impossible to take our exams, but their continuous incursions made it even harder to mark the exams and hand in the results. The results came out two weeks late and the curfew prohibited us from collecting them, so the Ministry of Education aired the results over the radio in association with a local radio station.
My story is just one small example of the Israeli oppression that has been targeting education for the past 38 years. Since the eruption for the second Intifada in 2000, the Israeli government has practiced every possible method to prevent Palestinians from getting a proper education.
In October 2002, Pierre Poppard the Special Representative of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in the West Bank and Gaza stated: ‘A generation of Palestinian children is being denied their right to an education.’ He said that more than 226,000 children and over 9,300 teachers were unable to reach their formal classrooms and at least 580 schools had been closed due to Israeli army curfews and closures. Israeli officials had no immediate comment when asked by journalists about their responsibility for a basic human right being denied to a whole nation’s children”.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education, 32 teachers, 579 school students and 199 university students have been killed by Israeli forces; 176 teachers, 669 school students, and 720 university students have been detained in addition to 45 teachers; and 3471 school students and 1245 university students have been injured since the beginning of the current Intifada in September 2000.
Moreover, 1289 schools have been disrupted and closed because of curfews, sieges and districts closures since September 2000, while 269 school buildings and 8 universities were damaged as a result of shelling and clashing by the Israeli forces.
It is frustrating to think about the irreplaceable damage this conflict and continuous aggression has caused students and teachers in Palestine. But at the same time, people have never given up: throughout Palestinian history under occupation and in exile, alternatives have always been created to fight Israel’s intent to spread ignorance and undermine the development of our society.
A just peace is the actual tangible solution for all our problems, including the barriers to education. The Israeli occupation must be ended and a fair peace agreement implemented, but until then we will continue to create our own alternatives and strategies to maintain the educational process.
Taking a stand against injustice and collective punishments practiced by the Israeli army everyday is exhausting, we all wish that we could wake up in the morning and not sigh about having to cross a checkpoint, go around the Annexation Wall or stand in line in front of a roadblock, but the human capacity to endure pain increases when fighting for a just cause, and a place we so proudly call home.
Tala Abu Rahmeh is a student in the English Department at Birzeit University