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As one million Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza Strip prepare to return to school next week, UN agencies and the Palestinian Ministry of Education have been stressing the problems schoolchildren face in the occupied Palestinian territory [oPt].
“We should celebrate – in spite of all the hardships – going back to school,” said Filippo Grandi, the deputy-commissioner of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, at a press conference held under the banner of “Unite for Education”.
At the same time he noted that 76 Palestinian children had been killed so far this year, a 50 percent rise on last year.
UN officials and Lamis El-Alami, minister of education in the Ramallah-based caretaker government of the Palestinian Authority (PA), said the Israeli imposed system of roadblocks, walls and checkpoints was impeding Palestinian movement in the West Bank, while the Gaza Strip was still under a tight blockade.
“We have not yet seen the positive impact of the ceasefire on the regular people, the children,” said Grandi, referring to an agreement between Hamas, which rules Gaza, and Israel to end hostilities.
UNRWA-run remedial classes
This time last year UNRWA was reporting a substantial drop in the number of children passing their examinations in the enclave, particularly in Arabic and mathematics, but Grandi said that as part of UNRWA’s summer programme, remedial classes were offered to weaker students, allowing 80 percent of them to catch up and rejoin their peers in the new school year.
The UN Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF’s) Patricia McPhillips said her agency ran youth centres with the PA to help adolescents failing in school.
“Education is a lifeline, a much needed semblance of normalcy,” she said, saying that children’s lives in the oPt were “framed by conflict, occupation and the fast growing poverty around them”.
McPhillips said education was the “most important investment in the future”.
In East Jerusalem, Palestinians encountered other difficulties with the education system. The PA’s El-Alami said a central problem was the lack of a clear governing body for schools in East Jerusalem.
Israel does not allow the PA to function in Jerusalem and has been accused by rights groups of discriminating against the Palestinian population there (who received residency when the Israelis annexed the eastern part of the city some years after the 1967 occupation).
According to the Alternative Information Centre, an Israeli-Palestinian NGO, the dropout rate among boys in East Jerusalem high schools can reach 50 percent, and the quality of education is so low that some Palestinian students reach the ninth grade without knowing how to read or write.
El-Alami said the movement restrictions meant good teachers from the West Bank could not travel to East Jerusalem, creating a shortage in the Holy City.
Gidi Schmerling, a spokesman for Jerusalem Municipality, said large-scale improvements were being made to East Jerusalem schools.
“In recent years, Israel and the municipality invested tens of millions to make the East Jerusalem education system an advanced and leading one,” he told IRIN, adding, as an example, that most funds for new buildings were allocated to the eastern section of the city.
Israel also says the movement restrictions help protect its civilians and soldiers in the West Bank and inside the country proper.
Meanwhile in a related development, the European Union on 20 August gave 40 million euros to the PA for budget support, beyond the promises it made at last year’s Paris donor conference where donors had pledged some US$7.7 billion.
However, PA officials said some Arab donors had not followed through on pledges, leaving the caretaker government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad cash-strapped. The new donation will, among other things, allow the PA to pay salaries, including to teachers.
In recent months the government has had trouble paying salaries on time – something that has undermined the internationally-backed regime.
NB: Italics have been added for emphasis by The Right to Education Campaign