Four spunky girls from the Al Saud family in Qalandia, ranging in age from seven and a half to thirteen and a half, are excited about the new school year and the challenges of each successive grade. Their faces glow with enthusiasm despite the four hours of daily travel they undergo in eight different vehicles to and from their Beit Hanina school. The dusty Qalandia checkpoint is filled with their peers, who wait in the sun for Israeli soldiers to wave them across political boundaries, day after day.
Curfews sometimes force a break in this routine and the Al Saud girls have been trapped in East Jerusalem before, taken in by teachers for the night. Hana’, who is careful to note the extra six months’ experience each girl had gained since her last birthday, remembers times when there has been teargas at the checkpoint and they had to cover their faces with their white school scarves. Undeterred, she shrugs, “We are not scared of the soldiers, we’ve grown used to this.”
Nearly one million Palestinian students started a new school year this week – a full one third of the population taking to the streets and trying to go about its business. Like the Al Saud girls, many have come up against obstacles. High school students living in Al Mawasi in southern Gaza are unable to obtain travel permits to get to school in Rafah, and residents of Nablus, Jenin, Hebron, and Qalqaliya have already lost school days to curfew.
The dangers facing students can be fatal: three students were killed early this week by helicopter fire in Tubas, only one day after school started. Approximately 250 students have been killed since the Al Aqsa Intifada began 23 months ago, some of them on their way to and from school. Riham Ward, age 12, was killed by Israeli tanks in her Jenin classroom last year. Another 2,600 students have been wounded, hundreds of whom now sustain permanent injuries. More than 150 other students have been imprisoned, leaving their desks empty for an indefinite period of time. Many schools began the new academic year with commemorations for the classmates who have been lost; flowers were placed on empty seats in Gaza, Bethlehem, Hebron and other Palestinian towns.
Samir Hashmeh, director of student affairs at the Ramallah Friends School, acknowledges that many students are apprehensive about their safety and nervous about going to school under military occupation. To help them deal with psychological stress, the school holds weekly meetings to discuss the students’ reactions to these intimidating circumstances. “We also have various activities that allow the students to express themselves in alternative ways, through playing and talking, as well as drama, chorus, art and traditional Palestinian dance,” Hashmeh elaborated.
Officials recognize that this may be an exceptionally difficult school year. In many cases, new textbooks were transported by donkey due to the numerous military obstacles blocking their path. On the first day of school, a female teacher passed out from sunstroke while waiting to cross a checkpoint. Three schools in Hebron’s Old City remain occupied Israeli military barracks, and teachers and administrators continue to fear arbitrary arrest and detention.
In defiance of these daunting trials, schools throughout the Palestinian Territories have been preparing for a successful new year, working to protect their students and keep the educational process on track. Fifty schools have been relocated to areas away from confrontation points, and new services are being provided for disabled students. Meanwhile, numerous local and international charitable organizations have been distributing school bags and supplies to students whose families cannot afford these staples. The deteriorating economic circumstances have made education a real burden on many, and some districts are working to pardon school fees for families affected by home demolitions and land destruction.
The Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights, a human rights organization and government watchdog, has praised the Ministry of Education, characterizing it as the government agency most responsive to difficulties posed by the escalating Israeli military activity. PICCR’s 2001 report credited the ministry’s success with its emergency plans, which include efforts to place teachers in schools close to their homes in order to minimize delays caused by checkpoints. Still, the Israeli military incursions into Ramallah last spring wreaked havoc on the ministry’s infrastructure. Israeli soldiers destroyed computers and files, ransacking the ministry headquarters and causing irreparable damage.
Rima Samman, public relations director in the Ministry of Education, explained that school emergency committees were created two years ago to deal with the increasing new dangers. “In the case of any incident,” she said, “the committees decide whether to close the school and send students home, or whether the students would be safer if they stayed in the school building.”
Hashmeh noted that the Friends school actually has shelters for use in such emergencies. The school’s contingency plans include holding make-up days after curfews are lifted and sending course materials and assignments via email in the case of extended curfews. Teachers may visit students in the hospital or their home and even administer tests there so that injured students don’t fall behind. “Last year the Tawjihi matriculation exam was given in hospitals,” remembered Samman, a measure taken so that wounded students would not have to repeat their final year of high school.
Indeed, getting an education despite the challenges is seen as one means of political protest. Several official and grassroots organizations have called on students to further the Palestinian cause by continuing their education in the face of Israeli military occupation. Senior officials have lauded the successful start to the new school year as an affirmation of the Palestinian people’s perseverance and commitment to pursuing normal, dignified lives.
Rana Dalel, an 18 year-old college student in Jerusalem, recognizes a close relationship between the Palestinian cause and the educational process. She explained, “Children must be aware of the issues and understand what is going on around them as they grow up, and their classes must address this.” At the university level, she noted that the activities become more political. “The students come from all over,” she continued, “and we are all affected when our colleagues are killed, dying as martyrs of the occupation.”