Schools Around the World: Gaza

Nasser Ishtayeh/AP
Palestinian school children walk past a Palestinian flag at half staff in the West Bank city of Nablus, Tuesday, June 1, 2010.

Recently, Israel and Gaza have been in the headlines following Israel’s raid of ships trying to breach its blockade of the Gaza Strip, Bloomberg reports.

In 2006, the Islamic Hamas movement, regarded as a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel, won parliamentary elections and overthrew the Fatah group loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel placed a blockade on Gaza the following year, and defended its decision by saying it is in “a state of armed conflict” with Hamas, Bloomberg notes.

The blockade has a tremendous impact on the daily lives of those in the region. Palestinians in Gaza must pass through checkpoints, abide by curfews and endure interrogations. For students, these “and other civil liberty violations impede access to classes as well as a conducive learning environment in them,” Stephen Lendman writes for the Palestine Chronicle. Along with items like jam, chocolate and fresh meat, writing implements, notebooks and newspapers are illegal to import, according to Lendman.

In 2008, more than 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed after Israel launched a military offensive called Operation Cast Lead in response to rocket attacks by Hamas. In addition to destroying homes, farms and businesses, the offensive demolished 18 schools and damaged 280 others in the Gaza Strip, according to a report from Oxfam International. In addition, 9,000 students were forced to relocate to other schools.

By January 2009, five universities in Gaza closed due to the violence. “The academic situation in Gaza is collapsing,” one Palestinian professor told University World News. “People’s main preoccupation is to get food and stay alive. They feel that everywhere in Gaza is not safe.”

Due to Israel’s blockade restrictions, Palestinians could not import construction materials needed to rebuild their schools. The result was serious overcrowding of the remaining classrooms. As a solution, teachers developed a “double-shift system” with morning classes for one group of students and afternoon classes for another, resulting in a shorter school day for both, Oxfam reported.

“The consequences of a weakened education system, plagued by shortages of space and materials and an environment unfit for learning, are evident in the decline in school attendance and in the performance of students,” the Oxfam report summarized. It also noted that 80 percent of sixth graders in Gaza failed their exams in math, science, English and Arabic during the 2007-2008 school year. Of the students who failed their exams, a health assessment found that the most common health issues were malnutrition and anemia.

In order to help educate children who are unable to reach their elementary schools, UNICEF created School-in-a Box kits, which include scissors, pens, chalk sticks and other supplies. According to UNICEF’s report, the kits helped 70,000 students in the Occupied Palestinian Territory continue their education. The report also noted that 50,000 students were given psychosocial counseling to help them cope with the violence.

Even with such interventions, students still had difficulty meeting academic goals. After the blockade, the unemployment rate in Gaza shot to 44 percent, forcing many children to quit school and work full-time instead. Despite a 2004 Palestinian Child’s Rights Law, prohibiting children under 15 from working, child labor is on the rise, according to UNICEF.

Students who overcome academic, societal and financial pressures still face obstacles. “My students got scholarship [sic] in Spain, in Britain, in Europe and America and they lost it because they were not allowed to leave, “Akram Habeeb, a university professor, explained to Press TV.

In 2008, Palestinian students living in Gaza made headlines after the U.S. rescinded their Fulbright awards because Israel would not grant them visas. Four of the students’ scholarships were reinstated after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice intervened. Ultimately, however, their visas were revoked based on “new information” the U.S. State Department received, according to the BBC.

The situation in Palestine, particularly Gaza, may look bleak but human rights groups and other academic institutions continue to make strides. Bard College of New York and Al-Quds University in Jerusalem formed a partnership in which students in Palestine will be granted a Bard degree and a liberal arts education while staying in the Palestinian territories. According to NPR, the “experiment is controversial; Palestinian students studying at the Bard program have been taunted and threatened by members of Al-Quds University for their perceived privileged position.”

To gain more insight into this conflict, read the findingDulcinea Web Guide to the Israel Palestine Conflict.

And for an interview with Ambassador Philip Wilcox, former chief of mission and U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, regarding the recent history of Gaza, visit NPR.