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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2002

Palestinian Education in Disarray

Elia Zureik
With more than half of the 10 million Palestinians worldwide classified as refugees and displaced people, it is understandable why Palestine's history is imbued with the experience of dispersal and exile. Even those who did not become refugees as a result of the 1948 and 1967 wars continue to live under foreign rule of one form or another.

The Oslo agreement, signed in 1993 between Israel and the Palestinians, promised to bring a semblance of peace to a segment of the Palestinian population - those 3.5 million people who live within the West Bank and Gaza Strip. After 35 years of Israel's direct and indirect rule of the territories, and the failure of the Oslo agreement to rid Palestinians of occupation, a second uprising erupted in September 2000.

It is significant that the first uprising, which broke out in December 1987 and lasted for six years, culminated in the Madrid Middle East peace conference and the subsequent signing of the Oslo agreement. The human capital toll resulting from the first intifada is now being felt at the university level among a generation of young people who had its education disrupted for six consecutive years.

On the eve of the second uprising, unemployment in the territories reached 40 to 50 per cent, and the GNP dipped to $1,500 (U.S.) for the West Bank and $750 (U.S.) for the Gaza Strip. Israel's GNP stood at $17,000 (U.S.), akin to many western industrialized countries. International organizations currently estimate that poverty affects almost 50 per cent of the Palestinian population, and is substantially higher among refugees.

A colonial situation of occupiers and occupied typifies the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian territories constitute a major consuming region for Israeli products and, until recently, a major source of low-wage employment for unskilled and seasonal workers.

For the last 35 years, Israel has embarked on confiscating land, building settler colonies and a network of bypass roads for exclusive Jewish use, slicing up the Palestinian localities into noncontiguous regions, decimating agriculture as a viable sector, imposing tight control over movement of people in the territories, and exercising sole authority over water resources.

Add to this the doubling of Jewish settlers during the last decade to 200,000, and you have total strangulation of the Palestinian territories and its dependence on Israel. These conditions must be considered central in accounting for the latest uprising and desperate use of resistance by the Palestinians against occupation.

With roughly half of the population under the age of 15, education is bound to occupy a central place in Palestinian nation building. There are 12 nonprofit universities and more than a dozen public and private community colleges enrolling about 70,000 students, and accounting for two per cent of the Palestinian population. Thirty per cent of all education spending is consumed by higher education, while slightly less than two per cent of Palestinian GDP is devoted to education. As a recent paper published by the Boston Center for International Education noted, these figures are above corresponding figures for the region.

On other indicators, however, Palestinian higher education does not fare all that well. For example, tuition fees account for 68 per cent and 86 per cent of university current costs and share of total revenue, respectively, and are high by international standards.

The bulk of university students majors in the social sciences, humanities and commerce. Women account for slightly less than 50 per cent of student enrolment. Graduate studies at the master's level account for a meager three per cent of student enrolment. There are no doctoral programs. The majority of teaching staff in the universities is male (85 per cent). At the community college level, male teachers comprise 70 per cent of all teaching staff. The universities have poorly equipped science laboratories, and the libraries are similarly under funded. For example, the total number of books in all university libraries is around 800,000 volumes, barely comparable to what one finds in a medium-size Canadian university.

The expansion of Palestinian higher education, a weak economy, and volatile political climate have meant financial insecurity for the Palestinian Authority, which assumed responsibility for education in 1995. Palestinian education is constantly under financial duress. It is common to discover that teachers and administrative staff have not been paid for three or four months.

The bulk of funding comes from European donor countries. By the end of 2000, the international donor community had contributed close to $400 million (U.S.) to Palestinian education generally.

The Palestinians have been painstakingly pursuing the project of nation building, with education at its core. The magnitude of devastation caused to Palestinian civil society during March and April 2002 is yet to be tallied. But its contours are abundantly clear. Non-governmental organizations of all kinds have issued preliminary reports documenting the devastation caused largely to the unarmed civilian population and its institutions. For example, Israeli forces smashed their way into the ministries of education, civil affairs and finance, the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Palestinian Legislative Council, and many local government offices, radio and television stations, human rights organizations and some university campuses.

The education ministry's offices were ransacked and student records dating back to the 1960s destroyed. As well, computers and computer servers were stolen or damaged. It is important to bear in mind the ministry serves almost one million students attending government schools at the primary and secondary levels.

This wave of break-ins is by no means new. Well before Israel embarked upon its most recent destruction of Palestinian infrastructure, Israeli forces invaded the offices of the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics in Ramallah in search of records. This prompted European academics to sign a petition protesting the activities of the Israeli army.

Two decades ago, Israel did something similar when Ariel Sharon was the defence minister. This was during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which left 18,000 Palestinian refugees and Lebanese dead. The Israeli army entered Beirut and headed to the Palestine Liberation Organization's Research Centre, pillaged its archives and moved its holdings to Israel, some of which have become part of the permanent collection of Israeli university libraries and are used by Israeli academics for research purposes. After an international outcry against this practice, Israel returned a portion of the stolen record.

At the level of day-to-day activity, academic life on Palestinian campuses is at the mercy of the Israeli occupation authorities. As documented in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the movement of students and staff members between their homes and the campus is not a straightforward undertaking. Navigating through the maze of checkpoints and road closures, a mere distance of 20 to 30 kilometres, can take an hour or more in so-called normal times.

The Israeli army routinely mounts road blocks and hunts for students suspected of political activity. Students, as well as staff members, are known to languish in Israeli detention centres awaiting their day in Israeli military court. Moreover, at the best of times, it is extremely difficult for students from Gaza to obtain travel permits and attend West Bank universities. As a result, students find other means to circumvent Israeli orders and reach the West Bank, thus risking imprisonment if they are caught by the Israeli army.

One of the loudest outcries against Palestinian education in recent times concerned the charge of anti-semitic material in textbooks. The source of this criticism came from a study conducted by the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace whose director worked for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's public relations department.

There is no doubt that Palestinian textbooks contain some anti-Israel content. After all, a conflict between the two peoples that has been going on for more than a century is unlikely to be forgotten overnight. But on its own terms, how credible is this study, which has assumed the mantle of sacredness in the hands of Canadian and American politicians, not to mention media pundits of all political stripes?

Western, Israeli and Palestinian researchers cast serious doubt on the credibility of the study. One researcher who poured cold water on the findings was Professor Nathan Brown of George Washington University, who concluded in his paper last year that the Palestinian curriculum is neither a war nor peace curriculum, and "while highly nationalistic, it does not incite hatred, violence, and anti-semitism."

Akiva Eldar, of the independent Israeli daily Ha-Aretz, commented that the origin of the objectionable material that is routinely quoted by critics predates recent Palestinian initiatives at revamping school textbooks. Eldar quoted the Israeli researcher Ruth Firer of Hebrew University who carried out analysis of Palestinian textbooks as saying "we were surprised to find how moderate the anger directed toward Israelis in the Palestinian textbook is, compared to the Palestinian predicament and suffering."

Indeed, it is against a background of the struggle to maintain their grip on their land, livelihood and drive for self-determination that Palestinian opposition to Israel must be interpreted.

With regard to its own citizens, namely the Palestinian minority within Israel which comprises close to one-fifth of the Israeli population, the educational system has failed them miserably on every count, as revealed in a recently released study by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. The report pointed out that, in comparison to the Jewish sector, discrimination against the Arab educational system in Israel is overt and exists on the following dimensions: a preponderance of unqualified teachers, large classroom size, higher drop out rates, failure in the secondary matriculation examinations, lack of funding, insensitivity to issues of identity, culture and history, and others. In short, according to the report, "The curricula's content often alienates students and teachers alike."

It is the under-representation of Palestinian academics in Israel's main universities which is most glaring. Human Rights Watch cites data which show that among the more than 5,000 university teachers in Israel, fewer than 50 are Palestinian citizens of Israel. That's about one per cent at a time when their share in the population is close to 20 per cent.

From a Palestinian perspective, Israel's attack on the educational infrastructure during Sharon's tenure in office is seen as part and parcel of a broader delegitimization of Palestinian statehood and the Palestinian Authority.

With a brutal 50-year military record behind him, Sharon is capable and determined, with superior military force and the connivance of the American administration, to deliver a serious blow to Palestinian institutions, and with it to embark on reconstituting the geopolitical map of the Middle East. This colonial venture is bound to fail in the long run, though regrettably not before more loss of life is incurred by Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Elia Zureik is professor of sociology at Queen's University.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.