Issue No.
102, October 2006 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Photos: Education development center - Bethlehem University

The impact of the Israeli occupation on the education of Palestinian children – a young Palestinian teacher’s profile
By Dr. Jacqueline Sfeir

Education, according to the traditional approach, is the process through which a culture perpetuates itself, or the process through which adults support the overall growth and development of a child - a point of view that underlies the developmental approaches to education. In either case the role of the adult (whether parent or teacher) is of great significance in ensuring an adequate education for the child. Although the definition of ‘adequate education’ differs from one point of view to another, the general agreement is that adults play a significant role in the education of the child either because they mediate the learning process (according to the developmental point of view), or because they “transmit” their knowledge and inculcate through modelling and direct instruction (according to the traditional point of view).

In Palestine the traditional point of view dominates the educational scene, so the teachers are expected to convey to the students not only the knowledge and skills dictated by the curriculum, they also have to communicate the accepted norms and values of their society.

“X1” represent the children who entered first grade in the first y ear of the first Intifada; they graduated in 2003 and those of them who became teachers are represented by the symbol “T3”. They are the teachers who now (2006) have three years of experience. They were most likely taught by teachers who have also experienced the disruption of education of the first Intifada; these teachers are represented by the symbol T13-T7, where T13 was in his/her first year of secondary school in the first year of the first Intifada and T7 was in 6th grade.

The detrimental effects of the Israeli occupation on education can be best explained by showing the educational profile of the teachers of today. Today’s teachers are yesterday’s children; their educational history demonstrates the systematic erosion of the “educational tradition” in the Palestinian community.

Culture and education have been targeted over the thirty nine years of occupation. The first plan of attack on the Palestinian identity was directed at culture. Israeli raids on bookstores and the never-ending list of “banned books” characterized the first decade of the Israeli occupation. Most of the bookstores in the occupied territories (including East Jerusalem) have been converted to stationary shops. Homes as well as cultural centres were raided, books confiscated and people sentenced to prison or exiled for owning banned books. In less than two decades the detrimental impact of this policy (as well as the increasing and diverse forms of harassment of the Palestinian intelligentsia) produced what was later on labelled as the Palestinian “Brain Drain.”

In 1977, ten years into the Israeli occupation, statistics showed a drop in the total percentage increase in the number of students in Palestine. One possible explanation for the slowed increase in enrolment is a decrease in motivation to learn brought about by the new opportunities… for Palestinian youths under occupation. Israel hired and encouraged them to become unskilled laborers within the Green Line. These school-aged youngsters were working and earning money in the same way as the educated sector of the Palestinian people. This was an attractive option for many Palestinians, and its direct result was a decline in the regard for the importance of educationi.

Palestinian educators in the late eighties commented on how the Intifadaii served to expose the extent to which the Palestinian school system has deteriorated. They reported how throughout the first two decades the Israeli occupation acted to impede the quantitative and qualitative development in the school system.

During the first Intifada (1987-1991), there were several blows to the educational system from which the Palestinian community is still reeling. All 1,174 schools across the West Bank (not including occupied East Jerusalem) experienced frequent and extended periods of closure due primarily to military curfews, but also to strike days organized as part of the Palestinians’ grassroots, non-violent resistance to the occupation. A total of 17 out of 28 possible schooling months were lost between 1987 and 1990. The Palestinian community rose to this challenge and organized a system of non-formal community education in homes, churches and mosques. Children would be taught by teachers, parents or older students in the community. By 1988, however, alternative education was declared illegal by Israel; students “caught participating were subject to harassment, arrest and were liable to be jailed for a period of up to ten years and fined 5,000USDiii.” Study packets for students to use at home became another form of alternative education, but those were eventually declared illegal as welliv.

School closures and the illegality of educational alternatives left their mark on the Palestinian educational system. Elementary students, whose learning was interrupted during the most critical years of acquiring basic numeracy and literacy skills, were automatically promoted through the school system without properly completing the curriculum. Unable to catch up, students’ low levels led to a long-lasting drop in academic standards at the preparatory, secondary and university levels. Universities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were closed for a full three years during the first Intifada. These graduates, many of whom experienced interrupted secondary education, were generally unprepared to enter the workforce. Many of them became teachers, and almost all became parents and members of the community, thus placing at risk future Palestinian generations, both at the formal and non-formal levels of education.

In 1994, as a result of the 1993 Oslo agreement, the Palestinian Ministry of Education was established. Its statistics indicate that there have been overall positive changes in the educational system: declines in elementary level dropout rates, an increase in female enrolment and a decrease in the student/teacher ratio are all indicators that there has been some improvement in the educational system since the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute - MAS, 2002)v. Although these quantitative indicators are positive, they represent an increase in access to education which does not necessarily correspond to an increase in the quality of education.

The second Intifada erupted in September 2000; the lives of children in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have been characterized by intense cycles of violence and extreme political turmoil which have had serious repercussions on the educational system in Palestine. Not to mention the Wall that Israel is building all over the West Bank, which is making it extremely difficult for students to get to their schools and universities.

Today the Palestinian educational system is witnessing yet another blow. This time it is a direct result of the international sanctions imposed on the democratically elected Hamas government. The teachers of government schools declared an open ended strike at the beginning of the current academic year because the government has not been able to pay their salaries since March 2006.

Dr. Jacqueline Sfeir is the programme director of the MaDad for Childhood Programmes. She can be reached at

i JMCC. 2001. Palestinian Education System. Research Supervisor: Ghassan Khatib. Researcher: Labib Naser.

ii (Author’s note) The use of the Arabic term to refer to the “Palestinian popular resistance movement” has served as a double edged sword. On one hand it unified the Palestinian front, on the other it left an opening for Israeli and the pro-Israeli media to give it the “illegitimate” slant associated with “anarchy” and violence targeting the Israeli society.

iii JMCC. 2001. Palestinian Education System. Research Supervisor: Ghassan Khatib. Researcher: Labib Naser.

iv JMCC. 2001. Palestinian Education System. Research Supervisor: Ghassan Khatib. Researcher: Labib Naser.

v Wahbeh, N. 2003. “Teaching and Learning Science in Palestine: Dealing with the New Palestinian Science Curriculum.” Mediterranean Journal of Educational Studies. September 2003.

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