Do you remember that sense of excitement on your first day back at school? The delight of being promoted to a new class, the joy of meeting friends old and new, and reconnecting with teachers? They were all part of the experience that made, for most people, primary and secondary education enjoyable and rewarding. For many of the 1,250,000 Palestinian children who started the new academic year last week, though, the occasion never lived up to such expectations.
In some cases, they arrived to find that their school had been demolished by Israel’s occupation army. At least 55 schools in the occupied West Bank are currently threatened with demolition and “stop work” orders. What’s more, many pupils turned out full of hope for the new year, only to find that hundreds of their classmates are languishing in Israeli jails. In occupied Jerusalem, others were struck by the news that their teachers had been dismissed, purportedly for “incitement”.
As for the children in the Gaza Strip, their challenge is of an entirely different order. Israel’s ten-year blockade continues to test their resolve to the limit. Electricity is in short supply; thousands study by candle light, when candles are available; and to make matters even worse, the Ramallah authority has forced scores of teachers to take early retirement and stopped paying the salaries of hundreds more.
There are some obvious parallels between the Palestinian reality and the experience of African-Americans. At the height of the civil rights movement in 1964, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. emphasised the value of a good education: “It is precisely because education is the road to equality and citizenship, that it has been made more elusive for Negroes than many other rights,” said King.
The walling off of Negroes from equal education is part of the historical design to submerge him in second class status. Therefore, as Negroes have struggles to be free they have had to fight for the opportunity for a decent education.
As it was in segregated America, successive generations of Palestinians have been denied the opportunity of a proper education simply because their oppressors – Israel and its supporters – believe that this the best way to subjugate them. The Palestinians, however, have long recognised that their freedom is inextricably linked to educational excellence.
Three years ago, a young Palestinian woman, 20-year-old Eqbal Assa’d, became the youngest medical doctor in the world; her achievement made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. The daughter of a refugee family in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Eqbal enrolled at Cornell University Medical School in Qatar when she was just 14 years old.
Similarly, last year, Hanan Al-Hroub, who grew up in the Dheisheh refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem, won the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize. She turned to teaching after three of her children – twin girls and a boy, then aged 9 and 6 respectively – were shot at by Israeli soldiers in October 2000. Her own exposure to violence in the camp helped her to develop the techniques to work with children traumatised by the excesses of Israel’s brutal military occupation.
If given the opportunity to pursue their educational dreams, countless Palestinian children would equal and, perhaps, even surpass the achievements of Eqbal and Hanan. This is what makes the denial of their education so reprehensible. When the early Zionists lobbied European governments to support their colonisation of Palestine 100 years ago they claimed that they would form there an “outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism.” Today’s denial of education to the indigenous Palestinians confirms that such claims were a hoax to deceive Europe’s leaders. Little could be more barbaric than denying children their education.
The experience of Palestinians, past, present and foreseeable future, must serve as a warning to countries in Africa and Latin America that are being wooed by the current Israeli leadership with promises of “aid and development”. They are lying, and have more nefarious aims and objectives; beware of Zionists bearing gifts.
Moreover, a minority of influential individuals will always prefer not to challenge these assaults on Palestinian rights. While providing the best possible education for their own children and fellow citizens, they do nothing about its denial in occupied Palestine. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is one such person. His electoral slogan “education, education, education” is now canonised in the Oxford Dictionary of Thematic Quotations. Under his watch as Middle East Peace Envoy, though, Israel developed yet further the mechanics of occupation used to undermine and deny Palestinian children a decent education, and worse. It is worth remembering that Palestinian children have been attacked and killed at their desks, and their schools have been targeted by Israel with white phosphorus bombs.
Nevertheless, despite everything, international solidarity with Palestine and its people is growing stronger. In the same way that enlightened entrepreneurs and institutions are divesting from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation in the Palestinian territories, we can be confident that, sooner or later, universities and cultural institutions will boycott their Israeli counterparts, as well as cultural and sporting events in which Israelis participate.
Education is a universal right and not a privilege. Every child, regardless of race, religion or colour, is entitled to be educated. The denial of this right in Palestine has to become a matter of international concern. In his struggle against South African Apartheid, Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Now, in the global struggle against Israeli Apartheid, we must do everything within our power to ensure a decent education for Palestinian children.