Israeli soldiers confront Palestinian school children during a protest at a checkpoint that the children have to cross daily on their way to school in the old city of Hebron December 7, 2005. (MAANnews/Mamoun Wazwaz)

As August brought the start of a new school year for children across the globe, thousands of Palestinian school children in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (oPt) continued to face a number of challenges in accessing educational opportunities. More than one million school children and youth across the oPt are enrolled in school. Those living in the Gaza Strip, Area C of the West Bank, and East Jerusalem face the most acute obstacles. These include the chronic lack of classrooms, sub-standard school infrastructure, poor quality facilities, and restricted access to educational facilities due to physical, bureaucratic, and other obstacles. High dropout rates, low learning achievements and, in some cases displacement, have resulted from these circumstances.

Many students and teachers also face physical threats and obstructions on their daily route to school from settler violence and checkpoints across the West Bank. During the first six months of 2012, there were 16 documented incidents of damage done to schools, education interrupted, or direct injury inflicted on Palestinian school children by Israeli military forces or settlers.

The following summaries from the OCHA Monthly Humanitarian Report describe the challenges and perils facing the education sector and Palestinian students in Gaza, the West Bank Area C, and East Jerusalem.

Gaza Strip

In the Gaza Strip, high population density, the growing hostilities, and the brutal ongoing blockade have created massive infrastructural needs in the education sector. A report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that 230 new schools are needed, including 117 for UNRWA, which currently operates 247 schools in the Gaza Strip with 226,500 students. To make up for the lack of facilities, 80 percent of Government and 93 percent of UNRWA schools operate double shifts, with shorter school hours reducing the learning day and quality of instruction.

The import of basic building materials has been made nearly impossible due to the blockade unless approval is received for each specific project from the Israeli authorities. According to OCHA, students and school staff attending educational facilities located in the access restricted areas (ARAs) in the vicinity of Gaza’s perimeter fence are exposed to safety hazards and impeded access. Children and staff can be exposed to fire while attending, or travelling to and from school, with lessons disrupted by clashes between the Israeli army and armed Palestinian militants. The recurrent escalation of violence has resulted in damage to 15 schools since September 2011.

West Bank: Area C

While the impact of violence is less pronounced in the West Bank, the consequences of the ongoing occupation – in particular access restrictions and the demolition of structures in Area C – continue to disrupt schooling and negatively impact the provision of education. The PA Ministry of Education has identified 183 schools, with approximately 50,000 students, as located in vulnerable areas. The majority of these schools are located in Area C, where the restrictive planning regime implemented by the Israeli authorities results in a significant shortage of school infrastructure, and exposes schools to the threat of demolition. At least 37 schools in Area C are currently under threat of demolition, while many pupils are accommodated in tents, caravans or tin shacks. Schools in Area C are often located far from the community they serve, which imposes high transport costs on families and forces children to walk long distances to reach school. Access to school can be hindered by physical obstacles, threats and harassment by settlers. Impeded access is associated with a high dropout rate, especially after the ninth grade and among girls.

East Jerusalem

The education sector in East Jerusalem is characterized by a lack of basic data concerning the number of pupils; a chronic shortage of classrooms; substandard and unsuitable school facilities; and a high dropout rate. Conflicting calculations by the Jerusalem Education Administration and the Jerusalem Municipality reveals a discrepancy of more than 20,000 in the number of children residing in East Jerusalem and registered in educational institutions. Less than half of the student population – 42,500 – attend municipal schools, although Israel’s own domestic law obligates free public education to all children until the age of 18. The remainder attend Waqf, UNRWA, private and ‘recognized but unofficial schools’, which have proliferated as a result of the shortage of classrooms in the municipal system. Although 33 new classrooms were constructed during the past school year, the ongoing shortage of classrooms is estimated to be 1,100. Existing classrooms are often unsuitable or substandard, with pupils often accommodated in rented houses, which do not meet basic educational and health standards. By the 12th grade the number of children who have dropped out of any educational institution reached 40 per cent.

With the increasing isolation of East Jerusalem from the remainder of the oPt, teachers and pupils who hold West Bank ID cards face difficulties in accessing schools in East Jerusalem because of permit restrictions, checkpoints and the Barrier. Children with East Jerusalem ID cards living in locations separated from the rest of the city by the Barrier are particularly affected: over half of the students using transportation services (3,414) are residents of Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Barrier, who must pass through a checkpoint on a daily basis to reach their schools.

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