This interview explores the impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian children through a focus on the situation in East Jerusalem. When Israel declared itself a state in 1948, it forcibly ejected 750,000 Palestinians, who became refugees. Israel calls this its War of Independence; the Palestinians call it the Nakba—the catastrophe.
The West Bank, including East Jerusalem, ended up under Jordanian control; Gaza under Egyptian control. Almost 20 years later, as a result of the June 1967 war, all those areas were conquered by Israel. Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, but it annexed East Jerusalem—in the face of universal opposition from the international community and in defiance of international law. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem were issued special Jerusalem ID cards, which identify them as “permanent residents.”
Now the Israeli government and the illegal settlers are determined to push all Palestinians out of Jerusalem; they have declared it the capital of Israel. As a result, the houses of Palestinian Jerusalemites are demolished; trees and crops are destroyed. Children as young as 10 years old are repeatedly arrested and tortured, according to the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan, East Jerusalem, and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem; more and more Israeli settlers have moved into the area, taking over Palestinian homes and land. The recent violence in East Jerusalem, which has spread throughout Palestine, occurs in this context.
Zakaria Odeh is executive director of the Civic Coalition in East Jerusalem. This interview was conducted in November 2015.
Jody Sokolower: Before we discuss education in Palestine, I have to ask how the escalating violence in East Jerusalem, and throughout Palestine, is affecting children.
Zakaria Odeh: This violent situation didn’t start with the recent escalation. This is the result of all the various policies that Israel has been implementing over many years in the occupied territory in general and in occupied East Jerusalem in particular: land confiscation, house demolitions, settlements, revocation of Palestinian residency in East Jerusalem, constant arrests of our children.
Our youth have found themselves, as a result of the prolonged occupation, in a situation where there’s no opportunity, there’s no future or hope for them.
Since October, Israel has been introducing new laws and mechanisms to suppress and oppress the Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.
JS: Can you give me an example?
ZO: Several months ago, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave instructions to the police to use live ammunition against demonstrators and against the children who they claim are throwing stones at Israeli soldiers or settlers. After that, we have been seeing a lot of deliberate killing. In Jerusalem especially it is deliberate execution that has been taking place against Palestinians. In cold blood. Although the Israelis claim that in all the cases there has been an attempt to stab an Israeli, witnesses say that sometimes there is a knife, but in most instances there are no knives. Or sometimes they have seen the military throw down a knife later.
There have been massive arrests and detention, and a lot of those who are arrested are children.
Then, they have been closing off the neighborhoods within East Jerusalem, separating them from each other. Today in East Jerusalem there are at least 30 checkpoints or barriers. The trip to go to work or to visit that used to take 10 or 15 minutes now takes at least an hour. I live only 10 minutes driving from my work, but since the beginning of October, it takes me 40 or 50 minutes to reach my work.
JS: So how is this affecting children being able to go to school?
ZO: Of course, schools have been disrupted. Children are not able to reach their schools; if they can reach them, they are one or two hours late. The actions by the police force, the security forces, and the settlers have frightened the children and their families about going to school. In October and November alone, 22 Palestinian children were killed; six in Jerusalem.
You can’t imagine the psychological impact on the children of what they see on the street and see on the TV. They don’t want to sleep by themselves. They don’t want to go outside because they are worried they might be killed or might be arrested.
East Jerusalem is like a military compound these days. First the Israelis brought in 5,000 more troops and then another 1,400 police and special forces. If you walk in the street, you feel the tension: Everywhere you see police and military vehicles.
Of course, the teachers are affected by these restrictions too, especially the teachers who come to school from outside the city, from behind the separation wall and checkpoints, and the non-Jerusalemites who come through special permission. The whole permission system has been stopped.
JS: So if a teacher comes from a West Bank city like Bethlehem or Ramallah, they’re not able to get there?
ZO: Yes. And then there is the problem of those who live in the outskirts of Jerusalem. The center of Jerusalem, what they call the municipality border of Jerusalem, is surrounded by checkpoints and the separation wall, which was built after 2005. There are 80,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites who live outside the wall. They are holding Israeli-issued Jerusalem ID cards, but now they have to go through this checkpoint process every day.
All of this keeps students, teachers, and staff from reaching the schools. So schools are either partially open or not at all.
JS: We’ve been talking about the current crisis. Can you explain the impact of the occupation on education in general in East Jerusalem?
ZO: To give you a little history and background: Before 1967, Jordan ruled the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, so the textbooks were written in that context. When Israel occupied and annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, education came under the control of the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem municipality. One of the first things they did was try to impose the Israeli education system on schools in East Jerusalem. But there was a lot of resistance from the schools and the community. For two or three years, there was no continuous education here because of that conflict. Finally, the municipality agreed to keep most of the old curriculum and textbooks.
When the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established in 1995, it developed a new Palestinian curriculum that was based on the Oslo Agreement—it called for peace, peaceful coexistence, and “no incitement.” They started teaching this curriculum by 2000.
Then, in 2011, the municipality informed schools that they would not allow them to use the PA curriculum or textbooks. They printed new textbooks and started forcing the schools to use them. The new textbooks took out everything related to Palestinian history, Palestinian resistance, the occupation, land ownership or control—all of that was removed.
Last year the municipality went one further step. They started imposing on us the curriculum that has been taught in Israel. They have been threatening to withdraw funding as a way to force the public schools to use this new textbook.
For Israel, education is one of the main issues. They have tried ever since the first day of the occupation to control it. This is how the people will think, how they will view their culture, their history, their future. So, for the Israelis, it’s very important to control our education system in order to control what Palestinian children will learn.
For us as Palestinians, this is one of the most dangerous policies that Israel is using, because this is the occupation of the mind, the occupation of the way people are thinking. It is changing the story, the narrative of Palestinian culture and history. The Israelis are right. This is the Palestinian national identity.
This is more dangerous than the demolition of homes. If you demolish a building, people can rebuild the house or the school. But if you destroy the way people think, this is difficult to rehabilitate. It’s very difficult to go back.
JS: Can you give an example of the problems with the Israeli textbooks?
ZO: The Israeli curriculum doesn’t recognize Palestinians as a people at all. We have some experts who did research on these books. They found that, in the Israeli curriculum, they talk about Palestinians as “other minorities.” They talk about us as “Christians and Muslims,” as “people from the Negev,” or “people from the north.” There is no acknowledgement that there is a people who are called the Palestinian people.
ZO: Yes, this is very clear. They teach about the Zionist leaders, about figures who are part of Israeli history, but they never teach about Palestinian leaders, our long history, or the Nakba. The Nakba is something taboo. In fact, a few years ago, the Israeli government decided that any school or person who commemorates the Nakba, it’s a crime, so they could be punished, they could be arrested and imprisoned.
And always they say that historically Israelis were the ones on the land. The Palestinians—they don’t say Palestinians, but the “others”—they were just passers-by, they came from the desert, they are not from here, they just came to work. Can you imagine the effect when you teach children these kinds of things?
JS: What other problems do you have in terms of education?
ZO: Israel makes it impossible for us to build schools. In East Jerusalem, if you build a school or a house without a permit, it is demolished. But it is very difficult for Palestinians to get a permit. Of course, this has caused a shortage of classrooms. According to research last year by an Israeli human rights organization, there is a shortage of approximately 2,200 classrooms for Palestinian students in occupied East Jerusalem. Between 8,000 and 9,000 students don’t have a seat or are not eligible for a seat in the schools in East Jerusalem.
Because of this lack of schools, approximately 60 percent of the schools in East Jerusalem are in buildings that were meant to be houses. But what does that mean in regard to overcrowding, hygiene, and ventilation? Mostly, especially in the Old City, a lot of these buildings are very, very old houses, and the access to sunlight and fresh air is not good. It’s rare that you can find a facility with a basketball court, a volleyball court, a playground, anywhere for children to play. Because we have no financial resources, schools rarely have computers or a science lab.
Coordination is another problem. Nearly 48 percent of the schooling is run by the Israeli Jerusalem municipality. About 30 percent are private schools, some of which are church-affiliated and some are independent; 3 percent or less are run by the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency). Another 16 percent are run by the Awqaf (Islamic Trust), which is supported by the PA. And there is a new type of school, which started only 10 years ago, which we call subcontracted schools. Anybody who has money, he or she can open a school and go and get subsidized by the municipality of Jerusalem.
JS: That’s what we call a charter school in the United States.
ZO: Yes. So part of the problem is all of these umbrellas of management, and the coordination between them is very weak.
We also have a severe shortage of teachers in East Jerusalem. Jerusalem used to rely on teachers who came from the suburbs and from all of the West Bank. Since Israel closed Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank in 1993, nobody can enter Jerusalem without a military badge and without permission from the military administration. And that is very difficult to get. As a result, there has been a shortage of teachers, especially in subjects like physics, English, and math.
JS: I know the situation with arrests and detentions of children in East Jerusalem has been an ongoing crisis. Can you talk about that and how it affects the children’s education?
ZO: From the beginning, children have been a target for detention and arrest. You can’t believe the way that the Israelis confront any peaceful demonstration, any march, even any cultural or sports activity by the Palestinians. Most of those who are subjected to arrest and re-arrest are children under 18. Just last week, the legal system in Israel decided that they could arrest and sentence Palestinian children as adults when they are 14; before they had to be at least 16.
They often come to arrest the children at 4 in the morning. They blindfold them, handcuff them, and drive them to a police station or an interrogation center. They hold them for four hours or it could be one night or two nights. For many hours, they don’t let the children drink or eat, or even go to the toilet. We talk to the families and the lawyers, and they say they make the children do it in their pants. You can imagine the psychological impact.
Some neighborhoods where there have been a lot of protests—Silwan in the south of the Old City, Al-Issawiya, Mount Olive, the Old City itself—all these neighborhoods are now closed completely by barriers, concrete cement blocks, and soldiers, police, and other security who check every Palestinian’s movement continuously. In these areas, you hear every day that there are children who were arrested.
They also use what they call house arrests. Sometimes the judge decides a child should stay at home for six weeks, two months, three months. They are not allowed to leave the house at all. They can’t go to school; often even after they are released they are too far behind and they drop out.
Many families believe that it’s better if the child is held in prison rather than on house arrest. You know why? Because they make one of the parents sign that he or she, the mother or the father, will be with the child all the time, 24 hours a day. And he or she is responsible for this child if he leaves the house. So the parent becomes the police in a way. And this creates some kind of hatred in the child against his parents because it’s the parents who can’t permit him to leave the house.
Another punishment they use is internal deportation. If a child lives in Silwan, they punish him by saying he cannot be in his neighborhood with his family for two months: Go to another village, another neighborhood, but you are not allowed as a child to be in your neighborhood with your family in your house. Of course, for most children, their school is in their neighborhood, so if they are in another neighborhood, they lose their right to go to school.
All these policies have been affecting the performance of the students. Then there’s the settler violence. They are always around, they are always patrolling. There are many clashes between settlers and the communities, especially the children. Whenever there is a problem between the settlers and the community, the police arrest the Palestinians and take the side of the settlers. The settlers are another army in occupied territories because all of them are armed. They can do what they want, they are under the protection of the police and the military.
So many of the parents I talk with say that their children don’t want to go to school anymore. They are worried that the settlers might stop them, the police might stop them. These children are seeing their friends being killed, their families, their neighbors.
Then, in most of the neighborhoods there are no recreation centers—places that could provide rehabilitation for the children, places where they could play sports, do art and music to release tension, release all that they go through.
JS: The first time I was in Palestine, in 2012, I went to a new community center in Silwan and then, two weeks after we came home, they bulldozed it.
ZO: Yes, the Israelis try to prevent us from creating a community center, a youth center, or anything for children who like to practice music, play sports, or see films. Silwan has a small center for children, with a library and computers and a counselor, but it is constantly under attack.
Now, since the beginning of October, the violence is only increasing. [Between October 2015 and January 2016, Israeli forces fatally shot at least 30 Palestinian children.]
So many of the killings have no reason at all, but even in the situations where the child has a knife, you have to ask: Why would this child go and stab another human being? What are the reasons behind that? How could this child be at this stage?
What they are doing is a natural psychological result of all they’re going through, all that they’ve seen: A child sees his home demolished, his father is in prison, his brother is in prison. He sees the violence of the settlers, how they attack his family, how they have burned the olive trees or bulldozed them and destroyed the harvest of the whole village.
There are, 4,000 to 5,000 children who have to commute from neighborhoods that are now outside the wall to come to the city to go to school. These children have to go through a military checkpoint every day, wait for who knows how long, then have their bodies and belongings searched. Twice, going and back. What kind of psychology does this create? What do you expect from this child?
JS: So, in the face of all this, can you give me an example or two of how Palestinians are trying to make sure that children grow up knowing their history and culture?
ZO: One example is a program we started in 2011 called Know Your City. We take students from the 6th through the 12th grade to visit different areas of Palestine. In the 6th grade, the students go with a guide through the Old City and learn about all the cultural and historical Christian and Muslim places. They do more research and we ask them to write and draw about what they’ve seen. The next year, they visit the villages of ’48 Jerusalem, the villages that were destroyed. The next year they explore the northern West Bank, and so on, until they are gradually introduced to all the areas of Palestine. It’s an adventure and at the same time educational.
We have also started an international campaign with UN partners, with the diplomatic mission here in Jerusalem, and with international organizations to put pressure on Israel not to enforce their new curriculum. And, on the grassroots level, most schools have not changed what they are teaching, despite the Israeli threats.
Then, in the last year, we have been building the capacity of the parent community. There is now a parent committee in each school and a council of parent committees that we hope will link together across all the different types of schools in East Jerusalem. We recently established the Civic Education Council in East Jerusalem, which includes all the different umbrellas, all the different parents councils, all the teacher unions, and some civil society organizations that work in education in order to coordinate action to force Israel to comply with international law.
According to international law, it is the duty of the occupying power to provide adequate education for people under occupation. This has nothing to do with imposing curriculum. According to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, every child has a right to an education that is related and responsive to their history, to their culture, to their people.
As long as Israel is illegally occupying East Jerusalem, it is their responsibility as an occupier to provide services and education. But that doesn’t give them the right to impose curriculum that is against Palestinian history and culture. Or to deny our children their human rights. ◼
Madaa Creative Center
One of the few resources for children in East Jerusalem is the Madaa Creative Center, which is a second home to children in the Silwan neighborhood. Organized and run by local residents, it opened in 2008 with 35 children, and today serves more than 500. According to founder Jawad Siyam, the goal of the center is “to give the kids a little part of their childhood back and to keep children who have been arrested or are on house arrest from dropping out.”
The focus is on fun. Madaa offers instruction on seven musical instruments, art, languages, mosaics, theater, dabka (Palestinian dance), photography, creative writing, and special workshops on topics like animation. The hip-hop group Dandara evolved from classes at the center. Summer camp is a highlight of the year. At several locations in the neighborhood, Madaa includes a children’s library, a computer lab, a sports field, a “clubhouse,” a women’s sewing project, and a small recording studio. There is tutoring, and an outreach worker visits every child in the neighborhood when they are released from arrest to see if they need psychological, academic, and/or legal help.
As one mother said: “Madaa Creative Center is a lovely place for the kids to breathe. It gets them away from the streets and it gives them a chance to believe that life is not just settlers and the occupation, that there is something else you can live for. It gives them space to experience their childhood.”