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Schools suffer under Israeli closures and the intifada

Decades of Israeli occupation and Palestinian resistance have led to the steady deterioration of the Palestinian education system, said Dr. Jacqueline Sfeir, director of Bethlehem University's Education Development Center during a briefing at the Washington-based Palestine Center last month. The most detrimental effect on the education system has been the recurrent and extended periods of school closures. Between 1987 and 1990, during the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israeli occupation, schools were closed 17 out of 28 months, explained Sfeir. Students were allowed to pass through the system despite the lack of necessary knowledge and skills. As a result, today's teachers and parents lack the necessary coping skills to deal with children who are now living through a traumatic psychosocial period - the second intifada.

Sfeir discussed the impact of the 2000 intifada on the Palestinian education system, after which Save the Children psychosocial specialist Ibrahim Masri presented findings from a separate research study into the effectiveness of classroom-based intervention (CBI) in Palestinian schools.

According to Sfeir's study, by 2003 Palestinian children lost 15 out of 35 weeks of school due to Israeli closures, curfews and restrictions on movement.

"What we are facing is a serious situation where not only knowledge and skill are affected but overall development," Sfeir said. With 45 percent of the population under age 14, the long-term consequences are significant.

The study found that the impediments of closures and curfews, the inability to plan and the recurrent break in the solid structure of a child's life is further complicated by teachers who themselves lack proper education and coping strategies. Not only are children having difficulty understanding the current curriculum, it is beyond the comprehension of teachers.

Education professionals and officials are trying to cope with and respond to the challenges. However, the state of the Palestinian education system has gone beyond simply trying to keep schools open.

"We must work under mediation plans that are extremely well studied and adjusted to the needs of the Palestinian community as it stands now," Sfeir said.

Using a method of classroom-based psychosocial intervention similar to models tested in U.S. inner cities and post-disaster areas but customized to the special needs of Palestinian society, Save the Children began a national project in conjunction with the Palestinian Education Ministry to provide support and activities that targeted children, parents and teachers, said Masri. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) also joined the effort along with 250 community centers. Within three years, 150,000 children were involved in the program. "What we found is a situation of ongoing traumatic stress disorder.

It varies from one child to another and from one place to another," Masri said. "We saw parents helpless and hopeless in helping their children."

After training 63 professionals, the CBI was tested in 13 schools.

Later, 1,477 counselors and professionals began working with children in over 1,200 West Bank and Gaza schools.

The results were encouraging. Children felt better, happier and more confident. Families saw an improvement in their children's behavior saying that children were more cooperative at home and more optimistic. Teachers said that the children had become more focused, were ready to learn and were less aggressive.

Masri said the best impact was on children aged between 6 and 11 and with girls aged between 12 and 16. Masri said that the CBI would need further modification to address the specific needs of the older male group.

Overall, Masri believes that the "Palestinian" CBI model has had a positive impact on children, parents and teachers and will reduce the long-term effects of the current national crisis.

The above text is based on remarks delivered recently at the Palestine Center in Washington by Jacqueline Sfeir and Ibrahim Masri. The views do not necessarily represent those of The Jerusalem Fund or its educational arm, The Palestine Center, with whose permission this article appears in THE DAILY STAR

Students too afraid to attend classes

Bethlehem: Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon accused the Palestinian National Authority of "incitement" because of the contents of the textbooks used at Palestinian schools. He brought up this charge, and the request to act upon it, as an Israeli political condition directed at the Palestinian National Authority in advance of the Palestinian presidential elections scheduled for January 9.

The Arab Educational Institute (AEI) considers the charge unjustified and inappropriate.

The new Palestinian curriculum has been almost fully introduced, completing a mammoth operation that required the cooperation and instruction of tens of thousands of teachers, principals and administrators in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. According to Sami Adwan [professor of education at Bethlehem University] and Ruth Firer [director of peace education projects at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem] in an early study of this curriculum, the new books were "found to reflect Palestinian life and reality, as well as the diversity within Palestinian society ... The texts teach Palestinian students to respect human rights, justice, peace, equality, freedom and tolerance, in terms of both self and others. They caution students to avoid extremism and stereotypes, and encourage them to treat all people equally. The books also encourage tolerance among religions and ask students to respect the freedom of religion. The students are taught to protect all religious places as well ... Students learn about [Mahatma] Gandhi and his form of civil disobedience, and are asked to relate to other stories of peaceful forms of conflict resolution. We found no incitement for the use of violence at all."

This conclusion concurs with AEI's own experiences, as well as with a range of other studies conducted by both Palestinian and international scholars. The new curriculum is an honest attempt to transmit positive values, skills and knowledge areas to Palestinian students.

This is not to deny that the curriculum requires a thorough evaluation from the sides of all those involved. It is still far from perfect. The Palestinian Education Ministry and civil society organizations like AEI will be actively engaged in collecting evaluations from school communities concerning the curriculum, and we will conduct several workshops to that effect next year so as to bring in the voice of civil society. As an example: the "political education" in the curriculum is in our judgment open to revision. Within our network of schools in various districts in Palestine, it is often said that the curriculum tends to avoid, rather than to engage in, discussions on controversial political issues. As a rule, political discussions are relegated to extracurricular activities, a questionable practice. But it has also to be said that many NGOs, like AEI, conduct such extracurricular activities with students from an explicit peace education perspective.

Besides Palestinians evaluating its textbooks, it should not be forgotten that any honest discussion of textbooks should involve a critical appraisal of the Israeli curriculum as well. The Israeli educational authorities should be asked to show that there is no incitement in textbooks used at, for instance, schools in settlements.

We also think that the charge is inappropriate considering Israel's actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories that directly affect Palestinian education. The continuation of a violent occupation is itself a form of incitement. It is very difficult to keep students at peace when they know that their life space can be intruded any time. We regularly learn about violence facing Palestinian school students. On Nov. 23 the Israeli paper Haaretz reported about an Israeli commander who had been indicted for shooting a 13-year-old Palestinian girl who was on her way to school in Rafah Oct. 5. The army communications network tape showed that the soldiers involved "kept firing at the girl even after she had been identified by soldiers as 'about 10 years old.'" Palestinian hospital officials said the girl was shot at least 15 times, mostly in the upper body. Another report, published by Palestine Monitor, mentioned that on Sept. 27, a girl died of the wounds she had sustained when she was shot by an Israeli soldier as she sat at her desk at the UNRWA Elementary School in Khan Younis. On October 9, the Christian Peacemaker Team issued a release reporting that international accompaniers of Palestinian school children in the Hebron district were violently attacked by Israeli settlers. And there are many other incidents which remain unreported.

It is no exaggeration to say that nowadays a great many Palestinian students, especially in areas near settlements and checkpoints, are afraid to go to school. International accompaniers of school children are no luxury in regions like Hebron, Nablus or Gaza. When the AEI recently organized a letter campaign addressing international politicians, the participating school students singled out the lack of safety on the roads as the major source of anxiety they have to confront.

We at AEI therefore wish that Prime Minister Sharon would upholds his responsibility to respect the Geneva Conventions and take measures to safeguard the Palestinian students' access and right to education before making allegations about Palestinian textbooks. Moreover, to be taken seriously, statements about textbooks should be based on a balanced study of the facts on both sides of the national divide.

 
 
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