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The road to higher learning blockaded by Israeli tanks: Israeli military siege has disastrous impact on education for Palestinian children

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During the last several weeks, the Israeli military has intensified its invasions into and attacks on Palestinian communities throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These military actions are particularly injurious at present for graduating secondary school students as they are in the process of taking their matriculation (tawjihi) exams, a prerequisite for graduation and university entrance. Students have been in many instances unable to reach their exam halls as entire cities are placed under curfew, with residents forbidden from leaving their homes. In several cases in which residents believed curfews had been lifted, students have come under attack by the Israeli military. Today, 25 June 2002, Israeli soldiers opened fire in Ramallah and Al-Bireh as students were proceeding to testing halls to take the exam.
Parents who phoned the Ministry prior to test time were told that the Israeli authorities had informed the Ministry of Education that the curfew would be lifted on Ramallah and Al-Bireh in order that students would be able to reach the testing hall and take the exam. Via announcements broadcast on local television, the Directorate of Education in Ramallah and Al Bireh indicated that today's exam would take place as scheduled and instructed students and teachers to proceed to testing locations. In spite of prior assurances provided by the Israeli authorities to the Ministry, Israeli soldiers opened fire on groups of students and other civilians.

As early as 8am Palestinian residents were out on the street in preparation for the beginning of the exam and in order to stock up on supplies. At the same time that local stations were broadcasting that the exam would take place, Israeli soldiers in jeeps and armored personnel carriers were moving through neighborhoods announcing that the curfew was in place, creating a state of confusion and chaos throughout the two cities.

There have been numerous cases of Palestinian civilians killed for violating the curfew (i.e. outside of their homes during periods when their community was under curfew). Recently, on 21 June 2002, four Palestinians were killed (including two 6 year olds and a 12 year old) and 24 injured when Israeli soldiers opened fire on a market in Jenin at a time when Palestinian residents believed the curfew on the city had been lifted. However, determining when the curfew is lifted is often difficult and confusing, as in many areas the Israeli military fails to publicly announce the lifting. Thus, residents are forced to rely on media reports and other informal sources of information to learn when the curfew will be lifted and for how long. Frequently, a lifting is announced, but then cancelled at the last minute or the curfew is re-imposed prior to the originally announced time. Also, the curfew may not be lifted on all areas of a particular city.

According to one tawjihi student living in Ramallah, many students in Ramallah and Al-Bireh who were attempting to reach a testing hall this morning were turned back by Israeli soldiers and told "no peace, no tawjihi." In some cases, students succeeded in reaching a testing hall, but because proctors were prohibited from arriving, students were forced to return to their home. A short time later, after learning of reports that Israeli soldiers were opening fire on residents, the Directorate of the Ministry of Education issued an announcement canceling today's exam given the situation on the ground. Thus far, four of the six exams administered have been carried out in Ramallah and Al-Bireh.

In the Tulkarem area, Intisar Khalaf, proctor for the exam given at the Zanoubiya Girls School in Tulkarem, reported that students were able to take the exam scheduled for today, as the curfew on the city was lifted from 9am to 1pm. However, yesterday, despite assurances given by the Israeli authorities to Ministry officials in Tulkarem that the curfew would be lifted, and subsequent announcements on local television, the curfew remained in place and students were unable to take the exam. Thus far, four of the six exams that have been scheduled to take place have been administered in Tulkarem.

Yesterday, in the village of Shweiki, in the Tulkarem area, the curfew was lifted only for tawjihi students. Announcements made over the loudspeakers of local mosques instructed area residents that tawjihi students were allowed to leave their homes and proceed to the testing hall to sit for the exam. Hearing this, some students from Tulkarem utilized back roads and foot paths in order to sit for the exam administered in Shweiki.

The tawjihi exam constitutes a major milestone in the education process for Palestinian students, viewed as an assessment of the students' primary and secondary education and required for graduation from high school and entrance into university. This year, the exam is taking place from 17 June to 4 July. It consists of exams administered on 11 different days, each test lasting between two and three hours, depending on the subject. Thus far, six of the total eleven exams have taken place.

The tawjihi exam has a standardized schedule throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In past years, all students took the same exam at the same time in specific locations assigned to each student prior to the onset of the exam. This year, however, following repeated Israeli invasions into and attacks upon Palestinian communities, the Ministry of Education has altered the traditional format in order to adjust as much as possible to the crisis situation. For example, in the past, testing halls existed primarily in areas where a high school existed. This year, however, though many villages do not have high schools, additional testing halls have been established in villages in order that as many students can take the tawjihi as possible. In addition, students can take the exam at whichever testing hall is closest to them and open on any given day.

Students who are unable either to reach a testing hall or who reside in areas where the exam did not take place as scheduled, will sit for make-up tests in a second round of exams, which will be given in consecutive order following the completion of the originally scheduled tawjihi exams. Given that not all students will take the same exam at the same time, three formats of the exam are being given at present, as opposed to the one standardized version administered in past years.

While the Ministry is exerting all efforts to ensure as smooth a process as possible, repeated Israeli military attacks prohibit the implementation of a standardized procedure. According to 17 year old tawjihi student Ibrahim Shikaki of Ramallah, this atmosphere of uncertainty places even greater psychological stress on Palestinian students. Students are already under considerable pressure to perform well on the exam given its impact on their future, as scores received on the exam play a major role in admittance to regional universities and often determine career paths. In addition, however, students have been preparing for exams in the midst of repeated Israeli military attacks on their communities and, now, little advance warning is given as to whether they will be able to take a specific exam or not. For Ramallah and Al-Bireh students, this is the fourth comprehensive and direct occupation of the two cities in 3 =BD months. All of these factors succeed in eroding the ability to concentrate and will undoubtedly impact the level of test scores.

The right to education is enshrined in international human rights and humanitarian law, particularly the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which entered into force in Israel on 2 November 1991. The CRC outlines the basic right of children to receive an unobstructed education that encourages their development and learning. Article 28 of the CRC outlines the recognition, by States Parties, of the child's right to education, and the goal of compulsory, free, basic education. It also requires States Parties "to take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates." Moreover, article 2 of the CRC indicates that children from minority cultures, indigenous peoples, gypsies, immigrants and refugees are liable to suffer discrimination. Article 2 thus upholds a principle of non-discrimination to ensure that children have access to education regardless of their background, place of residence or language they speak. Article 4 of the CRC requires states to take "appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the Convention." Finally, article 29 of the CRC calls for the "... development of a child's personality and development of respect for human rights."

Israeli practice in the occupied territories violates both the spirit and the content of the CRC. According to DCI/PS documentation during the year 2001, 98 schools were fired at by Israeli soldiers using live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets or tear gas. 71 Palestinian schools came under Israeli attack either through tank shelling or rockets fired from helicopters. In some cases, school students were present during these attacks.

275 of all Palestinian schools are located within a 500m radius of Israeli military presence. This number composes 15.6% of Palestinian schools and covers 118,662 students (13.7% of all students). In the Nablus district, over 25% of all schools in the area are located within 500m of Israeli military establishments. These statistics indicate that a large number of students encounter Israeli military presence on a daily basis while travelling to and from their schools.

Thirty-seven school students were killed by the Israeli military or settlers during the year 2001. Six of these were killed on their way to school or inside their classroom. Eight schools were closed by Israeli military orders and five schools were taken over by the Israeli army and turned into military bases. Thirty-two schools were placed under curfew, preventing students from attending classes.

Violations of this type have drastically increased in 2002, particularly since the 29 March onset of daily Israeli military attacks on and invasions into Palestinian communities. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Education's initial assessment of damage to schools during the first 3 weeks of the siege, 11 schools were completely destroyed, 9 vandalized, 15 schools used as military installations, and 15 schools used as a detention/holding facility.

The systematic destruction and abuse of Palestinian educational facilities results not only in material damage and financial loss, but heavily impacts the education of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children. The Ministry estimates that 54,730 teaching sessions per day were lost in that period alone as a result of the Israeli siege and the ensuing complete cessation of classes in Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, Bethlehem, Qalqilya, Salfit, and Qabatia district schools. Consequently, following the siege on West Bank cities in April 2002, a major concern facing the educational sector was the feasibility of actually holding the tawjihi exams this year, as each area of the West Bank has been affected to a different extent by the Israeli curfews and closures, meaning that different areas have reached different stages in the curriculum.

Systematic and gross violations of the right to education are an intrinsic component of Israeli occupation policies that affect the 3 million Palestinian residents of the occupied territories. Though the right to education constitutes one of the most widely respected and revered of child rights, Palestinian children routinely face life-threatening situations in order to fulfill that right while living under Israeli military occupation. Thus, not only does the occupation impact children's daily lives, it poses a grave danger to their healthy development and their prospects for a bright future.