Written by Benjamin Koponen, Caren Thomas & Zina Sabbagh
Palestine’s Educational Landscape
Amid the recent escalations in Gaza, Bisan Owda, a journalist from the area, begins most of her interviews by acknowledging her survival. Her words echo the harrowing reality. “There is no place safe in Gaza.” – wizard_bisan1, Instagram, 2023
The devastating impact on educational institutions underscores this stark truth. Over 200 schools have been ruthlessly damaged, bombed, or entirely razed in this small geographic region.i Shockingly, this accounts for almost 40% of the total number of schools in the Gaza Strip.
UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) facilities and schools, which are considered a protected establishment by international law and the global community, no longer carry the assurance of safety.ii The reality became painfully evident with the bombing of Al Fakhoura UNRWA school, a widely recognized establishment in northern Gaza, on November 19th.iii At the time, over 7,000 individuals, including teachers, students, families, and the elderly, sought refuge within its walls. In an instant, this sanctuary, an educational institute that helped dreams and hopes to become a reality, was destroyed.
Delving deeper into Palestinians’ challenges within the educational sphere offers a clearer picture of their struggles. Palestinian secondary education comprises three primary sectors: Private schools, public schools, and UNRWA schools specifically established for Palestinian refugees.iv These institutions adhere to the standardized Palestinian Curriculum set by the Palestinian Government. An intriguing aspect to note is the continuous scrutiny and censorship imposed by the Israeli Government on the standardized Palestinian Curriculum.v The Israeli authorities restrict detailed information about Palestinian heritage, culture, and history.vi
Additionally, the very depiction of a map outlining the borders of Palestine is consistently banned. This forces the Palestinian curriculum to be extremely flexible because continuous changes are happening to it.vii Moreover, both students and teachers face numerous obstacles in accessing schools. Throughout the West Bank, checkpoints present a significant hindrance, impeding the transit of individuals to educational institutions. Similarly, in Gaza, the frequent bombings further increase the challenges faced by students and educators in their pursuit of education viii.
Another obstacle that the secondary educational sector faces is funding. A report by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) mentioned that around US$3.55 million would be required to repair the damages to school facilities from the aggression that happened in May 2021.ix Due to the Israeli Military Occupation, the economy of the Palestinian Authority is severely hindered. Thus, the educational sector heavily depends on donations and aid from the international community, primarily the UN.x However, since 2016, the aid for the UNWRA schools has been radically decreasing due to changes in the political arena.xi
Gaza’s schools consist of 284 UNRWA facilities out of 561 schools due to the high population of refugees from neighbouring villages that got destroyed.xii Therefore, many of these schools lack the infrastructure, classes, and materials to function properly; however, they are still prospering and using as much material as they can to operate at their best capacity. Even when the students surpass all of these difficult challenges, when they want to pursue higher education outside of Gaza, they are denied permits from Israel, thereby confining them in Gaza.
Concerning education, there are numerous tactics employed by the Israeli Occupation that exacerbate these hardships. Even if there was an end to the destruction and war against Gaza, the trauma and PTSD faced by students, teachers, and other individuals will take generations to process, heal, and fully recover.
Mental Health of Palestinian Children
Mental health is a delicate prism through which human beings understand themselves and the world around them. This prism is ymbolizezed by peoples’ ability to manage stress, nurture their talents, learn/work effectively, and support their community.xiii These resilience strategies are not coping mechanisms of living through trauma but allow people to move past setbacks and grow as individuals. However, traumatic incidents in childhood–such as warfare–can induce levels of stress which surpass the efficacy of healthy coping mechanisms. The continued bombing, displacement, and occupation of Gaza/West Bank has increased anxiety, depression, and PTSD amongst local Palestinian children.
Since October 7th, the IDF has killed approximately 11,320 Palestinian civilians.xiv These include 4,650 children and 3,145 women, leaving 29,200 injured and 3,600 unaccounted for (of which 1,755 children).xv Twelve years ago, Dimitry found that “conflict-related traumatic experiences correlate positively with prevalence of mental, behavioural and emotional problems”.xvi
As far back as 2011, approximately 23% to 70% of children were reported to suffer from PTSD.xvii Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a prolonged mental/physiological response to extremely tense experiences. For Palestinian children, exposure to terrorist attacks, being displaced from one’s homes, violent abuse, and witnessing daily humiliation force them into survival mode.xviii
Maintaining a daily routine is integral to ensuring children’s mental health. However, the destruction of schools, homes, and regular displacement produce an unpredictable environment. It has been noted that the persisting nature of Israeli occupation eliminates civilians (especially children) a moment to heal.xix As a result, they are thrown into a constant state of traumatic stress. In 2022, 90% of children experience separation anxiety from parents, over 50% have pontificated suicide, and 59% experience reactive mutism.xx Furthermore, the Guardian has reported that children are also experiencing sleeping difficulties.xxi However, children have developed strategies for responding to these post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) in different ways. These include active exposure to traumatic events and political resistance as trauma responses to political violence.
Palestinian youth–often young men and boys– have been known to hold peers who have been beaten/imprisoned with respect.xxii In this way, they transform the fear of persecution into courage. In contrast, young Palestinian women and girls are more likely to express PTSS through anxiety and depression.xxiii These characteristics align with the gendered expectations of boys/girls in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, young men and boys who engage in these behaviours demonstrate more PTSS than their female counterparts.xxiv Active exposure to trauma is deeply interconnected to resistance as a trauma response.
Wispelwey & Jamei demonstrate that political activism, specifically the Great March of Return (GMR), can provide “a positive impact on community mental health via a sense of agency, hope”.xxv The GMR, a series of demonstrations initiated in March 2018, was meant to ymbolize Palestinians’ right to return to their homeland (enshrined by UN Resolution 194). The GMR adopted a cultural/celebratory atmosphere filled with dancing, food, and chanting. Protesters met the IDF’s militaristic response–dispensing tear gas and sniping into the crowd–with an entrenched feeling of agency to shape their political reality.xxvi
The desperate state of children’s mental health in Palestine is entangled with the reality of Israeli occupation. Anxiety is not an irrational response to warfare. Depression is not an irrational response to a lack of opportunities. These are psychological symptoms of decisions made by political leaders. In a letter published by Save The Children, 6 Palestinian children–Salma, Niveen, Zain, Samer, Khaled and Amal outlined their wishes; “The first thing we wish is that the war would end…We hope that all the destroyed buildings will be cleared away and something better and more beautiful will come in their place”.xxvii Medical care, infrastructure, and community support will be integral to healing. A ceasefire is the first step in this healing process.
Deprivation of resources for students in Palestine
At the beginning of the year 2023, the United Nations recorded at least 423 incidents impacting Palestinian children and their education. This includes the firing by Israeli forces on schools and children conducting operations and demolishing schools.xxviii The Gaza’s Ministry of Educationxxix has suspended the school year 2023-2024. Due to the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza, schools in the Strip are being used as “safe spaces” for the Palestinians. However, even the schools have been targeted by Israeli bombing.
Currently, schools run by UNRWA – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees – have been targeted numerous times by Israeli attacks.xxx These schools are supposed to be considered as secure zones during an armed conflict. However, what we’re witnessing in Gaza is the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians, particularly children. This targeting of those seeking refuge in schools ultimately leads to the death and injury of many civilians. It leads to the disruption of education due to the loss of resources that occurs when an armed conflict targets schools and other educational institutions.
Defense for Children International – Palestine, who are winners of the Rafto Prize, 2023, in their ‘Child in War, 2022 reportxxxi had mentioned that Palestinian children have expressed that they do not want financial assistance from the international community. Instead, the children would like to be protected from the searches that take place during checkpoints and attacks that take place at school. Furthermore, child human rights defenders from Palestine were given the chance to partake in meetings with international human rights bodies, but no heed was given to address the needs of the children. The ground reality continues to remain the same.
The Gaza Strip continues to witness armed conflict, causing colossal damage to infrastructure and other educational resources. A child is supposed to be in school for education but now goes to school with their families for potential shelter from the bombings. The number of schools damaged is at least 300 schools and 183 teachers have reportedly been killed.xxxii Additionally, the Israel blockade of water, food, medical supplies, electricity and fuel imposes grave risks on the access to resources for these children.
A gap in the child’s education that has occurred due to conflict, coupled with the absence of psychosocial support, may leave many children feeling hopelessly behind. The situation in Gaza requires the people to rebuild their schools, sanitation and other educational resources. The people need to find ways to accommodate temporary learning spaces, obtain support from the international community to rebuild their educational systems and, most importantly, find teaching staff equipped to understand the fractured environment of these young minds. Education is extremely crucial in this heart-wrenching environment as it offers the backbone and potential freedom to overcome some of the difficulties faced by these Palestinian children.
While countless international laws and mechanisms are in place, enforcing them has been an ineffective process mainly due to minimal international intervention. It is unequivocally evident that the Israel attacks on Palestine are a mockery of international humanitarian law.
We leave our readers with these questions.
When does education, a fundamental human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, cease to be a distant luxury for the children of Palestine?
When does a child of Palestine stop being a “child of war” and embrace a life of positive learning, growth and happiness?
i UNESCO. (2023). Gaza: UNESCO calls for an immediate halt to strikes against schools. UNESCO. https://www.unesco.org/en/articles/gaza-unesco-calls-immediate-halt-strikes-against-schools
ii UNRWA. (2023). THE GAZA STRIP: UNRWA SCHOOLS SHELTERING DISPLACED PEOPLE CONSTANTLY. UNRWA. https://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/official-statements/gaza-strip-unrwa-schools-sheltering-displaced-people-constantly-hit
iii Al Jazeera. (2023). Many killed in Israeli attacks on two schools in northern Gaza. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/18/israeli-forces-strike-al-fakhoora-school-in-northern-gaza
iv Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. (2023). Schools Placement Around Palestine. https://www.pcbs.gov.ps/Portals/_Rainbow/Documents/Basic_Schools_ar.html
v Al Jazeera Net. (2017). Accusing the Palestinian curriculum of incitement against Israel. Al Jazeera Net. https://www.aljazeera.net/news/presstour
vi Al Jazeera Net. (2004). Israeli Efforts to Change the Palestinian Educational Curriculum جهود إسرائيلية محمومة لتغيير مناهج التعليم الفلسطينية. Al Jazeera Net. https://www.aljazeera.net/news
vii Palestinian Ministry of Education. (2023). Sectoral strategy for education. https://www.moe.pna.ps/category/content/1036
viii Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates. (n.d.). Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates. State of Palestine Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates. http://www.mofa.pna.ps
ix Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. (2022). Measuring the Impact of Attacks on Education in Palestine. https://protectingeducation.org/wp- content/uploads/impact_attackeducation_palestine_2022_en.pdf
x Palestinian Ministry of Education. (2023). Sectoral strategy for education. https://www.moe.pna.ps/category/content/1036
xi BBC News. (2018, January 17). UN alarmed as US cuts aid to Palestinian refugee agency. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42717333
xii Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. (2023). Schools Placement Around Palestine. https://www.pcbs.gov.ps/Portals/_Rainbow/Documents/Basic_Schools_ar.html
xiii World Health Organization: WHO. (2022, June 17). Mental health. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response
xiv Anadolu staff. (2023, November). Gaza death toll soars to 11,320 amid relentless Israeli attacks, including 4,650 children. aa.com. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/gaza-death-toll-soars-to-11-320-amid-relentless-israeli-attacks-including-4-650-children/3053701#
xv Anadolu staff. (2023, November). Gaza death toll soars to 11,320 amid relentless Israeli attacks, including 4,650 children. aa.com. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/gaza-death-toll-soars-to-11-320-amid-relentless-israeli-attacks-including-4-650-children/3053701#
xvi Dimitry, L. D. (2011). A systematic review on the mental health of children and adolescents in areas of armed conflict in the Middle East. Child: Care, Health and Development, 38(2), 153–161. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2214.2011.01246.x
xvii Dimitry, L. D. (2011). A systematic review on the mental health of children and adolescents in areas of armed conflict in the Middle East. Child: Care, Health and Development, 38(2), 153–161. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2214.2011.01246.x
xviii Dimitry, L. D. (2011). A systematic review on the mental health of children and adolescents in areas of armed conflict in the Middle East. Child: Care, Health and Development, 38(2), 153–161. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2214.2011.01246.x
xix Agbaria, N., Petzold, S., Deckert, A., Henschke, N., Veronese, G., Dambach, P., Jaenisch, T., Horstick, O., & Winkler, V. (2020). Prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among Palestinian children and adolescents exposed to political violence: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLOS ONE, 16(8), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0256426
xx Sherwood, H. (2023, October 22). Children in Gaza ‘developing severe trauma’ after 16 days of bombing. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/oct/22/children-in-gaza-developing-severe-trauma-after-16-days-of-bombing
xxi Save the Children International. (2022, June 15). After 15 years of blockade, four out of five children in Gaza say they are living with depression, grief and fear. https://www.savethechildren.net/news/after-15-years-blockade-four-out-five-children-gaza-say-they-are-living-depression-grief-and
xxii Agbaria, N., Petzold, S., Deckert, A., Henschke, N., Veronese, G., Dambach, P., Jaenisch, T., Horstick, O., & Winkler, V. (2020). Prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among Palestinian children and adolescents exposed to political violence: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLOS ONE, 16(8), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0256426
xxiii Wispelwey, B. W., & James, Y. A. J. (2020). The Great March of Return. Health and Human Rights Journal, 22(1), 179–186. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26923484
xxiv Agbaria, N., Petzold, S., Deckert, A., Henschke, N., Veronese, G., Dambach, P., Jaenisch, T., Horstick, O., & Winkler, V. (2020). Prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among Palestinian children and adolescents exposed to political violence: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLOS ONE, 16(8), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0256426
xxv Wispelwey, B. W., & James, Y. A. J. (2020). The Great March of Return. Health and Human Rights Journal, 22(1), 179–186. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26923484
xxvi Save The Children. (2022). Trapped: The Impact of 15 years of blockade on the mental health of Gaza’s children. https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/pdf/gaza_blockade_mental_health_palestinian_children_2022.pdf/
xxvii Save The Children. (2022). Trapped: The Impact of 15 years of blockade on the mental health of Gaza’s children. https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/pdf/gaza_blockade_mental_health_palestinian_children_2022.pdf/
xxviii United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Back to school: 1.3 million Palestinian children in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are returning to school during a tumultuous year.” ochaopt.org August 21, 2023. http://www.ochaopt.org/content/back-school-13-million-palestinian-children-west-bank-and-gaza-strip-are-returning-school-during-tumultuous
xxix Middle East Monitor. “Amidst the bombing, school year suspended in Gaza.” middleeastmonitor.com November 6, 2023. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20231106-amidst-the-bombing-school-year-suspended-in-gaza/
xxx Mhawish, Mohammed R. “‘Why bomb schools?’ Gaza families have no safe space amid Israeli attacks”. aljazeera.com October 10, 2023. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2023/10/10/why-bomb-schools-gaza-families-have-no-safe-space-amid-israeli-attacks
xxxi Defence for Children International. “Children affected by armed Conflict.” defenceforchildren.org 2022. https://defenceforchildren.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Children-and-Armed-Conflict-Report.pdf
xxxii Becker, Jo. “Israel/Gaza Hostilities Take Horrific Toll on Children.” Human Rights Watch. November 22, 2023. https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/11/22/israel/gaza-hostilities-take-horrific-toll-children