Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Textbooks Become a Dream

Mel Frykberg

GAZA CITY, Sep 17 2009 (IPS) - A chronic shortage of school supplies, and severely overcrowded classrooms are crippling Gaza’s educational system as tens of thousands of children begin a new school year.

Israel’s hermetic sealing of the strip, as part of its blockade against Hamas, has prevented most supplies of paper, textbooks, notebooks, ink cartridges, stationery, school uniforms, school bags, and computers and their spare parts.

“Through our education system the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is spreading the message of universal respect for human rights, peaceful coexistence and tolerance in an atmosphere that since the blockade has become increasingly desperate and radicalised,” says UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness.

“The best way for Israel to prevent us spreading that message to the 200,000 Gazan children at our schools is to block us sending in educational supplies,” Gunness told IPS.

“During the summer camps that we ran in July/August we were able to get all sorts of school supplies in and as a result the camps ran smoothly. But now the Israeli authorities are again limiting the educational goods entering. The psychology of the blockade is confusing. We are talking about educating children.”

Fifteen-year-old Jala Halayil, a tenth grader at the Ahmed Shawki Secondary School in Gaza city’s Rimal neighbourhood is confused too.

“Why are we being denied an education and the ability to study, and the ability to earn a living in the future? How does this threaten Israel’s security? I don’t have any notebooks, and the few textbooks I have double up as notebooks. I have to rely on memory a lot.”

May Adali, the school director, showed IPS reports she was writing on the backside of used sheets. “The students can’t make photocopies and they can’t print as we have no ink cartridges.” Adali added, “The textbooks we are using are outdated.”

School uniforms are another serious issue. “Some students are too embarrassed to come to school because they don’t have uniforms due to the shortage of clothing material in Gaza,” Nadia Kishawi, an English language teacher, told IPS. “Others can’t afford the limited number available.”

Gaza’s education ministry is now allowing more children to attend school without paying fees.

Electricity cuts and fuel shortages as a result of Israel’s embargo have made studying at night difficult. “Sometimes I need to study in the evening but I can’t because there is no light,” says Nadia Daoud, a classmate of Halayil.

“Sometimes when we hear Israeli planes flying overhead we are scared that they are going to bomb us again and that makes it hard to study,” Daoud told IPS. “We don’t have cinemas or malls or other forms of entertainment or places to relax in Gaza like elsewhere in the world.”

“The performance of Gaza’s school children has also been affected by rife malnutrition, including anaemia and stunting, as well as the many cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” Basil Kanua, food security and livelihood assistant with Oxfam in Gaza told IPS.

Kishawi said a lot of her pupils had become anti-social and aggressive following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s codename for its intensive three-week bombardment of Gaza in January.

Gaza’s classrooms are now severely overcrowded, and often accommodate up to 40 or more pupils in a class.

This has forced most UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and government schools to run double and sometimes triple shifts for children – 56 percent of Gaza’s 1.5 million people are under 18 years of age.

Gaza’s already overstretched educational infrastructure was further degraded during the Gaza war when schools were bombed. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that 18 schools were completely destroyed and 280 were damaged.

The American School in Gaza was one of the casualties. It had been a centre of tranquility and learning prior to the war, with sports, library and other recreational facilities – rarities in Gaza. Today all that remains is a heap of rubble, and there appears little chance that the school will open again in the near future.

“Construction materials needed for repairing ‘Cast Lead’ damage alone include 25,000 tonnes of iron and 40,000 tonnes of cement. The ban on the entry of construction material as part of the blockade has prevented the reconstruction or rehabilitation or expansion of schools,” says OCHA’s August report.

Gaza’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education says that 105 new schools need to be built to accommodate the growing student body. To date Israel has allowed only a few truckloads of construction material into Gaza.

Even if many Gazan students succeed in overcoming the obstacles they face in completing their schooling, furthering their education abroad remains enormously difficult.

“In addition to the shortage of facilities, the ongoing blockade has had a negative impact on the ability of students to pursue university degrees abroad. In 2008, only 70 students exited Gaza via Erez crossing between July and September, leaving hundreds of students trapped as a result of the newly instated diplomatic escort requirement mandated by Israeli authorities,” says OCHA.

Nevertheless, Halayil and Daoud remain defiant, and determined to finish their education. “We are strong, we will overcome this situation, and we will get an education somehow so that we can help our people and our community,” says Daoud.

“I want to study at university to be a journalist when I leave school so that I can report on our suffering and what we have endured to the world,” Halayil tells IPS.

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