Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
A Follow Up on My Fifth Grade Essay:
Education at Gunpoint
By Ramzy Baroud
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, November 22, 2010
I recall the first sentence of my fifth grade essay on
“Education and Youth”. Written with the occasional aid of my father, and
dotted with clichés, it might have read something like this:
“Youth is the backbone of any nation, and education is essential to arm
the youth with the knowledge they need to lead their societies toward
change, progress and prosperity.”
The grayish blue pencil I used
to write my essay with was one of several items handed annually by United
Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) staff to refugee children in many
schools scattered throughout the Gaza Strip. My Arabic teacher was Abu
Kamal al-Hanafi, a wonderful man with a terrible temper, who was also the
Imam of the local mosque. My classroom had exactly 62 students. My desk
was as old as the Israeli occupation of Gaza, if not older. The roof was
filled with holes, creating an exciting spectacle as birds flew in and
out, often nesting in available spaces. Watching these scenes made the
brutish Arabic grammar lessons bearable, and eased the fear caused by Abu
Kamal’s bouts of anger and the occasional Israeli gunfire in and around
the refugee camp.
While the introduction to my “Education and
Youth” essay was clichéd and I may not have known what many of the terms
actually meant, its overriding sentiment remains as true for me now as it
I remembered my essay as I read about the first World
Education Forum (WEF) in Palestine, which took place in several regions
throughout historic Palestine, including Jerusalem, Nazareth, Jaffa,
Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip. Those who were denied access by Israeli
authorities had their own conference in Lebanon. The event, which started
on October 28, lasted four days.
The problems faced by the
education system in Palestine were difficult enough during my childhood.
Now they have compounded to unforeseen levels, with the educational sector
divided between two educational ministries in Gaza and the West Bank, the
former under Israeli siege and the latter under military occupation. Were
it not for UNRWA, the already severe obstacles would have become
completely insurmountable long ago. But today even UNRWA is struggling
with depleting funds and political haggling between competing Palestinian
authorities and an ever atrocious Israeli occupation.
to statistics provided by the United Nations IRIN news agency and recently
cited by IPS, 39,000 children in Gaza had no available school to attend
following the recent Israeli war. The United Nations has put the number of
schools and kindergartens that were destroyed or severely damaged by the
Israeli onslaught during the 2008-2009 war at 280. Considering earlier
problems of a barely standing educational infrastructure, malnourished
pupils and devastated family incomes, one can only imagine the impact of
the latest blow.
As if the damage caused by Israel was not enough,
the Palestinian Authority has also done its fair share of harm.
According to the Palestine Monitor, the head of the Ministry of Education
proclaimed in his message to the conference: “Through education we will
become a prosperous nation, and will obtain a life that allows us to live
in freedom. We are a people who can live and learn despite the problems we
encounter. We will continue to improve education, so that future
generations can live peacefully.”
I can humbly concede that this
statement is much more impressive than my fifth grade proclamations. But
as well-meaning and accurate as the assessment sounds, one can hardly
absolve the Palestinian leadership of its own share of the blame.
Following the clashes between Fatah and Hamas, which lead to the ousting
of Fatah from Gaza in 2007, thousands of teachers refused to return to
work. They were paid by the West Bank leadership and resuming work under
Hamas might have meant the freezing of their salaries by rival Fatah. The
Hamas government were left with the formidable task of filling the vacant
posts at very short notice. Many schools were also destroyed during the
war, and many teachers and students were killed or wounded. Since the
families of most students were poorer than ever under a harsh Israeli
siege, bringing the educational system in Gaza back to its old status was
Gaza might be the most referenced example, for
obvious reasons, but the education debacle in Palestine hardly stops
there. With every extra mile added to Israel’s already gigantic annexation
wall, and with every new military checkpoint, more and more Palestinian
students in the West Bank are held back - from school, from opportunities,
from a better life.
Palestinians living in third class status in
today’s Israel, struggling against constant attacks on their identity and
history also have numerous challenges to overcome.
of the problems created by military occupation, discrimination and
political factionalism, other challenges, which also exist in other Middle
Eastern societies, such as adult literacy and gender equality, are also
very much relevant in Palestine. These too need to be addressed.
The World Education Forum conferences were accurately named “Education for
Change.” But in order for this change to take place, rival Palestinian
factions must not politicize education. If complete unity eludes them at
the moment, they should at least unify their ministries of education, even
if temporarily, under the auspices of a third Palestinian party.
Needless to say, the Israeli occupation and the siege must end. No healthy
educational system can ever be fostered under the boots of soldiers and at
More, regional and international solidarity is
essential to help Palestinians achieve a semblance of normalcy in their
educational system under the current difficult circumstances.
good news is that I got a full mark on my Arabic essay on “Education and
Youth”. Whether the parties involved will ever agree that “education is
essential to arm the youth with the knowledge they need to lead their
societies toward change, progress and prosperity” remains to be seen.
Personally, I will maintain my fifth grade position. I now understand what
it actually means.
- Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net)
is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of
PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom
Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press, London), now available on