More on Palestinian Children

Last month I wrote about some of the struggles faced by Palestinian kids, not least the fact that Israeli forces have killed more than 1,300 children since 2000 (90 Israeli children have been killed in that same time).

The problem with articles like mine, though, is that shocking statistics tend to elide the grinding daily struggles, the smaller things that shape a Palestinian child’s life.

As mental health care activist Vicky Hosker wrote in +972 on Sunday:

Chronic uncertainty surrounds children living under occupation like amniotic fluid. Even if they aren’t one of the 500-700 children who are arrested annually by the IDF, even if they haven’t had their homes demolished or lived through bombing raids, they imbibe fear. They also inherit the anxieties and preoccupations of their parents, many of whom were born into this situation themselves and grew up with a similar sense of instability.

That uncertainty and anxiety expresses itself in virtually every area of life—education, for instance.

On Monday, UNICEF released a report about the impact of Israel’s security barrier on the schooling of children in East Jerusalem:

[Karimeh Khatib] had been a teacher at the Comboni Convent pre-school centre in East Jerusalem for 20 years when, two years ago, her commute to school turned from a simple 10-minute walk to a daily trial involving escorting 4- and 5-year-olds through an Israeli-controlled checkpoint, with a bus ride at either end.

…Crossing the checkpoint on foot, Ms. Khatib has to take the children one-by-one through steel turnstiles, electronic detectors and iron bars, which scare several of the little girls. “There’s usually some sort of problem at the checkpoint,” said Ms. Khatib, 45. “I once got my arm stuck in the turnstile, and I’m always afraid this will happen to one of the children…”

It now takes Khatib an hour or more to get her charges through the barrier (if it’s open—military authorities often close West Bank checkpoints), and once the toddlers get to school, they are literally surrounded by the concrete wall—25 feet high in most places, but “Israeli Security Forces recently entered the kindergarten to heighten the Barrier even more.”

Within Gaza, Palestinians have freedom of movement, but that stops at the border. Neither goods nor people can get in or out of the Strip legally unless the Israeli military approves (the exception is a single pedestrian crossing into Egypt, which cannot handle commercial goods).

The UN reports that as a result of the blockade, more than 80% of Gazan families depend on humanitarian aid; Israeli human rights organization Gisha reports that even with the much-ballyhooed easing of the blockade since the Mavi Marmara incident, the amount of goods allowed into Gaza is still only about half of what it was before the blockade was imposed. Moreover, Israel doesn’t allow construction materials in, calling such items (cement, gravel, steel) “dual use” (and thus potentially useful for building weapons).

What this means for education is two-fold: First and foremost, Gaza is in desperate need of schools but has no way to build new ones, or repair those damaged or destroyed in the various rounds of hostilities with Israel. Terrible crowding is endemic, and, as a result, many schools are forced to teach the Strip’s half a million students in double or triple shifts.

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And yet, an even more basic problem is the question of books. The Christian Science Monitor reported this week that it has become very difficult to obtain any kind of books in Gaza—not because they’re banned, but because the sheer mechanics of the blockade make getting them in all-but impossible.

Educators in particular are feeling the pinch. Gazans now resort to bootlegging the books they need, or smuggling them through Gaza’s extensive (and frequently bombed by Israel) system of tunnels. According to Awni Maqayyid, head of the central library at the Islamic University, “the education system would collapse” without the smugglers’ help.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is full of big, awful, often bloody things. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the recent report in Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot that among children exposed to trauma, one in four Israelis suffer from PTSD, as do nearly three-quarters of Palestinians—the children of southern Israel struggling with the emotional fall-out of falling rockets; Palestinians like seven-year-old Yara, hiding in a closet for fear soldiers are going to arrest her for dropping candy wrappers.

But the conflict is also full of smaller, quieter, terrible little moments. Like just trying to get to school, just trying to get books.

As one Gazan said to The Christian Science Monitor:

If people are living in a stable situation, they will behave stable. But if their situation is unstable, that causes the attacks that you see in the streets, the recklessness and radicalization. Things here are not stable.

“The most critical impact of the siege,” the man said, “is the psychological one.”