Monday, November 23, 2020

Palestinian curriculum threatened in schools of East Jerusalem

By K. Künzl - November 05, 2019
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Education]

Elham Joulani walks through a crowd of her students in the halls of the Girls School of Jerusalem situated in the Moroccan Gate neighbourhood. Tugging at her arms and dress, each is eager to show her a piece of their artwork displayed on the walls. 

Joulani is the school’s principal and she boasts the young pupils as if they were her own daughters. These students are Palestinian refugees and this school is their safe haven from the daily reminders of conflict they face at home.

The Girls School of Jerusalem is just one of six institutes operated and funded by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) within Jerusalem.  The curriculum taught here is dictated by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and aims to help students reaffirm their Palestinian identity in a city under heavy Israeli influence.  

However, the Palestinian curriculum is slowly disappearing in Jerusalem. The past year has seen an unprecedented number of attempts to enforce the Israeli standard of education across private and public schools, claiming that the PA encourages violence, teaching students of 'martyrdom’ and 'jihad’.

The National Security Council released threats in January this year to revoke permits for the UNWRA to operate schools in East Jerusalem, introducing plans to replace them with Israeli run city schools by 2020, violating the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations which “safeguards the UN’s ability to fulfil its functions free from interference”.

“They (Israelis) can say what they want, but at the end of the day, the UNWRA has the last word. We are just trying to provide quality education to Palestinian refugees,” Joulani told Palestine Monitor.

Amar Muawia, chief field coordinator for UNWRA in the West Bank, commented on the National Security Council’s announcement, stating that despite the public statement they had never received direct threats.

“They (Israelis) have built a lot of new municipality schools around the UNRWA’s and try to attract children to learn there while not enabling the improvement of our own schools,” Muawia stated.

Since the Trump administration’s funding cuts to UNRWA at the end of 2018, the schools have struggled to find other outlets, relying on donations from other Arab countries and the international community.

Joulani commented on the educational plan proposed by the far-right Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennet and initiated by the Israeli security cabinet in May of 2017 which denied schools that teach the Palestinian textbooks financial subsidies while granting those that teach the Israeli curriculum hefty portions.

“A lot of Palestinian private schools in Jerusalem accept funding from the Israeli municipality because they are desperate and the PA cannot afford more schools. In return, they must change the curriculum to meet Israeli standards. If we were proposed with this we would not accept, we will not give in,” Joulani said.

Joulani confirms reports of 'altered’ textbooks within the municipal schools; maps that exclude Palestinian borders, empty outlines of Palestinian flags, redacted sentences describing the fallout of the Nakba and Intifada revolutions.  

“The narrative Israel curriculum teaches is definitely different, they speak only from their perspective,” Muawia stated.

While Israeli soldiers are not allowed to enter UNWRA schools, Palestinian municipal schools in East Jerusalem have fallen victim to harsher methods of surveillance. 

In 2017 Israeli soldiers intercepted and withheld a shipment of PA textbooks bound for the Al-Aqsa Sharia School for Girls, located inside the mosque compound. The school was also raided in 2017 during a closure in which soldiers confiscated electronic equipment, one of  256 education-related violations documented that year across the West Bank.

A study conducted by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) was released in September about a supposed curriculum change from the PA for the 2019-2020 school year.  

The report included scans of pages from new PA administered textbooks with poems about burning Jews, terminology like 'colonialist occupiers’, and redacting historical statements about peace deals between Israel and Palestine, all of which Muawia says are false.

“The reports and accusations that we teach and encourage violence are completely untrue,” Muawia told Palestine Monitor. “We train our teachers to remain as neutral as possible when speaking about the conflict and adhere to the UNRWA curriculum standards under which we operate.”

The file sparked international outrage. A Times of Israel report released in May announced the EU’s plan to “probe Palestinian textbooks for incitement of hatred and violence”.

The probe re-evaluates the parliament budgetary committee’s previous recommendation in October of 2018 to freeze  $17 million in aid to the PA over accusations of incitement against Israel in textbooks.

Talks of funding cuts would greatly affect UNRWA schools who accept $178 million from the European body. “They criticise us for even teaching about the American and French revolution like it could radicalise the children,” Joulani said.

The cuts have already forced the Girls School of Jerusalem to stop 9th-grade classes after a steep drop in enrollment rates.  A change Joulani hopes is temporary as they continue to renovate the school’s facilities. 

A young girl walks into Joulani’s office, boasting a black and white silk sash for her approval.  She is one of the students elected to represent her grade as part of the UNWRA parliament program. The elected student’s job is to stop fights in school and teach students to resolve their problems peacefully.

“We empower students to be confident and that they are worthy of great responsibility.  It is not just about teaching the conflict, it is about finding a resolution, one in which that does not involve violence,” Joulani said.

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