As thousands of Palestinian youth began the new school year last week, serious concerns have been raised over how a systemic lack of facilities, resources and investment into East Jerusalem schools is impacting the level of education.
According to a recent report released by human rights groups the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Ir Amim, titled "Failed Grade", more than 1,100 classrooms are currently missing from Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem.
The report found that according to official figures, the Israeli Education Ministry does not know whether or where over 24,000 Palestinian children attended school last year.
"In order to make a change, there's a lot of work that needs to be done. Even when all those plans are put to practice, there's still going to be a shortage of classrooms."
- Ronit Sela, ACRI sokesperson
"If you look at the many problems in East Jerusalem, not only missing classrooms, but [also] classes unfit for studies and a lack of well-trained personnel, I think that definitely the right to education for children in East Jerusalem is at the moment violated," ACRI spokesperson Ronit Sela told Al Jazeera. "Overall, the system is in a poor state of affairs."
The 12th grade dropout rate among students in East Jerusalem currently sits at 40 per cent, four times higher than that of the Jewish sector in Israel, and is, according to the report, "the result of ongoing neglect and lack of sufficient budgetary investment".
The school system also suffers from discrimination in funding allocated by the municipality for basic facilities such as water, electricity and maintenance, the report stated. Some East Jerusalem classrooms are not cooled in summer, or heated in winter; sanitary conditions are often not maintained; and teachers often have to pay out-of-pocket for photocopies for their students.
According to the report, 33 new classrooms were built in East Jerusalem in the past year, while an estimated 91 classrooms are currently under construction and 257 classrooms are in different planning stages.
"In order to make a change, there's a lot of work that needs to be done. Even when all those plans are put to practice, there's still going to be a shortage of classrooms," Sela said.
Lacking municipal investment
Al Jazeera contacted the Jerusalem municipality to comment directly on the report. Instead, municipality spokesman Barak Cohen e-mailed Al Jazeera a three-page statement titled, "Education Revolution in Arab Neighborhoods of Jerusalem".
According to the press release, the Jerusalem municipality is investing more than NIS 650 million ($161 million) to improve the East Jerusalem education system, which it states is "a strategic priority". NIS 400 million ($99 million) will be allocated to build new classrooms and NIS 250 million ($62 million) for the routine operation of the schools, including physical repairs, transportation, printing fees and teachers' salaries.
"As one who believes in a united Jerusalem, it is my duty to manage and invest in all of the city's neighbourhoods and populations," said Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat in the statement. "In the past two years, we have taken major steps to narrow gaps. We will not accept a situation where Jerusalem's residents lack classrooms, roads or basic infrastructure."
The municipality also stated that in recent years, a growth rate of 167 per cent was recorded for improving and updating the physical structures of schools in East Jerusalem, and the budget for the 2012-2013 school year increased by 26 per cent.
Still, according to ACRI Spokesperson Ronit Sela, while important, these changes are insufficient, and would still leave a shortfall of hundreds of missing classrooms.
"Of course, we're going to have violence [between the students] because they're sitting over each other. But they cope with it. It's something we have to live with."
- Nidaa Amira, principal of Fata'al Lajia girls' school
"The gap is so big that in order for the municipality to really change the overall situation it has to treat it as a real project. Not only to build a few more classrooms here or to start planning a new school there, which is great and helpful for those specific communities, but what's really needed is an overall plan and a dedication of the municipality and Education Ministry and other ministries that are involved to really change the situation dramatically," Sela said.
Education system in East Jerusalem
Dozens of 8-year-old girls sit nearly on top of each other behind old-fashioned, wooden desks in a windowless room. "At least they're still small," said the girls' teacher, with a slight shrug, before beginning the third grade lesson.
This is the first week of classes at Fata'al Lajia girls' school in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Wadi al-Joz. Run by the Islamic Waqf, the school counts about 210 students in grades one through six; every year, students are turned away due to lack of space.
"It's something very normal. We don't notice it anymore," said school principal Nidaa Amira, about the over-crowding. "Of course, we're going to have violence [between the students] because they're sitting over each other. But they cope with it. It’s something we have to live with."
After Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, in a move that remains unrecognised by the international community, Palestinians continued to follow the Jordanian educational system that had been in use. Decades later, shortly after the signing of the Oslo II Agreement, schools in East Jerusalem began using the curriculum of the newly-formed Palestinian Authority.
Today, four different authorities govern the education system in East Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Education Administration (JEA) - a joint body of the Jerusalem municipality and the Israeli Ministry of Education - runs 50 public schools in East Jerusalem. According to statistics provided by the East Jerusalem Education Directorate, almost 40,000 students, or 48 per cent of the total number of Palestinian students in the city, attended JEA schools in 2010-2011.
The remaining students attend schools administered by the Islamic Waqf, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees, or the private sector.
Adnan Abu Taaha is vice-principal of the Dar Al-Aytam boys' school in Wadi al-Joz. Run by the Islamic Waqf, the school was recently renovated yet still lacks basic infrastructure and the teachers needed to handle its 220 students, aged 12-15.
|Abu Taaha, vice-principal of Dar Al-Aytam boys' school [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]
"It is actually a political issue. It's a matter of a violation to all human rights. There is enough space and enough land to build new schools, but the Israelis will not give permits to build new schools. This is what will lead to good quality education: building new schools with good infrastructure and enough facilities," Abu Taaha said.
Considered occupied territory under international law, East Jerusalem is protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that "the Occupying Power shall, with the co-operation of the national and local authorities, facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children".
Abu Taaha told Al Jazeera: "If they build new schools, this is not a gift from the Israelis. This is their commitment according to international law. This is our right. We pay taxes so we need to get facilities and services in return."
Promoting nationalistic projects
On August 29, approximately 3,400 students from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Issawiya held a one-day strike in protest of the lack of schools in their area. Home to 16,000 people, Issawiya currently has no public high school and only two primary schools.
"There are many rights that the municipality is denying the students. Every year, there are more and more problems in the education system," explained Mohammad Abu Hummus, a member of the Issawiya Parents' Committee, who estimated that approximately 25 classrooms are missing from the neighbourhood, impacting over 800 students.
|Since Israel annexed East Jerusalem, Issawiya lands have been gradually confiscated for a series of Israeli national projects [AFP]
Since Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, Issawiya lands have been gradually confiscated for a series of Israeli national projects, including construction of the nearby Israeli settlement of French Hill, home to the main campus of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and Hadassah hospital.
Today, the Jerusalem municipality plans to build a national park on lands belonging to the residents of Issawiya and the neighbouring village of A-Tur. If the project goes through, Issawiya residents will only have 600 dunams of land remaining upon which to build new structures.
According to the ACRI and Ir Amim report, the Israeli authorities have for years implemented a policy that promotes "large scale and expensive" projects in East Jerusalem, taking up much-needed public lands in Palestinian neighbourhoods.
"Had these resources and public plots been allocated for the benefit of the local Palestinian population, construction of educational centres with over a thousand classrooms currently missing from the system could have been possible," the report found.
For Abu Hummus, the Israeli-imposed restrictions on Palestinian construction - which must conform to existing planning schemes, many of which are frozen, inadequate or altogether absent in East Jerusalem - are the main obstacle to improving education in Issawiya.
Without a municipal plan for a neighbourhood, Palestinians cannot obtain building permits, making each structure, including schools, open to demolition. According to statistics issued by Israeli human rights group Btselem, 26 Palestinian homes were demolished in East Jerusalem in 2011; 15 were destroyed by the municipality, and 11 by the owners themselves, to avoid additional costs or fines
"The people are living in uncertainty. From 1967 until today, the municipality is talking about what to do, but hasn’t done anything [for us]," Abu Hummus told Al Jazeera. "There is land but the Israeli government doesn’t let us build new buildings. Israel is not allowing Palestinians to do anything in Jerusalem."
Right to education violated
After years of litigation, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in February 2011 that the Jerusalem municipality and the Israeli Ministry of Education must set up a framework within five years whereby each child in East Jerusalem will have access to the education system.
If unable to meet this five-year deadline, the Court told the state that it would be liable to cover the education costs for students still forced to attend non-official schools.
"The infringement on equality in education in East Jerusalem is not the fate of few. It is widespread and includes a significant portion of an entire population that is not accorded its basic rights by law and by virtue of Israeli constitutional values," wrote Israeli Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procaccia in the decision.
According to ACRI’s Ronit Sela, the dire situation is the result of discriminatory Israeli policies that have been implemented in East Jerusalem since 1967. "Unless something dramatic happens, the situation won’t be sufficient and we might have to go back to court," Sela said.
"We're talking about neglect and discrimination that has been very apparent and very blatant for 45 years. During that time, the population in East Jerusalem became bigger and bigger so the pace of building schools and institutions, training teachers, etc, had to meet the needs of the population. That's where the gap has just been growing and growing."