Occupied East Jerusalem – As tens of thousands of Palestinian children across occupied East Jerusalem begin a new school year on September 1, teachers, parents and human rights groups have raised concerns over a controversial funding proposal that would only benefit schools that drop the Palestinian curriculum in favour of an Israeli equivalent.
The Jerusalem affairs and heritage minister, an irregular portfolio which the current government re-established in June 2015, is set to offer more than 20m shekels ($5.3m) to schools in East Jerusalem on the condition that they teach the Israeli curriculum.
In East Jerusalem, there are 180 schools that are either government institutions or private schools, which receive Israeli Education Ministry funding.
The vast majority of schools in Occupied East Jerusalem, where almost all the city’s Palestinian residents live, follow the Palestinian curriculum – adopted since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994 – while students take the PA’s matriculation exam. Last year only 10 of those schools offered classes geared towards the Israeli matriculation exam.
Previously, schools followed the Jordanian system since East Jerusalem was occupied by Israel in 1967.
You cannot condition the allocation of budget by imposing the Israeli curriculum on Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem, specifically in this area because it is an occupied area.
The plan was criticised by civil rights groups and has yet to be implemented. The current proposal has also been slammed by civil rights groups, who questioned the legality of the plan under Israeli and international law.
“You cannot condition the allocation of budget by imposing the Israeli curriculum on Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem, specifically in this area because it is an occupied area, and since 1967 it has maintained a political status quo in schools,” said Sawsan Zaher, an attorney with Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel.
“Based on international law, the local population has the right to maintain its regular way of life and the occupying power is not allowed to interfere in it unless there is a military necessity,” she told Al Jazeera.
The new school year has been dubbed ‘united Jerusalem’ year by Israel’s right-wing education minister Naftali Bennett, to mark the 50 years since the Israeli military captured – and occupied – East Jerusalem.
Yet in terms of resources and facilities, the divide between schools in east and west Jerusalem is sharp. There is a serious shortage of classrooms in East Jerusalem schools, while some of the buildings rented by the municipality – to be used as schools – are unfit for purpose, according to Ziad Shamali, head of the East Jerusalem Parents Committee.
“The municipality rents old buildings, built for residence and not to serve as schools, instead of building new schools. In these buildings, students are sitting in crowded rooms and the desks are so close, probably around 20cm away from each other,” said Shamali, noting that crowded conditions make it harder for teachers and students to perform effectively.
“Most schools are very old and the buildings need serious renovation. We need proper funding to fix this situation,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he resented the prospect of renovation funding being conditional on schools changing curriculums.
While the Jerusalem municipality has increased the rate of construction of new classrooms in East Jerusalem, it has actually failed to keep up with natural population growth in recent years, according to Israeli civil rights NGO Ir Amim.
“The shortage of classrooms in the official system in East Jerusalem is dire enough that the Supreme Court has ruled it constitutes a violation of the constitutional right to education for the children of East Jerusalem,” said Betty Herschman, director of communications and advocacy at Ir Amim.
“The new school year will begin with more than 2,600 missing classrooms in East Jerusalem and while the mayor lauds the inroads being made under his administration, only 261 classrooms have been built while the demand only continues to grow.”
For 2016, Arab schools received eight million shekels [$2.1m] for renovations compared to 42m shekels [$11.1m] allocated for secular and national religious schools.
For example, the total budget allocated by the city for Beit Hinuch high school in West Jerusalem in 2016 is 16.3m shekels ($4.3m) while the Ras al-Amud boys high school in East Jerusalem – with the same number of pupils – will be receiving only 2.9m shekels ($766,993).
Meanwhile, East Jerusalem schools also have a significantly higher dropout rate than those in West Jerusalem. While 13 percent of students dropped out of East Jerusalem schools as of September 2012, only 1 percent quit before graduating from high school in West Jerusalem.
In Arab post-elementary education in Israel as a whole, the dropout rate was 4.6 percent.
“Bad facilities at schools play a role in increasing the dropout rate. When classrooms are crowded, many students lose the desire to learn,” explains Shamali, who noted that other reasons for high dropout rates include the dire economic conditions or families reluctant to send their children to school during times of tension.
Yet while 21 dropout prevention programmes operate in West Jerusalem, there are only eight such programmes in East Jerusalem. “There are staggering disparities in dropout rates and allocation of prevention resources between East and West Jerusalem – even more critical in East Jerusalem, considering the 80 percent poverty rate and lack of opportunities for professional advancement,” said Herschman.
Even by Israeli law standards, explains Zaher, the proposal constitutes a violation. She noted that many of the Israeli supreme court decisions and records of budget allocation – including on education – state that the allocation should be based on equal, clear and written criteria.
“Based on Israeli law and case law, conditioning the allocation of budget will lead to discrimination based on nationality because only the schools in East Jerusalem will be the schools that will not get the funding because of the political status quo,” says Zaher.