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Vying for minds in East Jerusalem schools

In a bid to revamp the educational sector in East Jerusalem and ease Israel's grip on the schools there, the Palestinian Authority has announced a national education plan of $30 million.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Israeli and Palestinian governments both want to infuse East Jerusalem schools with money in what many see as a tug of war for curriculum control.

Palestinian Education Ministry spokesman Sadiq al-Khadour told Al-Monitor that in late May, the cabinet in Ramallah approved $30 million to support and improve the level of education in East Jerusalem. The National Plan for the Support of Education is designed to counter Israel's efforts to impose its curriculum and undermine the use of the Arab language in Palestinian schools, Khadour said. Israel recently announced it will allocate 2 billion shekels (roughly $560,000), most of it for introducing the Israeli curriculum in East Jerusalem educational institutions.

The plan Khadour outlined includes bringing Palestinian kindergartens up to par with Israeli ones, reducing school fees, supporting the staff of schools that are affiliated with the Jerusalem Directorate by offering them bonuses, maintaining and adding classrooms to private schools and teaching the Palestinian curriculum.

There will also be efforts to purchase new buildings for schools as well as tablet computers for 5,500 students. Students in schools in the Old City section of Jerusalem who are currently in their final year and who graduate will receive full scholarships to Palestinian universities, and graduating students outside the Old City are being offered scholarships to fund 50% of their higher education.

Despite these positive steps, many Jerusalemites believe the plan won't be enough to resolve the problems of education in East Jerusalem. The system there is complex, and schools are affiliated with or directed by various parties.

Some schools are directed by the Jerusalem municipality, and others by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The city also has private schools, some of them nonprofit. Students often can't afford all their expenses at private for-profit schools, and Israel offers financial aid — which, again, some critics say is just a way to control the curriculum. Some semi-private schools are licensed by the Jerusalem municipality and fund 60% of students' expenses. The public schools are affiliated with the Palestinian Authority and operate under the umbrella of the Islamic Endowments Directorate.

According to a report by the Gaza-based Center for Earth and Human Research and Studies, East Jerusalem had a total of 216 schools during the 2015-16 school year. At that time, 42.8% of students (38,220) were enrolled in public schools licensed by the Jerusalem municipality and the Israeli Ministry of Education, 31.4% (28,076) attended the 79 private schools in the city, 13.8% (12,420) attended the 46 schools run by the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs of Palestine and 2% (1,541) were enrolled in East Jerusalem's seven UNRWA-run schools. The remaining 10% of students attend Sakhnin schools, which are private schools that are licensed by the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem and receive financial support from Israeli authorities.

Ziad Shamali, chairman of the East Jerusalem parents' committee, told Al-Monitor the Palestinian expenditures might be too little, too late. He said, “We have been calling for such improvements for years before things hit rock bottom. The situation is extremely bad, and more than 75% of schools are now affiliated with the Israeli Ministry of Education — either directly or indirectly.”

By "indirectly," Shamali meant public and private schools that receive financial assistance from the Jerusalem municipality, which is affiliated with the Israeli government — so those schools must follow Israeli Ministry of Education directives to receive funding.

“Reforming the education system requires a permanent strategy by the government that's not the initiative of only one certain minister or ministry. Had the Palestinian government been spending half of what Israel spends on a regular basis on education, we would have been able to protect our schools from Israeli infiltration,” he said.

Yahya Hijazi, a researcher and educational adviser at Al-Quds University, concurred with Shamali and stressed the need for the government to spend consistently to introduce permanent reforms to the education system. Hijazi told Al-Monitor the new plan comes as a reaction to the controversial US decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and is not part of a comprehensive reform strategy.

He said there is a “confidence issue” between Jerusalemites and the Palestinian government over the latter’s past neglect of the city and the sporadic spending that does not cover the schools’ basic needs. “Schools need steady and consistent spending to cover the regular operating expenses. The government ought to set clear and defined budgets for schools. The PA’s intermittent aid prompts [East Jerusalem] schools to accept the steady contributions from Israel,” he added.

Hijazi believes the PA’s long overdue offers of support are insufficient. He described field meetings with owners of private schools to offer them PA aid as "gloomy." “Most of these schools refused my offer, arguing that Palestinian support is not stable. In East Jerusalem, only two private schools refuse Israeli aid,” he noted.

Hatem Abdel-Qader, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council and a former minister for Jerusalem affairs, believes the problem isn't in making plans and that the education minister is always seeking to improve education in East Jerusalem. He told Al-Monitor that the problem lies in getting the Ministry of Finance to authorize budget disbursement orders, as well as a lack of political will to take action in the eastern part of the city.

“This plan — if implemented in full — would be the minimum level of Palestinian action [required] to face Israeli plans that target the entire education process,” Abdel-Qader said.

Meanwhile, funds for all these plans remain pending because the PA depends on donor funding that is disbursed irregularly and education in East Jerusalem remains unstable.

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