BEIT UMMAR, WEST BANK — Seventy-three. In that many days, Sadek Abu Maria’s life has drastically changed.
“It’s easier than before, but it’s still difficult because I have exams, and the majority of the material I wasn’t there for,” the 15-year-old told Al-Monitor from his family’s living room in the West Bank village of Beit Ummar.
Abu Maria is in 10th grade at a local school in Beit Ummar. He was arrested in early January on the charge of throwing stones and detained at Israel’s Ofer military prison, on the outskirts of Ramallah, for almost two and a half months.
The Palestinian Ministry of Education makes children repeat their academic year after they’ve missed a certain number of school days; Abu Maria says he’s missed more than is allowed and is now waiting to hear if he can take the exams in three weeks with his classmates.
“I was a little behind. I struggled a bit, but bit by bit, I’m catching up,” Abu Maria explained, adding that if he’s held back, he will most likely drop out of high school and take a vocational-training course to become a carpenter instead.
“If they pass me this year, I will continue [high school],” he said, adding, “It’s already affected my life, at school and with my family. Inside, I’m trying to hold back so I don’t react [angrily] to everything.”
Thousands of children affected
The Israeli military authorities arrest, interrogate and detain an estimated 700 Palestinian children under the age of 18 annually in the occupied West Bank. Most are arrested on suspicion of throwing stones. Since 2000, approximately 8,000 Palestinian children have been detained.
As of April 1, 236 Palestinian children — including 39 under the age of 16 — were held in Israeli detention and interrogation facilities, a 27.5% increase from the previous month, according to Palestinian prisoner-rights group Addameer.
In addition to being subjected to ill-treatment while in Israeli prisons and interrogation facilities — ranging from verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, beatings and other forms of physical and psychological torture — Palestinian child detainees struggle to continue their education while in prison.
Most Palestinian child detainees are held at Ofer military prison, on the outskirts of Ramallah, or in the juvenile wings at Megiddo and Rimmonim prisons, which are located inside Israel.
No formal educational resources are made available to prisoners at Ofer, while both Rimmonim and Megiddo prisons offer middle-school and high-school-aged students the chance to continue their studies on a limited basis, according to Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.
At Ofer, Sadek Abu Maria had no access to educational courses, aside from the Hebrew courses older prisoners taught him. The prisoners also taught Arabic and mathematics for beginner-level students.
He attended Hebrew classes for two weeks — every day, except Friday and Saturday, for up to two and a half hours per lesson — before dropping the language when it became too difficult. Now, Abu Maria says that the prisoners have made their makeshift education curriculum compulsory for all younger detainees.
“There are three classrooms. There were desks, chairs and a blackboard. Everything,” Abu Maria said. “It’s better if everyone would learn there instead of wasting their time.”
Education subject to "security"
In 1997, a group of Palestinian children filed a lawsuit against the Israeli Prison Service, demanding that their right to education be upheld. While the Tel Aviv Central Court ruled that Palestinian youth detainees had the same right as Israeli children to be educated, the court stated that education for Palestinians should be “subject to security considerations.”
The Israeli authorities interpreted this caveat as allowing them to restrict what courses are offered in prison. According to B'Tselem, Palestinian detainees can take some subjects — including mathematics, Arabic and world history — while all others, including economics, current events, history and all sciences, are prohibited.
“It’s clear that it’s not according to the Palestinian curriculum, and not all the topics that are taught in Palestinian schools are taught to Palestinian children. There are so many topics that are not covered,” explained Ayed Abu Eqtaish, accountability program director at Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI-P).
“This stems from the philosophy of the prison — that it’s for punishment and retribution, not for rehabilitation — so the prisons are not equipped, legally speaking, for holding child prisoners. If the prison authority does not provide education, it’s a problem ...”
Equal access to education
Article 94 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that “the education of children and young people shall be ensured; they shall be allowed to attend schools either within the place of internment or outside.”
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also stipulates that signatories must “recognize the right to everyone to education” and that education “shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
On March 7, DCI-P and Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, wrote a letter to the Israeli Prison Service demanding that all Palestinian minors receive access to education while in detention.
“The practice of not providing appropriate education to detained Palestinian children infringes their rights to education, dignity and equality. It breaches Israeli constitutional law and contradicts the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision that prisoners have the right to education while in jail,” the letter stated.
According to Abu Eqtaish, the Israeli prison authorities must ensure that Palestinian children have the same access to education as Israeli children who are detained.
“The prison authority does not care about the Palestinian children and about ensuring their right to education. Even if they do not want to invest money in bringing teachers from outside, there is another proposal, which is the willingness of other prisoners to educate child prisoners,” he said.
“There is a request from prisoners to teach child prisoners in prison, because there are a lot of prisoners who have the capacity to teach … but so far, there is no response from the prison administration.”
Jillian Kestler-D'Amours is a Canadian journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. She is a regular contributor to Inter Press Service news agency, Al Jazeera English and Free Speech Radio News. Follow her on Twitter: @jilldamours.