Israel opens school in mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem

Israel has for the first time opened a school for Palestinians in the heart of East Jerusalem, shedding light on the state of the education system in that part of the city and raising concerns of Israeli encroachment in a predominantly Palestinian area.

al-monitor Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat attends the opening of an Israeli-run school in East Jerusalem. Posted Sept. 4, 2018. Photo by Facebook / NirBarkatArabic.

Oct 2, 2018

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — In an unprecedented move, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Sept. 4. inaugurated an Israeli-run public school in the heart of predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, near Herod's Gate. The Ula Primary School for Boys and Girls replaces what had once been a Palestinian-run school at that location. Barkat posted a video on Facebook from the opening day, which included a Palestinian girl delivering a welcome speech in Hebrew and other Palestinian students singing songs in Hebrew.

Barkat describes the new school as the “first primary school for Jerusalem students who wish to study for the Israeli bagrut [matriculation exam] early on.” He said the school, housed in a single building, has 15 classrooms for 290 Palestinian students in grades 1-8. 

From 1982 to 2014, the Palestinian Refugee Girls Secondary School occupied the site where Ula is now located. The Palestinian owners of the land and the building and the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Education and Higher Education, which administered the school, terminated their contract, allegedly over a dispute about the yearly rent of 150,000 Jordanian dinars (more than $211,000). An Israeli court then ordered the school to vacate the property.

In July, the Israeli-run Ula School moved from land belonging to the Israeli municipality on the northern periphery of East Jerusalem, transferring currently enrolled students with it, to the building at Herod's Gate, which serves as an entrance to the Old City and an access route to Salah al-Din Street, a major commercial street. All the other Israeli schools for Palestinians remain on the periphery of East Jerusalem.

Rawan Jamjoum, a former student at the secondary school for girls, has viewed the video Barkat posted. “I felt as if something was taken from me and from the history of Jerusalem,” she told Al-Monitor. “It hurts. The Refugee Girls school has a history, which now will be forgotten.”

Ibtisam al-Rajbi, who attended the secondary school 14 years ago, told Al-Monitor that she still remembers how students used to sing the Palestinian national anthem. She's saddened to see her old school turning into an Israeli school, albeit still for Palestinians.

Samir Jibril, head of the PA's Education and Higher Education Department at the Directorate of Education in Jerusalem, spoke to Al-Monitor about the site.

“The school was Palestinian [run],” he said. “The landlords approached Israeli courts in 2014 to have us evicted, because we objected to the increase in the yearly rent. The court ruled in their favor, granting the Palestinian ministry three years, until the end of 2017, to move the school.”

He added, “It's very sad to see the school turn into an Israeli establishment teaching the Israeli curriculum. Israel now has a foothold in the heart of East Jerusalem.” Jibril explained that Israel establishing the school in East Jerusalem is not related to education per se, but is part of a political strategy to advance the Judaization of the Palestinian educational system in the city.

Mohammed Farrah, one of the property owners, told Al-Monitor that his family began leasing the site to the Jerusalem municipality on July 18. He said that they have not sold the property and that the lease is for five years and is renewable. He explained that there was no Palestinian party interested in renting it.

Farrah denied the ministry’s claim that their dispute had been over a rent increase. “What happened was that the ministry didn't pay the rent for 2014, which forced us to terminate the contract and demand that they evacuate the property,” Farrah said.

Ziad al-Shamali, head of the Palestinian Parents’ Committee in East Jerusalem, called the new school's inauguration a “black day in the history of Jerusalem.”

“Most of the Israeli schools in Jerusalem are on the outskirts of the city,” he told Al-Monitor. “Having an Israeli school in the heart of the city is certainly very troubling.” Shamali and others fear encroaching Israeli influence and culture in the area.

Shamali added that the Parents’ Committee had launched a campaign at the end of December to eliminate the Israeli curricula in East Jerusalem schools by urging parents to enroll their children in Palestinian-run schools instead. 

Hassan Khater, director of the International Jerusalem Center, told Al-Monitor, however, “Despite Palestinian attempts to resist Israeli schools in Jerusalem through awareness campaigns, Palestinian parents have not stopped sending their children to these schools.”

He asserted that this is understandable, given the PA's neglect of the education sector in Jerusalem. According to Khater, about 1,200 additional classrooms would be needed in schools to accommodate all the Palestinian students in Jerusalem, by which he meant all those currently attending Israeli-administered schools.

According to an April 2017 survey on education in East Jerusalem conducted by the Faisal Husseini Foundation, there were 228 schools during the 2016-17 school year. The largest proportion of Palestinian students, 44.5%, attended the 70 Israeli schools. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education oversees 49 schools, attended by 14% of Palestinian students. Among the remaining pupils, 34.4% are enrolled in private Palestinian schools and 1.4% in institutions run by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Another 5.7% attend schools that were founded by individual Palestinians but follow the Israeli curriculum and therefore have teachers paid by the Israeli state.

Rashad Halwani has three children enrolled in Israeli primary schools in East Jerusalem. He told Al-Monitor, “There's not enough room for all the students in Jerusalem [in PA-run public schools]. Private Palestinian schools, on the other hand, are very expensive, with tuition fees amounting to 20,000 shekels [$5,550] per year. The UNRWA schools receive only Palestinian refugees from the refugee camps in Jerusalem.”

Halwani added, “We don’t have much choice, and the tuition fees at the Israeli schools amount to 400 shekels ($110) per year,” making them affordable.

Khater noted some additional advantages of Israeli schools. For instance, the average number of students per class is 20, compared with 40 in PA-run schools. He also pointed out that students who learn the Israeli curriculum, which includes Hebrew, have a head start on other students in landing jobs in Israeli government institutions in Jerusalem.

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