At a glance: State of Palestine

Education suffers amidst political tension and conflict in Gaza

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© UNICEF video
Girls at a school in the Gaza Strip, where conflict and poverty are hampering the ability of Palestinian children to succeed in school.

By Toni O’Loughlin

GAZA STRIP, Occupied Palestinian Territory, 12 December 2007 – Najwa Al Smairi, 11, goes to school just metres from Gaza’s heavily guarded perimeter. She is one of the brightest students in her class but fears failure due to the violence and uncertainty around her.

Recently, Najwah has slipped from fourth to fifth in her class, and the studious 11-year-old is concerned. “When I spoke to my sister she told me not to worry, that it was normal, but I am still worried,” she says.

Palestinians have long traded on excellence in education as an investment in the future, working their way into the upper echelons of governments and businesses throughout the region. Now, increased political tensions and conflict are having devastating effects in Gaza, where children make up more than half of the population.

Low grades have become endemic in Gaza’s schools. According to the World Bank, 80 per cent of students here are failing math, while an astounding 40 per cent are failing Arabic, their mother tongue.

Coping with a lack of classrooms

With Gaza’s economy grinding to a halt, the outlook for education is troubling. At Najwah’s school, the teachers cannot print tests because paper is in short supply.

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© UNICEF video
To cope with the lack of classroom space, many schools in Gaza operate two shifts – one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

“We will have to write the exam on the blackboard, and that takes time,” says Ahmad Ismari, an English teacher.
 
A severe shortage of building materials also means Najwah and her female peers must share the boys’ toilets, because a second lavatory cannot be built.

To cope with the lack of classroom space, many schools operate two shorter shifts – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. As a result, some 73 per cent of Gaza’s students lose almost two hours of schooling a day.

Damaging effects on education

Results from a recent school survey released by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which also runs schools in Lebanon and Syria, highlighted the damaging effect of conflict and poverty on education in Gaza.

Since the beginning of an Israeli blockade of Gaza in July, an estimated 70,000 people have lost their jobs, adding to the soaring unemployment rate.

The number of families dependent on food aid is around 80 per cent, and aid agencies worry that the number could grow. Household budgets are under pressure as the cost of imported items such as flour and bread uses up their incomes.

When Najwa attends school, her mind is often distracted by hunger. “Sometimes I feel I can’t read and I can’t follow the teacher,” she says.

Conflict with the Israeli military and internal Palestinian clashes also hamper the ability of Gaza’s children to learn. “Fear is in every child,” says Mr. Ismari. “They can’t concentrate. They are really absent-minded.”


 

 

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UNICEF correspondent Amy Bennett reports on the daily difficulties involved in getting an education in Gaza.
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