How Israel is “turning Palestinians into Zionists”

Israel is forcing Palestinian schools in occupied East Jerusalem to switch over to an Israeli-controlled curriculumf

Israel is to put financial pressure on Palestinian schools in occupied East Jerusalem in an effort to make them switch over to an Israeli-controlled curriculum, according to local activists and officials.

Almost all of East Jerusalem’s schools currently use a syllabus developed by the Palestinian Authority, a Palestinian government-in-waiting created in the mid-1990s by the Oslo accords. Before that, they relied on the Jordanian curriculum.

Palestinian officials have slammed the move, warning that it is part of intensified efforts by Israel to disconnect East Jerusalem from the neighbouring West Bank and entrench its control over the 300,000 Palestinians in the city.

Peace efforts have long been premised on Israel ending its occupation of East Jerusalem and recognising the city as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

“This attack on our curriculum is part of Israel’s war on Palestinian identity,” Sabri Saidam, the Palestinian education minister, told Al Jazeera. “Israel is working to consolidate its illegal occupation.”

Israel tried to impose the Israeli curriculum when it first occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, but was forced to relent after parents and pupils staged months of strikes and protests.

Zionist curriculum

Civil rights groups, meanwhile, fear Palestinian schools will have little choice but to submit to the Israeli scheme if they do not want to face further budget cuts in an East Jerusalem education system already chronically underfunded by Israel.

Palestinian pupils, local activists say, will be presented with a curriculum that denies their history and identity, and places a strong emphasis on Israel’s official position that all of Jerusalem is its “eternal, unified capital”.

“We don’t want our children to be told that al-Aqsa is not our holy place, that the Palestinian flag is not our flag, that the land belongs to the settlers, and that Ariel Sharon is a hero,” said Hatem Khweis, a spokesman for the Union of Parents’ Committees, a Palestinian group campaigning for improved education in East Jerusalem.

The plan to switch curriculums came to light after senior Israeli education officials divulged details to the local media. Last year only 1,900 Palestinian high-school pupils in East Jerusalem – about 5 percent – studied the Israeli curriculum.

Israel operates an almost entirely segregated education system between Jewish and Palestinian pupils, both in Israel and in occupied East Jerusalem.

Aid ‘Israelization’

Saidam said that Israel was required under international treaties it had signed to provide a public education that respected the occupied population’s heritage, identity and culture.

Israel’s education minister, Naftali Bennett, who is also leader of the settler party Jewish Home, said he wanted to “provide a strong tailwind to any school that chooses the Israeli curriculum. My policy is clear: I want to aid the process of Israelization.”

According to the Jerusalem municipality, the scheme will exploit the Palestinian population’s increasing isolation from the West Bank since Israel built a wall through the city a decade ago.

The extra funding will entitle Palestinian schools that switch to the Israeli curriculum to more classroom hours as well as music and art classes, teacher training and student counselling services – most of which are currently lacking in East Jerusalem’s Palestinian schools.

Last year Israeli education officials said they were considering lengthening the short school day in East Jerusalem’s schools to take Palestinian youths off the streets. An Israeli curriculum, it is also hoped, will reduce nationalist sentiment.

Israeli officials believe both factors have fuelled months of angry Palestinian protests, as well as knife and car attacks on Israelis, that have focused on Jerusalem. Some have termed the unrest a third intifada.

War of attrition

“Israel believes it can change the next Palestinian generation’s mentality in the classroom, turning them into Zionists, without addressing the political situation,” said Zakaria Odeh, director of the Civic Coalition, an umbrella group for Palestinian civil society groups in Jerusalem. “But that is the real cause of their anger and frustration.”

He added that the Israeli curriculum denied the Palestinians’ identity, characterising them instead as “minorities” and religious groups.

Israeli officials appear to hope that East Jerusalem residents’ will to resist is weaker than it was in the late 1960s.

Khweis, of the Union of Parents’ Committees, said the education ministry was exerting strong pressure on schools. They were imposing the Israeli curriculum through “a war of financial attrition”, he said.

Israeli courts have harshly criticised the government for the dire state of East Jerusalem’s schools, especially a shortage of more than 2,200 extra classrooms. In 2011 the Supreme Court gave the government and municipality five years to build enough classrooms for Palestinian children in East Jerusalem. That deadline expires this summer.

A report in December by Ir Amim, an advocacy group for a fairer Jerusalem, found the situation had deteriorated dramatically since the ruling. Only 35 classrooms had been built over the past five years, failing even to keep pace with natural growth.

“The education ministry is holding educational resources hostage by conditioning funds to schools on their agreement to change their curriculum,” Betty Herschman, a spokeswoman for Ir Amim, told Al Jazeera.

Censoring textbooks

Khweis said Israeli officials had stepped up interference in the Palestinian curriculum in recent years, censoring large sections of textbooks. Changes have included: removing pictures of Palestinian flags and PA logos; excising information about PLO leaders; cutting lines from poems that could be interpreted as promoting struggle against occupation; and redacting references to the Nakba, the Arabic term for the loss of the Palestinians’ homeland in 1948.

“Israel has so mangled the Palestinian textbooks that the curriculum is extremely weak,” he said. “And now Israel turns to the schools and tells them they would be better off with the Israeli syllabus.”

Saidam, the PA’s education minister, said Israel had also started blocking the shipment of Palestinian textbooks to Jerusalem.

Fears have been heightened by comments from education officials that funds for schools making the switch will be offset by cuts to the budgets of schools that continue to use the Palestinian curriculum.

According to Ir Amim, Israel is also expected to raid a $12m fund, set aside in 2014, to help Jerusalem’s schools over the next five years. Some $4.5m was earmarked to increase Israel’s control in East Jerusalem.

Saidam said the Palestinian cabinet had recently agreed to raise emergency funds to help schools that stick with the Palestinian curriculum.

However, officials in East Jerusalem privately expressed doubt that much money would reach the city. The PA is in financial crisis, and Israel has blocked it from having any direct role in Jerusalem since 2000.

Educational no-man’s land

With East Jerusalem increasingly isolated physically from the West Bank, Palestinian pupils have found themselves trapped in an educational no-man’s land, said Odeh.

Few Israeli institutions of higher education recognise the Palestinian matriculation certificate, complaining that students’ competence in Hebrew is too low. But it is also difficult for East Jerusalem’s students to access Palestinian universities in West Bank cities. If they do, they risk Israel revoking their East Jerusalem residency permits.

The Jerusalem municipality provides schooling for only 42 percent of the city’s Palestinian pupils. A similar number are taught in what are known as “unofficial” schools, partially funded and supervised by the education ministry. The rest study in private, mostly religious, schools.

A staggering 22,000 Palestinian children are unaccounted for in statistics kept by the Jerusalem municipality.

Ir Amim said the severe classroom shortage in municipal schools forced many parents to pay high fees to unofficial schools. Their children often studied in overcrowded and improvised classrooms, lacking heating, air-conditioning, libraries, computers and science labs.

As a result, more than a third of Palestinian pupils fail to matriculate – the highest figure in either Israel or the occupied territories.

The crisis facing East Jerusalem schools follows threats from Israeli officials that independent church schools serving some of Israel’s Palestinian minority will be forced to close unless they submit to government control.

• First published in Al Jazeera

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.