English Education and Freedom in Occupied Palestine

Samira jafar Blogs

In 1987, during the beginning of the Palestinian Intifada, education became illegal in Occupied Palestine as decreed by the Israeli government. Palestinian children were arrested for carrying books, and teachers were arrested for holding classes or supplying educational materials to students. According to Yamila Hussein’s article, “The Stone and the Pen,” this action “created a fleeting space for the Palestinians to assume responsibility for their own education” (2005, p. 1). Palestinian students and society alike rallied for international support to end the education ban, but during the ban, education among Palestinians did not halt. Thus began the first seeds of education as a path to resistance and freedom, and a new generation of Palestinians intent on expressing their culture, personhood, and thoughts through the process of learning.

For Palestinian children, the very act of going to school is a rebellion. In 2017, in the Occupied West Bank, students turned up in September for the new school year to find their schools turned to complete rubble after bombing raids by the Israeli government. This year, in 2023, the school year ended early in Gaza due to the deaths of most students. Military occupation and apartheid rules – such as the allegations that schools in Gaza and the West Bank, many of which are funded by the European Union and UNRWA, do not have permits approved by the Israeli government – have unlawfully hindered the education of these students. Six schools have been forcibly closed in Jerusalem this year alone (Abu Hilal, 2023). But in videos taken in refugee camps and shelter areas around hospitals and UNRWA schools in Gaza, we can still see children reading, speaking, and communicating their thoughts to the world. 

In Occupied Palestine, there are a handful of organizations that provide ESL teachers with the opportunity to teach English in refugee camps. The pursuit of education has been deeply embedded within Palestinian society for many years. A study conducted at the University College of London by Tejendra Pherali and Ellen Turner highlighted this ideology through interviews with students and parents of children in UNRWA schools; one parent said that “education is life for them [the students]. We don’t have components for a state, therefore, education is the first priority” (2018, p. 7). For schools in the West Bank, English education is primarily important, especially for younger students. In Pherali and Turner’s study, students used written English and drawings to communicate with the UNRWA teachers about their lost ancestral homes and the origins of their families. This determination to communicate the Palestinian identity and struggle to speakers of English is a driving force of Palestinian education. By communicating, these students are a step closer to realizing their collective Palestinian identity and controlling their own narratives.

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