By Mel Frykberg
HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 14 (IPS) — A thin Palestinian boy, no older than ten, darts between the piles of garbage and the congested lines of traffic which converge at the Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
He pleads with bus drivers to allow him on their buses so he can sell chewing gum at a pittance. When nobody buys any gum and the boy is ordered off the bus, he leaves on the verge of tears. Risking life and limb he then moves from car to car begging the frustrated drivers to purchase some of his goods.
Dozens of Palestinian youngsters can be seen on a daily basis at other East Jerusalem checkpoints and intersections – or scavenging through the ubiquitous garbage heaps for salvageable items – which they then try to sell to passing pedestrians and motorists.
Due to the endemic poverty in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, hundreds of Palestinian children are forced on to the streets by parents who are living below the poverty level in a desperate bid to eke out a few extra dollars to help their families survive.
These children should be in school securing a better future for themselves but Israel’s discriminatory education policies between Jewish West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem is driving these youngsters out of school – if they are lucky enough to be enrolled in the first place.
Knesset (Israeli parliament) member Jamal Zahalka claimed earlier in the year that “educational provision for Palestinian children in East Jerusalem is worse than anywhere in the occupied Palestinian Territories, including Gaza, or in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.”
More than 5,000 Palestinian children in East Jerusalem do not attend school at all. The dropout rate for Palestinian school students in East Jerusalem is 50 percent, compared with about 12 percent for Jewish students.
“The rate of school dropouts, and the level of poverty amongst Palestinians in East Jerusalem, is frightening,” Orly Noy from the Israeli rights group Ir Amim told IPS.
“The severe neglect of the education system in East Jerusalem is brewing a catastrophe,” adds Tali Nir, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).
The two Israeli human rights organisations accused the Israeli authorities of deliberate discrimination in a report titled ‘Failed Grade – The State of the Education System in East Jerusalem’.
In their report they state that Palestinian students in East Jerusalem are short of 1,000 classrooms.
Israel’s education law requires the state to provide education equally to all residents of the city.
However, the Israeli government spent an average of 2,300 New Israeli Shekels (NIS), about 604 dollars, on each Jewish child in elementary school during the year 2008-2009. In comparison 577 shekels (151 dollars) was spent on each Palestinian child.
According to the report, only 39 classrooms were built for Palestinians over the past year despite promises made in court to build 644 by 2011.
The rights groups further accuse the Israeli government of forcing Palestinian students to study in unsuitable conditions.
Thousands of Palestinian pupils are bundled into crowded classrooms, often in ill-equipped buildings. Approximately half of the rooms (647 out of a total of 1,398) are sub-standard and a quarter are in ‘inappropriate conditions’, the report found.
The state of classrooms, researchers said, often forces thousands of students to study in rented buildings lacking ventilation, libraries, laboratories, and playgrounds.
It usually takes Palestinian children hours to get to and from school as they have to cross through Israeli checkpoints, and the fares they pay for substandard transport are high.
In May 2001 Israel’s high court ruled that the Israeli education ministry and the municipality of Jerusalem were obliged to provide education for every Palestinian child in the city.
Yet 40,000 Palestinian children in East Jerusalem are forced to attend private schools to obtain a decent education. Only 39,523 of 82,250 Palestinian pupils, accounting for 48.05 percent of the children, attend government schools.
Islamic organisations in East Jerusalem provide education for approximately eight percent of Palestinian children, while the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) also does its share.
“Many have to turn to private schools, and thousands who cannot afford to pay stay at home,” the report adds.
“We continually take the municipality and the education ministry to court over the issue and the state orders these authorities to rectify the situation. However, the state responds by making up excuses, saying there are many obstacles. This is not the first time court rulings have been ignored by the Israeli authorities,” Noy explains to IPS.
In the interim while the bureaucracy continues to grind in never-ending legal circles, Palestine’s street children will continue to fall through the cracks with the prospects of a better future looking particularly grim.
“This is a self-perpetuating cycle that further undermines Palestinian society and is not helping to build a strong and stable community,” says Noy.