See the Israeli occupation through the eyes of Palestinian students

Leen and Bassem were among the second, fourth, fifth, sixth and tenth graders I spent several days with at the Ramallah Friends School earlier this year, a 150-year-old independent Quaker school in Palestine. We discussed the occupation and what I do in Washington as a lobbyist for peace in the Middle East, and wrote songs about bullying, racism and the occupied Palestinian territory.

To say that students at the Ramallah Friends School had to grow up too fast under Israeli occupation is an understatement. During our time together, they described life under the restrictive checkpoint system and other forms of control and repression. They shared that their families are often detained for hours without explanation at Israeli checkpoints throughout the West Bank and face intimidation and harassment from the Israel Defense Forces. Due to checkpoints, students could often be late for school or miss important holidays with family and friends in nearby towns like Jerusalem, just 20 km away. A relatively short car or bus ride in the West Bank can often turn into a day trip, if allowed to travel.

The students lamented the double standard they witnessed: Israeli settler cars with yellow Israeli license plates can move easily in and around the West Bank, while Palestinian cars with white plates are subject to a system of completely different rules which includes much more control by Israeli authorities. They have also witnessed brutal violence against Palestinians and, despite these abuses, continued Israeli impunity.

To understand the point of view of these students, it is useful to understand their academic environment. The Friends of Ramallah school is not just another school, but an institution woven into the history of palestine. Founded when Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, in 1869, the school survived two world wars, most notably when it was occupied by Turkish and British soldiers during World War I. It operated under the British mandate and, from 1948 to 1967, under Jordanian rule, until the Israeli occupation. Since the Oslo Accords designated Ramallah and other Palestinian cities as “Area A”, the Palestinian Authority controls most affairs in the city, although Israeli forces can still launch security raids. Throughout its long history, the school has also served as a medical center and shelter for refugees, as well as a center for conferences, community events, concerts and more.

The Ramallah Friends School in 1937. (Photo by Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Today, the Friends of Ramallah School enrolls over 1,500 students and is the only school in Palestine to provide a fully inclusive education for students of diverse abilities, based on the Quaker principles of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity , community, equality and stewardship. Even with restrictions under Israeli occupation, the school continues to provide world-class education to its student body and remains in high demand.

My time there was a highlight of my trip to Palestine, but feelings about the current political situation abounded. Teachers and staff have repeatedly raised the new policies of the Israeli military government in the West Bank, known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, to limit and regulate international travel to and from the West Bank. West Bank. New restrictions on the entry and stay of foreigners, including those of Palestinian origin, complicate the already confusing and stringent travel restrictions imposed by Israel. The new information visitors must disclose to Israeli authorities includes details of any land they may own or may be inheriting in the West Bank.

COGAT will also more closely track and trace foreign nationals traveling to the West Bank, while imposing new caps on the number of foreign scholars and students who can teach and study at Palestinian schools and universities, with direct implications for the Friends of Ramallah School, which has not been able to match the increase in the size of its classrooms with the increase in the number of teachers. The COGAT might even prevent me from going back to the school of friends in Ramallah in the future.

These new restrictions are another challenge for the Friends of Ramallah School, in addition to any existing ones from the occupation, as it seeks to support its students and their families. Nevertheless, the school remains a real refuge in the midst of the dystopia of the occupation. It is among the most elite schools in the Middle East and has consistently produced heads of state, ambassadors and critical thinkers. Yet, if even the most privileged students in Palestine…tuition and graduate school fees start at around 16,000 shekels (about $5,000) – living in fear and suffering, one can imagine what those living in other environments face.

Michael A. Bynum