Israel starves Christian schools of funds

Cross-posted from Electronic Intifada 

Staff in 47 Christian schools serving Palestinians within present-day Israel have gone on strike to protest against funding cuts imposed on them by the government.

They say they may escalate their protest by seeking the closure of Christian holy sites that attract thousands of tourists each year.

While the State of Israel previously funded up to 70 percent of the budget for these schools, it has sharply reduced its contribution during the past few years. Today, the state pays only 29 percent of their operating costs.

Palestinian citizens of Israel perceive the cuts as an attack on their culture and identity.

The Christian schools — which teach 30,000 children — are among the few Palestinian institutions in present-day Israel that survived the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing conducted by Zionist forces during and after Israel’s establishment in 1948. Run on a semi-public basis, they follow the core Israeli curriculum but also give lessons on religion and Palestinian history.

The funding cuts appear discriminatory. Schools for ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel have similarly been run on a semi-public basis, even though they focus on religious instruction, rather than the Israeli curriculum.

Yet the Israeli government has steadily increased its funding for such schools in recent years to the extent that they are almost totally financed by the state’s budget.

Palestinian Christians comprise less than 2 percent of Israel’s population. Their schools — which accept Muslims and Druze students, too — are high-performing, with a large number of their pupils later attending university.

Rani Khoury, a Palestinian from Nazareth, went to a Christian school. He said that the Christian schools have “allowed Palestinians to retain their education and they created a lot of leaders in Palestinian society.”

Khoury described his school as “very political.”

“I learned about the Nakba at school, as well as Israeli history, but from a Palestinian perspective,” he said.

Protests against the funding cuts have taken place in various towns and cities in present-day Israel such asHaifa, Nazareth, Ramleh and Shefa Amr.

In June, hundreds of Palestinian high school students protested at the Israeli education ministry, accusing the government of trying to force Christian semi-public schools into the state system.

“If the schools continue like this, they will go bankrupt,” Khoury said. “We should do more than just the strike. The government doesn’t care. You don’t see this on Israeli news channels; only Arabs know about it.”

In total, one-fifth of Israel’s inhabitants are Palestinians. Yet the state spends an average of 24 percent less on each high school pupil who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel than on his or her Jewish counterparts.

“Divide and conquer”

Rabea Fahoum, who attended a Christian school, said that such schools have struck a balance between meeting the needs of Palestinian students and the requirements of the Israeli state.

“In our school, we had many projects that were designed by the students and we could decide. We closed the school once. We also had a radio, which played political songs. When the state inspector came to the school, the principal would come to us and say ‘Don’t put any political songs on today, okay?’ And we would say, ‘okay.’”

“The students were from middle class families, all very educated and with a high level of political consciousness,” Fahoum said.

“This funding cut is not about the money,” Fahoum added. “There aren’t that many Christian schools, and most of them are in Nazareth. It’s a tactic to divide and conquer. The most important institutions that don’t allow Palestinian identity to be eroded are these schools. Today, you have a specific curriculum for Druze [in Israel] but you don’t have one for only Christians or only Muslims. They want to continue dividing us. ”

By accepting Muslim and Druze students, the Christian schools forged a sense of unity among Palestinians in Israel, according to Fahoum.

“Fragmenting our identity”

“For the Muslims who went to these schools, it’s personal,” Fahoum said. “The Christians gave us services. It [the Christian school system] prevents them from fragmenting our identity, and I believe that is why they are attacking these schools.”

As well as reducing funding for Christian schools, the Israeli government has placed a strict limit on the amount that parents may contribute towards their children’s education.

That cap has been set at 2,500 shekels ($645) per year, according to one school administrator. The Christian schools estimate that they would need to charge twice that amount to compensate for the cuts in state funding.

After the strike began in early September — the start of the school year — the Israeli government responded byoffering a 5 percent increase in spending and by allowing the Christian schools to raise their fees.

Representatives of the Christian schools rejected the offer. The schools are recognized by Israel but are not fully registered in its education system. Schools with that status are entitled to 75 percent state funding, the representatives have pointed out.

Burhan Kanj, a past-pupil of a Christian school in Nazareth, argued that Israel is striving to “make it impossible” for these schools to function.

“You can see they’re not doing this for private schools in general,” Kanj said. “They are only attacking the Arab Christian schools.”

Better to be a dog than a Bedouin

Cross-posted from Open Democracy 

In Israel’s Negev desert, ethnic cleansing is once again rearing its ugly head. The unrecognised Bedouin village of Umm Al Hiran faces demolition and replacement with a Jewish town, Hiran. Seven hundred villagers face displacement, and only because they are of the wrong ethnicity.

Umm Al Hiran is one of tens of unrecognised villages in the Negev, inhabited by descendants of the Abu al-Qian tribe. Located in the area of Wadi Attir, the village is divided into two areas: Umm Al Hiran and Attir. Attir is also facing demolition in order to expand a Jewish National Fund (JNF) forest—in Israel, greenery is more important than Palestinians. Both these areas are in the master plan of the Be’er Sheva metropolitan area.

While the Israeli state has justified the demolition, by claiming the villagers are squatters on government land, the reality is that they were transferred to the Yattir Forest in 1956 by direct order of the military administration at the time. Villagers claim this was done to clear space for military use and that they were given guns to defend the border from West Bank infiltrators.

The government never denied the transfer of these villagers. The transfer was verified by a military document that stated the residents of Umm Al Hiran received over 7000 dunams of this land near the Wadi by direct order in 1956. This would make it their second displacement, after having been moved in 1948 from their original lands, now used by Kibbutz Shoval.

Over the past ten years the village has endured several housing demolitions, due to its unrecognised status. Villagers have been offered the ‘compromise’ of moving to the nearby town of Hura where they will be given an 800 square metre plot of land. The residents refused, as they do not want to be moved for a third time.

Umm Al Hiran’s case is especially significant as it sets a precedent. While other unrecognised villages such as Al-Araqib and Dahmash have faced multiple demolitions, none have been replaced with a Jewish town. Destroying Umm Al Hiran will make it easier to destroy other villages and resettle Jews on their ruins. The destruction of Umm Al Hiran will be the beginning of the Prawer Plan, simply under another name.

Unfortunately, this outcome is looking increasingly likely. On August 23, Israeli machinery and bulldozers began building the foundations for the Jewish settlement of Hiran. The villagers now fear their displacement is imminent. The additional presence of the Israeli police suggests the state is determined to begin wiping Umm Al Hiran off the face of the earth.

The villagers of Umm Al Hiran have exhausted most avenues to prevent the demolition of their homes. Legal appeals have been fruitless, which is unsurprising considering that the legal system is set up to promote the Jewish character of Israel—hardly a forum in which Palestinian citizens can attain justice.

In May, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that, despite government documents to the contrary, Umm Al Hiran was built on state land, paving the way for its destruction. The judges ruled that the government’s actions did not in any way violate the villager’s rights, and even if such rights were violated, it was “proportionate harm”. However, there is little doubt that if the residents of Umm Al Hiran were Jewish, there would be no problem with their presence on the land. In fact, there are several Jewish-owned farms in the area surrounding the village; none have been asked to leave, and all are recognised by the state.

It seems that in Israel, ‘proportionate harm’ is any harm inflicted on Palestinian citizens for the benefit of the Jewish population. It is significant that the core group slated to move into Hiran’s 2,400 housing units are nationalist religious Jews, many of whom have ties to West Bank settlements, and will be joined by a smaller number of secular residents from nearby Meitar. A number of the nationalist Jews are living in a nearby forest waiting to move to Hiran.

The town of Hiran, which is said to include a hotel and country club, is part of a larger government settlement program in the Negev that began in 2002 when the Knesset approved the founding of fourteen new Israeli communities in the region. The villagers of Umm Al Hiran have said that they are willing to be a part of the new Hiran development, but doubt that the community would accept them. With rising right-wing sentiments and racist tensions in Israel, this fear is not unfounded.

The politics of un-recognition plays a significant role in the plan to destroy Umm Al Hiran. Un-recognised villages such as Umm Al Hiran do not have access to infrastructure or electricity. The government has used the issue of lack of services to try and convince Bedouin communities to leave their land and move to government-designated townships (not unlike Native American reserves), where they will be provided with water, electricity and schools.

The irony of this offer is that individual Jewish Israeli families, who set up small farms in the Negev region, enjoy state subsidies. Moreover, one of Umm Al Hiran’s neighbours is a dog farm that enjoys access to water and electricity. So, it seems that it is preferable to be a dog than a Palestinian Bedouin in Israel.

There is no reason that the Bedouin of Umm Al Hiran should have to move in order to have basic services. The villagers of Umm Al Hiran wish to maintain their rural lifestyle and demand official recognition—something that the state has ignored for many years.

The residents of Umm Al Hiran are not prepared to give up without a fight—they have announced their intention to stage protests against their impending displacement; an escalation in their struggle, which has mainly been based on litigation. They have the support of several Palestinian civil society organisations, such as Adalah and 7amleh who produced a video about the village, in an attempt to raise international awareness.

The demolition of Umm Al Hiran will mark the advent of the Prawer Plan, and must be fought against tooth and nail. Just as Prawer did not pass in 2011, it should be met with the same outrage in 2015.

Every Day Is A Return

Cross-posted from This Week In Palestine

A communal space built by Iqrit youth
A communal space built by Iqrit youth

On a balmy summer evening, people are milling around the Iqrit church. Some sip tea, while others sit on the hilltop, smoking cigarettes as they watch the sunset. They are waiting for a talk to begin.

Half an hour after the scheduled beginning time, everyone has congregated in the church. Fawzi Hanna, a middle-aged man with a professorial air about him, begins his lecture. The topic is Palestinian villages that were destroyed during the Nakba in 1948. It has particular resonance with this audience, and in the place, because Iqrit is one of those villages. Except, unlike many former residents of destroyed villages, they residents have returned to their land.

Iqrit was a Palestinian Christian village, located 25 km northeast of Akka. Although it was originally intended to be part of an Arab state under the 1947 UN Partition Plan, it was seized and forcibly depopulated during the Nakba. On Friday, 6 November 1948, an Israeli commander informed the villagers that they should prepare to leave for Rama, a village in the Northern Galilee. He reassured them that their departure was temporary and for security reasons. In reality, the evacuation was not temporary; the villagers were not allowed to return.

A sign for Iqrit's church
A sign for Iqrit’s church

Three years later, the villagers, all of whom are Palestinian citizens of Israel, petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to allow them to return. On 31 July 1951, in an unusual move, the Court recognised the villagers’ right to their land and their right to return to it. The Court declared that the land was not abandoned and therefore could not be placed under the Custodian of Enemy Property. The villagers planned to return to their village on Christmas Day, 1951.

On Christmas Eve, the Israeli army bombed and demolished the village. All that remains today is the church and the cemetery.

While residents of Iqrit have continuously visited their land, in 2012 a group of young people decided to stay in the village, and live their lives as regular villagers. Rather than speaking of return, the residents of Iqrit took their fate into their own hands and implemented it.

The kitchen area of Iqirit, attached to the church.
The kitchen area of Iqirit, attached to the church.

One of them is Jeries Khiatt, a 28-year-old who is one of the displaced members of the village. Like many of the young returnees, he divides his time between Iqrit and his place of work (in his case, Haifa). After the lecture has ended, he sits under a tree with a beer and looks out at Iqrit’s lands. He views the current situation as only a partial return to the land. “It is strange that they still allow us to bury our dead in the cemetery,” he comments. “Return is allowed, but only after death.”

“Most of the people who decided to return were around twenty years old,” he explains, referring to the younger generation who are working toward a full return to the village. “The younger generation decided to stay in the church. They didn’t want to wait until they died to return. The answer for us was to be here all the time. There are times when there are lots of people here, and there are times when there are fewer.”

And how many of the younger generation are in Iqrit all the time? “Generally over the last three years, there have been around fifteen of us who stay here, and don’t leave the land,” Jeries says. “We sleep here, live here. We do it in shifts. Of course, there are more people who come on Fridays, and during the summer. During a normal week there are not many of us, our goal is that all the youth of Iqrit will do what we do. Many people participate in what we do in some way though. A lot of people come, but not all sleep here.”

The youth who live in the village spend their daily efforts maintaining the church structure, and tending to a small garden by the side of the church. The daily emphasis is on cultivation and maintenance, both of the village structures and the community.

Jeries is quick to explain that, although not all the Iqrit residents are able to be there every day, the village is of utmost importance to everyone. “Iqrit is a part of Iqritawi life, no matter where they live. We teach our children to love the land, of course. We are building hope here. The hope of return. We want to return here.”

What has been the Israeli state’s reaction to Iqrit’s return project? Two weeks earlier, the Israeli Land Authority came to the village and confiscated all of its furniture and belongings.

“This is always an issue for us. The Land Authority and the police come because they know we are here. So when they came this time, this wasn’t something new for us. Sometimes they come in big numbers, and other times there are only three or four of them and they come to take account of the situation here. The Israeli institutions are not comfortable with us being here. We are here in all political situations, and that gives hope to all the people from this land, including those in refugee camps. We give them hope that one day they will come and live here.”

Jeries believes that this message has scared the Israeli state, and their intimidation tactics are designed to discourage Iqrit residents from reclaiming their village. “Of course they are afraid. They are not afraid of us as individuals, but the message is important. That is what makes them scared. We are here, and we talk about return. I think this is relevant to people all over the world, and not just for Palestine. But in terms of Palestine specifically, Iqrit shows that there is hope.”

The planting of this hope is something of an everyday practice in Iqrit; every day that the people are here on the land, the hope of return grows. Jeries finds it hard to say what he hopes for the future of Iqrit, realising that a full return is not yet pragmatic. “Our goal is to keep the hope. This is our place. We believe that we will return and live here. I don’t just want this for me, as an Iqritawi. I hope all the children of Palestine hear this message. The issue of Palestine, and what happened in Palestine is, unfortunately, difficult. I want the feeling of hope to stay, and to be planted in the next generation, and for people to keep talking about return, as this is a big issue.”

Like all the other youth living in Iqrit, Jeries’s daily life is geared towards ensuring the right of return. He is clear, though, that his vision and that of the other village youth, stretches far beyond Iqrit: “We want people not just to talk about return, but to actually return. And not just to Iqrit, but to all of the places.”