East Jerusalem, 15 August 2021: Today, Sunday 15 August, marks the return to school for some 1.2 million children in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Most children have been counting down the days and looking forward to schools reopening, because for many young people in Palestine, 2021 has truly been a long, hot year to date.
COVID-19 has meant that, in the last school year, keeping up with classes from home was more challenging, particularly as only 35% of Palestinian households having access to home computers. Schools in Gaza have been closed since the escalation in May; and today, nearly 180,000 children in the Gaza Strip aged from 4-17 will be attending or returning to schools that are still damaged because materials needed for repairs have not been allowed into Gaza.
Children not only have a right to a safe education but are afforded special protections under international human rights law in view of their specific vulnerability. Since the beginning of 2021, a total of 79 Palestinian children have been reported killed and 1,269 injured. Sixty-seven children were killed in the Gaza Strip during the recent escalation and another in June by an Explosive Remnant of War. In the West Bank including East Jerusalem, 11 children were killed in 2021 - 10 since May - and 584 injured (378 by tear gas) by Israeli Forces. Excessive use of force must stop.
Twenty-four Palestinian children (five girls, 19 boys) have also been injured by settlers in the West Bank since the beginning of the year. Israel has a responsibility to protect children and teachers from harassment and violence by settlers on their way to and from school – and in any event. All parties must commit to the protection of children in accordance with international law no matter where they are.
As of the end of June, 225 Palestinian children were detained in Israeli detention facilities. On 29 July, Israeli Forces confiscated equipment, including computers and hard drives from the offices of Defence for Children International – Palestine. Among the items taken were legal aid files of the children facing charges in military courts.
Against all these odds, Palestinian children have much of which to be proud. Almost 97% of elementary school age children in Palestine attend school, among the highest attendance rates in the MENA region and illiteracy is down markedly from 1.1% in 2007 to 0.8%. In 2021, 71.3 per cent of the 82,924 students in Palestine passed the Tawjihi exams, opening a gateway towards tertiary education and access to academic scholarships.
Today is a day to celebrate as children go back to school: all of us need to make sure they can do so in security, safety and with hope.