By Annabel Howarth
It is a sad story when schools become battlegrounds, and restricting the education of vulnerable children is used as a weapon. Unfortunately this has often been the case here in The Holy Land, whether it be in horrific events such as the shelling by Israelis of a UN school last summer in Gaza, the checkpoints that children in Hebron pass through every day on the way to school, or the threat of destruction to Bedouin schools.
Recognising the power of education to both destroy and build a society, a new initiative named Netketabi, meaning ‘my netbook’ is seeking to transform the Palestinian educational system. The project’s goal is providing every single Palestinian child with a computer. The Executive Chairman of Netketabi, Dr Sabri Saidam, explains how despite the continuing doom and gloom of politics, computers, knowledge accumulation and global participation is the way forward and helps to keep a society hopeful. With 62% of Palestinian society aged between 14 and 34, 82% of whom are connected to the internet, Dr Saidam has identified a so far untapped resource to become a force for good in society. This seemingly simple initiative is becoming a vital resource for some of the most marginalised teachers and children in the West Bank and Gaza. Following a visit to a very small and basic Bedouin school, the importance of this project became clear.
Built out of dried mud and old car tyres the Al-Khan Al-Ahmar primary school was constructed by an Italian NGO and a group of volunteers in 2009, fulfilling a desperate need for a school for local children from the surrounding Bedouin communities. Before the creation of the school, children would have to walk 14km along the busy highway to the nearest school in Jericho; a dangerous trip that caused the death of four children. The danger of this journey meant that parents would only allow their boys to go to school; now 50% of the students are girls.
Despite the positive impact this school has had providing vital access to education to the children from five neighbouring Bedouin villages, like many others it is threatened by the Israeli occupation’s aim to forcibly displace the Bedouin community. The school, unlike the tents and makeshift shacks, the only other Palestinian-owned structures left in the area, is classed as a building under Israeli law. As it is located in Area C (which makes up 60% of the West Bank and is under full Israeli control), it is near impossible for the school to obtain a building permit. At first this may appear to be simply an unfortunate bureaucratic issue, however the reality of this situation means that at any time, bulldozers can come and destroy the school, and with that, the education and ambition of all the students.
Watching over the school on top of a hill, Israeli settlers from the Kfar Adumim settlement, declared illegal by the United Nations under international law, petitions for the school’s destruction. Armed settlement guards regularly come down into the village and take pictures of the school. This unsettling act has led local people to fear that in fact the Israeli government is focusing its efforts on how to demolish and relocate twenty different Bedouin communities including the school, rather than just demolishing the school alone.
Said to be the most vulnerable community in the region, for over 60 years the indigenous Arab Bedouin have faced a state policy of displacement, home demolitions and dispossession of their ancestral land. The Israeli government is accused of withholding basic services, such as education, to pressure them to leave their homes. This accusation is supported by the treatment of the local Bedouin communities. Nearby settlers have ensured the Bedouin pay a high price for the school, as many of them had previously worked in the settlements, and were fired in retaliation for their part in its construction.
Dr Saidam, a keen philanthropist, explained that despite the very existence of the school being under threat “…denying the school the right to proper equipment is not going to help. It is going to cause more resentment, more anxiety and more apathy”. Dr Saidam is strongly driven by the belief that once you become educated, no one can ignore you. Netketabi is providing a computer lab with customised learning laptops and Wi-Fi connectivity for the school. This system will provide interactive resources, allowing the children in this deprived school to access a 21st century learning experience. Netketabi is a quiet but strong way of increasing capacity, building society and ensuring these Bedouin children are able to communicate both their struggle and their talents with global society.
Reaching far wider than just this school, Netketabi is devoted to developing knowledge and providing hope and investment across Palestine. So far, an incredible 14,230 customised laptops have been distributed in the West Bank and Gaza. Focusing on the most marginalised children in Palestinian society, the project has commenced by providing community learning and development centres for children with disabilities and learning difficulties. Not only does this have a significant effect on the skills and the confidence of individual children, but can also be seen as a peaceful way of building resistance to the occupation.
“Just as some countries around the world pride themselves on heavy industries of oil and gas and others focus on building their arsenals, we in Palestine, through Netketabi, believe in developing knowledge, developing the future as it were. We want the world to say, here are the Palestinians, the productive Palestinians, the competent Palestinians, the knowledgeable Palestinians.” says Dr Saidam.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela
Annabel is a campaigner, blogger and development worker. She has experience working in campaigns for a high profile UK health charity and has worked for various women’s equality think tanks. She believes passionately in education and communication as the answer to solving inequality and injustice in the world. Annabel is currently working in the West Bank as an international media and fundraising assistant for Partners for Sustainable Development.