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As a Wall Goes Up, So Must a School

West Bank and Gaza, June 15, 2004

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    Mercy Corps is expanding and improving the Frijat School, empowering students to learn and expand their horizons. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps Photo:

A long line of students carrying stacks of books trudge up the road on their one-hour walk to high school. In the opposite direction teachers, many female, cautiously pick their way down the same rutted road on their way to the Frijat primary school where they teach. Neither the descending teachers nor the ascending students know if they will get to class. Today, like every day in this southern region of the West Bank, they need to pass through an Israeli military checkpoint to move between the neighboring villages and town. Often they are not able to pass because the gate has been closed.

“If we are lucky, we will only be delayed for an hour or two at the Israeli checkpoint,” says Miriam Naif Ramadeen, an English teacher at Frijat primary school. “Typically we cannot reach school at least one time a week, the rest of the days we are late or must leave early if we hear that the gate may close and prevent us from reaching our homes.”

Over the past decade, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) began implementing a closure system in the West Bank to regulate Palestinian movement both into Israel and within the West Bank through a series of roadblocks and military checkpoints. In the past three years access and movement for Palestinians within the West Bank has been crippled by more than 700 IDF barriers and checkpoints. The massive wall the Israeli Government is building will further separate Palestinian communities, sever social and economic links and block access to critical health and education services.

Israeli military surveyors and engineers have been regularly visiting the Frijat area in preparations to begin constructing the Wall in southern West Bank. To date, over 180 kilometers of the Wall have been built. When completed it is planned to stretch over 630 kilometers in length, reach up to 30 feet in height, and cost the Israeli Government an estimated USD $3.4 billion. But what disturbs the residents of Frijat and the surrounding communities is not so much the Wall itself, but where it is being built.

“The Wall is planned to run between Frijat and Ar Ramadin, not along the Green Line,” says Khalid Muat, the Headmaster at Frijat primary school. “It is one thing to circle the entire West Bank for security reasons, but the Wall will cut us into islands without any access to hospitals, schools, and our land and livelihoods.”

According to the map drawn by the Israeli Government, approximately 191,000 acres of West Bank land will fall between the Wall and the Green Line (the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank). Frijat is one of the unlucky 100 Palestinian villages to fall outside the Wall but inside the Green Line, completely isolated in a quasi “no-man’s land”.

For the Palestinian school children and teachers these closures and the impending Wall have had a severe impact. In Frijat, a rural village of about 6000 people, there is only a small, overcrowded primary school. For students to continue their education after the sixth grade they must go to the nearby town of Ar Ramadin. While at Frijat primary school, many of the teachers, especially females, come to work from the larger neighboring towns, as these residents typically have better educations and qualifications. The road closures have severely limited access of teachers and children to their schools. Soon the Wall may block their access completely.

Mercy Corps, with funding from the US Agency for Development (USAID), began a program in November 2002 focused on creating and protecting spaces for quality education and sustaining community life in and around schools in the West Bank. As part of this program, Mercy Corps is adding a second story to the existing Frijat primary school. The construction work will be completed this summer and when the Frijat School opens next fall, it will accommodate students up to grade level seven. Previously the school only went up to the sixth level, and it was so crowded the fifth and sixth graders had to share one classroom.

“It is very important that Mercy Corps is expanding and improving the Frijat School,” says Miriam. “After the Wall is finished it may be impossible for older school children to go to Ar Ramadin for class. At least with the addition to our school we will be able to take seventh graders and ensure they get an education.”

After class, as Miriam goes over extra grammar drills with some of her fourth and fifth grade girls, she asks the students how they feel about the Wall. Most of them look confused at the question and do not reply.

”The children do not really understand what ‘the Wall’ is,” explains Miriam sadly. “Their young minds cannot imagine such a terrible thing. They will have to see it to understand it…and I dread when that day comes. How will I ever be able to explain it to them?”