The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees recently published a worrying story about the proposed demolition of Khan al Ahmar in the West Bank. The 180-person community is slated for demolition to make way for the expansion of settlements in the Ma'ale Adumin area, and the expansion of the West Bank separation barrier - both of which are illegal under international law.
What struck me most about this story was that the plans include the destruction of the Khan al Ahmar Jahalin School - which provides the only primary education to 70 children in the area. When a school is destroyed, often so is the community - leading to displacement and plunging people further into poverty. This is one tiny example of what is happening across the West Bank as land is increasingly partitioned and swallowed up, but if repeated elsewhere it has the potential to create a huge problem for the future of both Israel and Palestine. If we create a generation of Palestinian children who have no access to education, what are their other options?
One of the reasons that the recent attempts at Middle East peace have floundered may be that none of the personalities have changed over the last three decades, yet strangely none of the debate has been about the young leaders who are going to replace the old guard. Already the possibilities for compromise are slipping away as young moderates get sidelined, and on top of that Israel now risks creating a huge up swell in the number of uneducated Palestinian youth. The brutal symbolism of closing schools will not be lost on young Palestinians - as has been evidenced by declarations of support from four UNRWA schools in Jordan in the last week.
In Northern Ireland schools were one of the few places where parents could send their children to be safe at the height of the Troubles. They were also one of the first places that a lot of Protestant and Catholic children met each other, and learned that other children were not so different from them. As young minds began to expand and learn how to solve arguments with words instead of violence, the old hardliner generation began to be replaced by a new generation - a generation more interested in becoming doctors and engineers than in becoming fighters. When children were able to get an education, they could break away from the sectarian council estates they grew up on and learn skills on which to build a career. These are the opportunities being snatched away from Palestinian children in the West Bank and Israeli children in Sderot. Their only knowledge of the other side is through Israeli tanks and rockets launched from Gaza. Fear turns to hatred and becomes entrenched, then that too turns into further physical attacks - the cycle is doomed to start again. Sadly at the moment it's unimaginable that any sort of integrated schooling system encompassing both Israeli and Palestinian children will become widespread (despite success stories like Bridge Over the Wadi), but teaching young children about tolerance and the acceptance of others is still possible - unless schools are closed.
Above all, children on both sides should be able to focus their young lives on simply being kids. Climbing trees, splashing in puddles and getting covered in paint might not seem connected to the Israeli/Palestinian peace process but in reality it could play a huge role in creating a safe atmosphere where young leaders can grow and develop. Children who grow up surrounded by conflict are robbed of their childhood. They grow up thinking about war and the death of their friends and family, in an atmosphere of constant fear and worry. Understandably they aren't going to grow up empathetic to the other side's point of view. Destroying schools takes away that vital protective space.
It should also be recognized that any permanent peace agreement will revolve around both the Israeli and Palestinian communities being able to live side by side, with some level of economic interaction. A functioning education system is a prerequisite for a functioning economy in whatever form the final Palestinian state takes. For Israel to have an economic partner it is in its own interest to support a Palestinian school system or it risks being burdened with an impoverished, uneducated neighbor unable to support its people. It stands to reason that an educated Palestinian populace will be better equipped to engage in dialogue and negotiation rather than resorting to violence. Ongoing dialogue is the essential coda to any peace agreement becoming more than just words on a page, as difficult compromises play out in political and social reality.
Schools should provide bastions of normality, where young minds are stimulated with science, language and maths. When we take those safe havens away we'll be left with a young generation who won't have the basic skills to positively contribute to society in the future. The negative symbolism of bulldozing schools should not be lost on Israel. If an entire generation is created who instead of learning in the classroom end up learning on the streets with stones and tear gas then compromise becomes even harder. Then war will become the only game in town.