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From their first day in kindergarten until they reach university, Palestinian Arab and Jewish children almost always attend separate schools. Palestinian Arab children are taught in Arabic, Jewish children in Hebrew. The two systems' curricula are similar but not identical. For example, Hebrew is taught as a second language in Arab schools, while Jewish students are not required to study Arabic.

There is little support in Israel for integrating Jewish and Arab schools.31 Although there are a few well-known exceptions, including several mixed kindergartens and private experiments with peace education, even these efforts are experiencing great strain since the confrontations in October 2000 in which Israeli police killed thirteen Palestinian Arab citizens. No one Human Rights Watch interviewed, either Jewish or Palestinian Arab, expressed a desire for integration, although Palestinian Arab students were often quite enthusiastic about school-related exchange programs with Jewish children. Rather than seeking integration, many Palestinian Arab citizens are asking for autonomy over their education system.32

The law does not prohibit Palestinian Arab parents from enrolling their children in Jewish schools, but in practice, very few Palestinian Arab parents send their children to Jewish schools.33 Enrollment is based on residence; thus, enrollment in a Jewish school is only a real choice in mixed cities like Jaffa and Haifa; even in these, neighborhoods are mostly segregated, and there are separate schools for Palestinian Arabs and Jews. The vast majority of Palestinian Arabs live in towns and villages where the only option is an Arab school.

Moreover, Palestinian Arab children who attend Jewish schools must be able to study in Hebrew from a curriculum designed for Jewish children. Human Rights Watch interviewed Deneis A., a parent who sent her daughter to Jewish preschools and primary schools: 

I was living near the Jewish nursery and there wasn't a good Arab nursery. I wasn't aware of issues of identity and culture and how language and culture are influenced. I wanted to feel Israeli, and I didn't have a problem with this. I grew up in Haifa. I married at twenty-two and worked as a practical engineer in a hospital. I was dreaming and talking in Hebrew. . . . I visited several [private Arab] kindergartens in Haifa and Jerusalem. I didn't want Christianity imposed. Then when my daughter was three, I took her to the kibbutz. It was like a dream--a big place, freedom, near the beach. But through this experience I became more aware of her identity and my identity. . . . The history was the history of the Jewish people. The school was a good experience, but it became harder to deal with the Zionist part. I can see that my youngest child is not getting the education she got there. . . . With the youngest I wanted to send him [to the Jewish school] but he didn't want to go. He wanted to go to an Arab school and wanted to speak Arabic."34
Even the few integrated kindergartens tend to teach mainly in Hebrew with an emphasis on Jewish culture. The Arabic teacher at an integrated kindergarten in Kibbutz Shoval observed: "In Arab kindergartens, the emphasis is mainly on Bedouin tradition, customs, and heritage. The children can't get all this in an integrated kindergarten. The parents have to make it up at home."35

For many Palestinian Arabs, school integration is, in fact, assimilation into the majority's Jewish education at the expense of Arabic language and their own cultures and religions. Accordingly, the primary education issue for Palestinian Arabs in Israel is not access to Jewish schools but rather equalizing the Arab system with the Jewish system.

International law permits the maintenance of separate educational systems for religious or linguistic reasons as long as participation in such systems is optional and "if the education provided conforms to such standards as may be laid down or approved by the competent authorities, in particular for education of the same level."36

Historical Context

Ethnicity, language, and religion have long played a role in education in the region.37 Under the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Palestine for four centuries, religious-based schools functioned independently.38 Traditional Muslim schools (kuttabs) and schools run by missions of various European Christian churches taught primarily in Arabic, although the missionary schools also emphasized the sponsoring European church's language. Both Arab Muslim and Arab Christian children attended the missionary schools, as they do today. Jewish residents also ran schools, and beginning in the late nineteenth century, settlers established various networks of Jewish communal schools, many with Hebrew as the language of instruction. The Ottoman empire, after assuming responsibility in 1846 for educational services in the area, established in 1869 its own system of primary and secondary public schools based on the French system. However, the level of education that Ottoman schools offered was relatively low and, with Turkish as the language of instruction, the schools did not attract much of the Arab population. 

From the end of World War I until the state of Israel was established in 1948, Britain ruled Palestine under a mandatory administration. The British Mandatory Government took over many kuttabs and expanded the Ottoman school system; however, the 1937 Palestine Royal Commission (known as the "Peel Commission") found that the government system was "able to satisfy no more than half the Arab demand for education."39 In addition, almost all government schools were primary level only. The British Mandatory Government administered the government school system directly; Palestinian Arabs had little input or control. In addition to government schools, private Muslim schools (although decreased in number from the Ottoman period) and missionary schools together educated about a third of Palestinian Arab students. Jewish schools--both religious and secular, and most under the Zionist school network--continued to operate independently.40

After the war in 1948 following Israel's establishment as a state, the Israeli Ministry of Education took over most schools, maintaining separate systems for religious Jews, secular Jews, and Palestinian Arabs. The vast majority of Palestinian Arabs lived in three rural areas: the Galilee region to the north, the Triangle region south-east of Haifa, and the Negev desert in the south. These areas were separated from Jewish localities and were kept under a military government until 1966. 

As it did under the British Mandatory Government, the quality of the Jewish and Arab systems differed markedly. The Compulsory Education Law's passage in 1949 increased enrollment substantially in the Arab system in the north, and there were not enough classrooms and qualified teachers for students. Educational authorities rented rooms, established a shift system for students, and appointed many uncertified teachers. 

Until Israeli military rule was ended in 1966, Palestinian Arabs could not travel from their residences without a permit from authorities, which severely limited their ability to seek education. They were excluded from high level positions in the Ministry of Education, and the security services screened applicants for teaching and administrative positions and influenced appointments, a practice that continues today.41 There were no Palestinian Arab teacher, parent, or student organizations during this period. Only in the 1970s, after the cessation of the military government and the rise of a small middle class, did community organizations begin to emerge. These later established a Follow-Up Committee on Arab Education "which has since acted as the main Israeli Palestinian spokesperson on educational matters."42 However, there are still far fewer community organizations than in the Jewish system, where they play a significant role in education.

Bedouin and Residents of Unrecognized Villages

Although the Negev Bedouin fall under the Arab education system, the Israeli government has, since statehood, provided them with even fewer educational services than other Palestinian Arabs.43 The Bedouin were historically organized in nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes that raised sheep, goats, and camels and engaged in seasonal agriculture. The Bedouin constitute most of the Palestinian Arab population of the Negev region of southern Israel, and about 10 percent of the country's total Palestinian Arab population. Roughly 110,000 Bedouin live in the Negev around the city of Be'er Sheva; about 50,000 to 60,000 live elsewhere, primarily in the Galilee region of northern Israel.44

In 1948, the government moved the Bedouin who remained in the Negev to a restricted military zone around Be'er Sheva, and they lost access to the limited schooling that was available before 1948. Under the military rule, the government provided only minimal education services: most schools had only four grades, and attendance rates were very low, especially among girls. 45 Before 1969, when the first high school for Negev Bedouin was established, those who wished to study beyond the primary level had to obtain a permit to study in schools in northern Arab villages and be able to afford the expense of traveling and boarding outside of their homes.

Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Israeli government has been trying to pressure the Bedouin in the Negev to leave their villages and resettle in seven urban localities: Tal Al-Saba/Tel-Sheva, Rahat, Ar'ara Al-Naqab/Ar'ara BaNegev, Kseife, Shaqib Al-Salaam/Segev Shalom, Hora/Hura, and Laqiya. These towns rank at the bottom of the government's socio-economic index, making them the poorest in Israel, and lack many basic services.46 The Bedouin have been reluctant to abandon their traditional lands, and in 1996, it was estimated that only about 56 percent of Bedouin in the Negev lived in the seven officially recognized localities.47

The government considers the Bedouin, as well as other Palestinian Arabs who live outside of localities approved by the Israeli government, to be living in illegal villages, known as "unrecognized villages."48 These villages fare much worse than those the government recognizes. They are not marked on government maps, lack recognized local governing bodies, and receive limited or no government services such as schools, running water, electricity, or sewage and garbage collection."49 Where there are schools in unrecognized villages, they generally are in poor repair, and some of their students travel long distances to reach them.

Since the 1960s, literacy rates among all Palestinian Arabs have risen and participation in higher education has increased.50 The number of schools has increased significantly, particularly for Negev Bedouin. Despite these improvements, the gaps between Jewish and Arab education in the quality of education and in students' academic success remain dramatic.

Structure of the Israeli School System

Israel heavily finances and regulates the education of almost all children in Israel. Under Israel's Compulsory Education Law, the state is responsible for providing free education and bears joint responsibility with state and local authorities for maintaining school buildings.51 The Ministry of Education develops curricula and educational standards, supervises teachers, and constructs school buildings. Local authorities maintain the buildings and provide equipment and supplies, in some cases with support from the ministry. The ministry directly employs and pays kindergarten and primary school teachers, and provides the funds for secondary school teachers' salaries to local authorities who employ them directly.52 The ministry also provides additional educational funding to local authorities and in 1998 allocated 20.8 percent of its budget--NIS 3,903,666 ($975,916.50)--to local authorities for educational and cultural services.53

Other government ministries fund and supervise particular educational facilities and programs. For example, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs operates vocational schools, called `Amal schools. The Ministry of Defense runs programs in schools to prepare students for military service. The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption provides assistance to immigrant students. The Ministry of Religious Affairs funds religious schools, and the Ministry of Health is involved in special education schools and health education.54

Until 1987, there was a separate department for Arab education within the Education Ministry. When the department was dissolved in 1987, its employees were spread out among the ministry's various branches. While most divisions typically have a single Palestinian Arab representative, there are small departments for Arab education and Druze education within the ministry's Pedagogical Secretariat. 

Despite this reorganization, Palestinian Arabs continue to be significantly under-represented in the ministry. At the time of writing, none of the top positions in the Ministry of Education were held by Palestinian Arabs. Altogether only 127 (4.8 percent) of the 2,662 employees of the Ministry of Education (excluding teachers) were Palestinian Arab in the 2000-2001 school year.55 Thirty-seven of these 127 were women.56

The highest ranked Palestinian Arab in the education system is Ali Assadi, the head of the Arab education department, a department of the Pedagogical Secretariat.57 He oversees a team of inspectors who monitor Arab schools, including inspectors for subjects unique to Arab schools: Arabic, Arab history, and Hebrew as a second language.58 Suliman Al-Sheikh heads a similar department for Druze. A small department--six full-time positions--develops curricula for Arab schools.59 Curricula for Druze are also developed separately.

Because Palestinian Arabs have not been represented at the Ministry of Education's highest levels, their voices are often not heard. For example, Minister of Education, Limor Livnat, stated in June 2001 that she would like to see that "there is not a single child in Israel" who did not learn "Jewish and Zionist knowledge and values," but then explained that she did not include Palestinian Arab students in this statement.60 In the same year, the head of the Educational Authority for Bedouins, Moshe Shohat, who is Jewish, spoke of "blood-thirsty Bedouins who commit polygamy, have 30 children and continue to expand their illegal settlements, taking over state land." When questioned about providing indoor plumbing in Bedouin schools, he responded: "In their culture they take care of their needs outdoors. They don't even know how to flush a toilet."61 Shohat later apologized for his statements.62

Palestinian Arabs have the right to fair representation in the education system under international and domestic law. Article 2(3) of the 1992 General Assembly Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities provides: "Persons belonging to minorities have the right to participate effectively in decisions on the national and, where appropriate, regional level concerning the minority to which they belong[.]"63 The Israeli High Court of Justice ruled on July 9, 2001, in a decision regarding the Israel Lands Administration Board, that Palestinian Arab citizens are entitled to fair representation in public bodies, especially those vested with decision-making powers, and stated that affirmative action was required. However, the Court also stated that "fair representation" did not necessarily mean one-fifth, (the percentage of Palestinian Arabs in the Israeli population), and the Court did not require the government to implement the ruling immediately.64

The Ministry of Education heavily finances almost all schools in Israel, both its own and those run by other organizations. Government-run schools are divided into state secular and state religious schools.65 Arab state schools fall under the state secular framework; there are no state religious schools for Palestinian Arab children. Most children, Jewish or Palestinian Arab, attend state schools within this framework. However, private associations consisting primarily of ultra-orthodox Jewish groups and, for Palestinian Arabs, Christian churches, also run schools that are considered "recognized but unofficial schools."66 The Ministry of Education regulates and provides most of the funding for these schools, which, in turn, are supposed to use the ministry's prescribed curricula.67 Only a very few students, mostly "ultra-ultra orthodox" Jewish students, attend completely private schools in the sense that they receive no government funding. Even these are still legally subject to the Ministry of Education's supervision.68

Classes are divided into kindergarten (pre-primary), primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. From ages two to five, children attend kindergarten, which, as explained below, is becoming mandatory from age three. Primary education consists of grades one through eight, and secondary education of grades nine through twelve. In some schools, grades seven through nine are separated into intermediate (or lower secondary) schools, mostly in the Jewish system.

The secondary level is designed to prepare students for the matriculation examinations (bagrut), a series of exams usually taken at the end of the twelfth grade, which entitle those who pass to a matriculation certificate (high school diploma).69 Students may elect academic or vocational tracks, the latter falling under the supervision of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Matriculation exams and certificates are available for both tracks. 

Post-secondary education includes thirteenth and fourteenth grades for vocational training, technical training institutes, colleges (including teacher training colleges), and universities. Some colleges are accredited to award academic degrees. To attend a university, students must take prescribed secondary school classes, pass the requisite matriculation exams, and achieve a specified score on an educational aptitude test known as the psychometric exam.

31 "There are no records of any serious attempts on the part of the state, nor records of any requests from the Arab side, to merge the Jewish and Arab school systems under one `Israeli' roof . . . . There are individual cases of Arab pupils who study in Jewish schools, but no cases of Jews who study in Arab schools. The two national communities remain educationally separated. In Israel, the discourse of integration refers only to Jews of different origins." Shlomo Swirski, Politics and Education in Israel: Comparisons with the United States (New York: Falmer Press, 1999), p.118. For a discussion of the advantages and costs of segregation in the Israeli education system, see Stephen Goldstein, "Multiculturalism, Parental Choice and Traditional Values," in Children's Rights and Traditional Values, eds. Gillian Douglas and Leslie Sebba (Brookfield: Ashgate Pub. Co., 1998).

32 University researchers who studied the underlying circumstances of the October 2000 demonstrations, in which Israeli army and police shot and killed thirteen Palestinian Arab citizens, rejected full integration on the grounds that it would injure the group identities of both Palestinian Arabs and Jews, that the different starting points of the two groups would perpetuate inequality, and that segregated residences make full integration impossible. Instead, the researchers called for a separate administration for Arab education which would operate within the Ministry of Education's framework but which would maintain absolute autonomy over management and curriculum content. Majid Al-Haj, Ismael Abu-Sa'ad, Yossi Yona, "Schooling and Further Education," in After the Rift: New Directions for Government Policy towards the Arab Population in Israel, eds. Dan Rabinowitz, As'ad Ghanem, Oren Yiftachel, November 2000.

33 According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, "[a]mong pupils in Hebrew education there is also a small number of Moslem, Christian, Druze and other pupils, as well as non-Jewish immigrant pupils who study in schools of the Hebrew education [sic]." CBS, Statistical Abstract of Israel 2000, p. (106).

34 Human Rights Watch interview, Haifa, December 6, 2000.

35 Aliza Arbeli, "Bedouin and Jews: The Right Connection," Ha'aretz Daily Newspaper (English Edition) (Israel), August 14, 1998.

36 Convention against Discrimination in Education, art. 2(b), adopted December 14, 1960, General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 429 U.N.T.S. 93 (entered into force May 22, 1962, and ratified by Israel September 22, 1961). The full text of this convention is reprinted in the appendix.

37 Information in this section was taken from: Swirski, Politics and Education in Israel; Majid Al-Haj, Education, Empowerment, and Control: The Case of the Arabs in Israel (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995); Sami Khalil Mar'i, Arab Education in Israel (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1978).

38 The Ottoman legal system allowed religious minorities recognized by the sultan to have a certain cultural autonomy under a practice known as the millet system.

39 Report of the Palestine Royal Commission, Cmd 5479 (London: HMSO, 1937), p. 339.

40 The Zionist school network allowed religious and secular schools to be institutionally separate but to both fall under the Zionist movement's political and financial roof. Swirski, Politics and Education in Israel, pp. 47-48.

41 Human Rights Watch received numerous reports of the security services' continued involvement in Arab education. Several sources described incidents in which Palestinian Arab teachers were not hired for or were dismissed from teaching positions because of their political activity. Adalah (The Legal Center for Minority Rights in Israel) has also reported recent cases of Arab teachers being denied teaching positions for alleged security reasons. See Adalah, "Adalah Successfully Pressures the Ministry of Education to Hire a Shfaram Teacher after Nine Years of Refusing Him Based on Discriminatory Policies," September 6, 2000, (accessed on May 31, 2001). 

42 Swirski, Politics and Education in Israel, p. 79.

43 Except where otherwise indicated, background information about the Bedouin is taken from Penny Maddrell, "The Beduin of the Negev," Minority Rights Group Report, no. 81, January 1990; Salim Abu-Rabiyya, et. al, "Survey of Bedouin Schools in the Negev," Israel Equality Monitor, no. 5, March 1996, pp. 1-8; Ismael Abu-Saad, "The Education of Israel's Negev Beduin: Background and Prospects," Israel Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 1997; Ismael Abu-Saad, "Bedouin Arab Education in the Context of Radical Social Change: What is the Future?," Compare, vol. 25, no. 2, 1999, pp. 149-160; and U.N. Human Rights Committee, Initial Report of States Parties Due in 1993: Israel, paras. 853, 857.

44 The Negev Bedouin population is estimated from data in the Statistical Yearbook of the Negev Bedouin, according to which there were 61,000 Bedouin living in the seven recognized localities in 1996, and 48,975 Bedouin living in unrecognized localities in 1998. Center for Bedouin Studies and Development, and the Negev Center for Regional Development, Statistical Yearbook of the Negev Bedouin, no. 1 (Be'er Sheva: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, December 1999), pp. 29-30. Others have estimated that about 10,000 Bedouin live in the central region and about 50,000 live in the north. Yosef Ben-David, "The Bedouin in Israel," July 1999, Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, (accessed on June 5, 2001). However, the Israeli government reported to the Human Rights Committee in 1998 that there were 100,000 Bedouins in the Negev and roughly 38,000 in the Galilee. U.N. Human Rights Committee, Initial Report of States Parties Due in 1993: Israel, para. 851. The Bedouin who live in the northern part of the country have a somewhat different history and are less isolated than Bedouin in the Negev. See Maddrell, "The Beduin of the Negev."

45 See Abu-Saad, "The Education of Israel's Negev Beduin"; and Maddrell, "The Beduin of the Negev."

46 In 1999, out of 203 local authorities in Israel, Rahat, Ar'ara Al-Naqab/Ar'ara BaNegev, Tal Al-Saba/Tel-Sheva, and Kseife ranked one through four, respectively, one being the lowest ranking. Shaqib Al-Salaam/Segev Shalom ranked sixth, Laqiya seventh, and Hora/Hura seventeenth. CBS, Characterization and Ranking of Local Authorities, According to the Population's Socio-Economic Level in 1999, Based on the 1995 Census of Population and Housing, no. S.P. 1118, 1999, table 2. In 1998, only three of the seven communities had municipal libraries, three had community centers, two had police stations in the community, and one had an ambulance and fire department in the community. While all had health clinics, only Rahat had a night clinic. Ibid., pp. 67-69.

47 Center for Bedouin Studies and Development, Statistical Yearbook of the Negev Bedouin, p. (20).

48 Estimates of the total number of unrecognized villages in Israeli vary, ranging from around seventy to over one hundred. The Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, a nongovernmental organization, has mapped forty-five unrecognized villages in the northern Negev. Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, "Map of the Unrecognized Villages in the Northern Negev," 2001,

/map.htm (accessed on July 5, 2001).

49 Article 157A of the Planning and Construction Law (1981) forbids water, electricity, or telephone networks from connecting to unlicensed buildings.

50 In 1961, 63.4 percent of the Palestinian population had attended four or fewer years of school, and 1.5 percent had post-secondary education. In 1998, these numbers were 12.5 percent and 19.7 percent, respectively. CBS, Statistical Abstract of Israel 2000, table 22.1.

51 Compulsory Education Law, part III, 7A, B (1949).

52 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Facts About Israel: Education,", 1999 (accessed on May 30, 2001).

53 Economics and Budgeting Administration, Ministry of Education, Facts and Figures About Education and Culture in Israel (Jerusalem: Ministry of Education, 1998), p. 49. "NIS" stands for new Israeli shekels. An exchange rate of NIS 4 to U.S.$1 is used throughout this report.

54 Ibid., pp. 38-39.

55 Ali Haider, "Arab Citizens in the Civil Service," Sikkuy's Report on Equality and Integration of the Arab Citizens in Israel 2000-2001, Spring 2001, table 5. This data includes "autonomous affiliates." Ibid. The Israeli government reported to the Human Rights Committee in 1998 that the Ministry of Education employed 101 non-Jewish employees, not including teachers, principals, and educational inspectors. U.N. Human Rights Committee, Initial Report of States Parties Due in 1993: Israel, para. 870.

56 Haider, "Arab Citizens in the Civil Service," table 7.

57 Above the director of the Arab education department is the chair of the Pedagogical Secretariat, one of many positions reporting to the Director General, who reports to the Minister of Education.

58 Human Rights Watch interview with Ali Assadi, Director of Arab Education in Israel, Vice Chief of the Pedagogical Secretariat, Ministry of Education, Dier El Asad, December 2, 2000.

59 Human Rights Watch interview with Khawla Saadi, Director of Curriculum for Israeli Arab Schools, Ministry of Education, Jerusalem, December 20, 2000.

60 Allyn Fisher-Ilan, "Livnat's Lessons," Jerusalem Post, June 19, 2001.

61 Berman, "Israeli Official Slurs Bedouins." See also Aliza Arbeli, "Bedouin Leaders to Sue Education Boss over Racist Slurs," Ha'aretz Daily Newspaper (English Edition) (Israel), July 30, 2001. Shohat later stated: "I meant only a group of Bedouins who were at a tour in the Unrecognized Villages in the Negev with representatives of `the Jewish Week.'" Kul Al-Arab, July 27, 2001 (English translation from Arab Association of Human Rights, Weekly Review of the Arab Press in Israel, no. 40, July 24-30, 2001).

62 Sa'ar, "Bedouin Schools Chief Apologizes for Racial Slur."

63 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities, art. 4(4), adopted December 18, 1992, G.A. Res. 47/135. This declaration is not binding but provides authoritative guidance to states.

64 See Moshe Reinfeld, "Court: State Must Ensure Affirmative Action for Arab Citizens," Ha'aretz Daily Newspaper (English Edition) (Israel), July 10, 2001.

65 State Education Law, art. 1 (1953).

66 In the 1999-2000 school year, 20 percent of Jewish primary students and 12.2 percent of Jewish secondary students attended an ultra-orthodox school. CBS, Statistical Abstract of Israel 2000, table 22.16. Private associations ran 5 percent of Arab schools. Ministry of Justice, Initial Periodic Report, p. 304. (While Israel submitted its report in 2001, it does not come before the Committee until September/October 2002.) Parents, students, and teachers told us that missionary schools, which charge tuition, play an important role in cities like Haifa, where the state system for Palestinians is particularly weak.

67 Human Rights Watch interview with Inspector Mattar, Inspector of Arab Private Schools, Ministry of Education, Nazareth, December 7, 2000.

68 Schools Control Law (1969).

69 A small number of students take matriculation exams for other systems such as the Jordanian or French system.

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