Victims of the peace settlement

28th April 1995 at 01:00
Even teachers have been dragged into the battle for Jerusalem, reports Sue Surkes.

The Declaration of Principles signed by Israel and the Palestinians in September 1993 means that Palestine schoolchildren in the West Bank and Gaza now fall under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

But the new Middle East order has placed a handful of schools in east Jerusalem in a catch-22 situation that could spell financial ruin. Teachers at the 16 schools have taken industrial action because they have not received a promised average 15 per cent pay rise - the first real-terms increase in seven years. It would be a parochial story in most countries. But in the Holy City, claimed as a political capital by both Israelis and the Palestinians, it illustrates the extent to which education has been sucked into the battle for Jerusalem.

Although all east Jerusalem schools follow the Jordanian curriculum, as they did before Israel took control of this sector of the city in 1967, education is split into four sectors.

The (Israeli-run) Jerusalem municipality has 33 schools, with 21,000 pupils, financing education through local and national government funds. Private organisations, mainly church-related, run 25 schools with 15,000 pupils. Nearly all their income comes from high tuition fees. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has six schools with just over 2,000 pupils, receiving money from the UN.

The poor relation is the east Jerusalem Wakf, or Muslim Properties Trust. The Wakf runs 16 schools, with 7,500 pupils, charges very low tuition fees and lacks any reliable source of outside finance.

East Jerusalem's Wakf schools fall under the jurisdiction of Jordan's ministry of religious affairs. For many years, Jordan's King Hussein dreamt of restoring Jerusalem and the West Bank to Hashemite control, and the ministry of religious affairs served as his cover for channelling funds to institutions in these areas.

From the late 1970s, Jordanian money, combined with funds from elsewhere in the Arab world, passed through a committee that was jointly administered by the Jordanians and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Most of the Wakf schools in east Jerusalem were built during a period of wealth that lasted through to the mid-1980s. Then at the end of 1987, the intifada (Palestinian uprising) began, followed in July 1988 by Jordan's historic "disengagement" from the West Bank - a response to, and perhaps an act of revenge against, the independent Palestinian nationalism symbolised by the intifada.

The Jordanians did not disengage from the Wakf in east Jerusalem, because of the trust's much-envied responsibility for maintaining the Islamic holy places, but they told the Wakf schools that they would only continue to pay the salaries of teachers employed prior to 1967. (Today, these number 67 out of around 400 teachers). Wakf teachers were paid hand-to-mouth, at irregular intervals, with money from the PLO or member states of the Saudi Arabia-based Islamic Conference.

By backing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War, the PLO subsequently lost the support of its friends in the Gulf. Its money dried up, and the Wakf schools bore the brunt; teachers went on strike repeatedly during the early 1990s, and parents began transferring their children to municipal schools. The joint committee was disbanded early last year, although its money had run out before then.

Most Wakf teachers are said to be juggling two jobs, even working in shops. "They come to school tired, and don't have time to prepare for class," said one Wakf teacher.

The main reason for the schools' plight appears to lie in the Declaration of Principles (DOP). This specifies that the Palestinian Authority, headed by PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, can run its own affairs within spheres such as education in the West Bank and Gaza. Jerusalem - the thorniest issue of the peace process - is excluded, until the city's status has been resolved.

The upshot is that the PLO, through the PA, is not only free to fund teachers' salaries in the areas under its control; it also receives money from abroad to do so. The Wakf schools in east Jerusalem, meanwhile, are caught between two stools. They will not have anything to do with the Jerusalem Municipality, because they do not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the eastern part of the city. At the same time, within the terms of the DOP, they fall outside of the PA's jurisdiction.

It is extremely difficult to secure information on the sources of money received by Wakf schools, or on the channels through which it is paid. (The teachers only ever see cash). But extensive interviews by The TES reveal that the PA's education office is in close contact with the Wakf schools. The office is said to have informed Hosni Ashab, Jerusalem Wakf education director, of the rise, and to have told him it was with Yasir Arafat's approval.

Sources confirm that the PA's finance ministry has already helped to bail out the schools when they have been in serious need, and say it will be PA finance minister, Muhammed Nashashibi, who will sign the go-ahead for the salary rise to be paid. In addition, it is understood that the PA-linked Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PECDAR) covered Wakf school salaries late last year.

The delay appears to have more to do with the PA's shortage of funds, and the fact that much of the international money it receives is tied to projects in Gaza and the West Bank. An example is the Holst Fund, through which $12-13 million (Pounds 8-8.6m) a month is channelled to pay for PA salaries, including those of all teachers in the West Bank and Gaza. The PA has to account for the way it has spent each installment before the next one is released. "It's pretty strapped for cash for expenditures it can't come to this fund for," The TES was told.

So quiet efforts are being made to lobby friends of the Palestinians abroad. About a year ago, Faisal Husseini, the PA's minister without portfolio responsible for Jerusalem affairs, secured a Saudi agreement to send engineers to repair Wakf schools. Many Palestinians say they have heard that Husseini has secured another Saudi donation, worth several million dollars, but cannot say more.

The PA has a strong political interest in keeping the Wakf schools alive. It needs legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinians. And it has fixed its eyes on eventually wresting the right (also pursued by the Saudis) to administer the Al-Aksa Mosque and other shrines.

If it fails, it is the Jerusalem municipality that might well gain. A spokesman said that while the municipality had no jurisdiction over the private sector, it would do everything within its legal power to assist pupils who wanted to transfer to municipal schools.

In the meantime, the teachers of the Wakf schools wait. As one Palestinian educationist put it: "If nothing significant happens by the end of this year, these schools will collapse."

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