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Palestinian Education: Success Amidst Struggle April 16, 2014 Global, Online Only No Comments on Palestinian Education: Success Amidst Struggle

class room at community centre BASR


By: James Townsend

The modern situation of a Palestinian living in either the Gaza Strip or the West Bank today is not good. Despite Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, upwards of 94% of supposedly Palestinian territory, that is, territory designated as Palestinian by the 1993 Oslo Accords, is still occupied by Israeli settlers.[1] This occupation of Palestine, as described in the United Nations’ (UN) Arab Human Development Report 2005, “[continues] to destroy the potential for liberation, autonomy and development [of Palestine], tearing away at the fabric of Palestinian territory itself.”[2] Israel’s policies have not helped the Palestinian economy, which is being “systematically destroyed” by “a forceful campaign to undermine Palestinian institutions’ capacity to take any serious steps towards achieving human development.”[3] However, our purpose here is not to comment on Israeli policies nor lament their treatment of Palestinians, rather it is to examine the successes Palestine has enjoyed despite the simultaneous disadvantages it experiences.

One can summarize the difficult circumstances that Palestinians confront in just a few startling statistics. Palestine, or as the region is called in the UN’s report “Occupied Palestinian Territories,” had a total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2003 of just 3.5 billion dollars.[4] To put that in perspective, it was second lowest amongst the contingent of eighteen countries defined by the UN as the “Arab world.” Aside from Djibouti, which had the lowest GDP, the next highest GDP figure was a staggering 6.4 billion dollars greater than Palestine’s 3.5. If that isn’t grim enough, the previous years were hardly less bleak. In a thirteen-year span from 1990-2003, the UN measured the growth rate of nearly every Arab country’s GDP. Palestine finished dead last. With a negative six percent growth rate, Palestine’s economy contracted a full 2.7% faster than any other country’s in the Arab world. [5] Attributed in the report to the circumstances outlined above, Palestine’s economy was, and remains today, in rough shape. With these numbers casting a dark shadow above the fledgling Palestinian state, a seeming contradiction arises when one considers its statistics regarding education. In a 2003 measure of the adult literacy rate[6] among Arab countries, Palestine ranked second to none, leading the Arab world with a 91.9% literacy rate.[7] The UN’s education index, taken from the UN’s mean years of schooling index and expected years of schooling index, also reflected Palestine’s achievement with an index of 0.88, ranking it best in the Arab world. Palestine’s education rank even bested the 0.87 index of Qatar, a country that the UN considers to be the most highly developed in the Arab world.[8] Naturally the question arises as to how Palestine has simultaneously achieved such high marks in education whilst being hindered so severely in its economy. This dichotomy will be the primary interest and topic of discussion we will explore.

In the discussion of education in Palestine will focus on a few key aspects as a means of assessing the statues of Palestinian education. First, it is necessary to examine which programs educate Palestinians; if Palestinians are being educated at such a high level, who has provided that education? Next, it is imperative to investigate the quality of Palestinian education. Literacy rates alone may not be sufficient to indicate the true breadth and range of educational experience, therefore, consideration will be given to the caliber and scope of Palestinian education. After that, the discussion shifts to the educational curriculum in the Ministry of Education and Higher Education’s primary and secondary school. The curriculum the government has implemented further demonstrates the caliber of education it is providing as well as the aspects of education it seeks to emphasize. Lastly, the odd circumstance of excellent public education with low levels of GDP and public revenues begs the question, how is the Palestinian Authority funding this system of education?

Options in Education

The immediate question arises: how does the Palestinian Authority deliver basic education services to the population? Largely, the answer varies based on the level of education. In pre-kindergarten education, the tendency is towards privatization, as the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MOEHE) operated only three of Palestine’s 901 pre-schools in 2004.[9]  However, pre-school enrollment rates accounted for just 32% of Palestinian children who are between 4 and 5 years old, a statistic largely influenced by the household’s level of income.[10] The bulk of MOEHE education resources are invested in primary level education. At the primary and secondary levels, the MOEHE takes a larger share of responsibility as 70% of children enrolled at these levels were in public schools, while 24% were enrolled in schools operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and only 6% were enrolled in private schools as of 2004.[11] The primary level of education (grades 1-10) is the most widely attended Palestinian education program. Palestinian enrollment rates skyrocketed to 96% in 2006 for first grade through tenth grade.[12] This investment and enrollment in primary education has directly resulted in a 98.2% literacy rate amongst 15-24 year-olds.[13] Furthermore, Palestine’s enrollment rate was comparable with those of highly developed countries, such as the United States, which had a 96% primary school enrollment rate over the span of 2008-2011.[14] MOEHE investment coupled with high enrollment can be attributed to Palestinian cultural values, which “reflect the great value that Palestinians attach to educational attainment.”[15] The evidence showed that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian youth is well educated at government-subsidized schools. However, it is necessary to consider the quality of the government-subsidized education program as compared to the caliber of education in private schools, as well as the effectiveness of the government education program.

Quality of Education

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, is an international exam that can be used to compare students of differing nationalities. When Palestinian students took the exam in 2003, they received scores that were low by international standards, but were competitive among the Arab World.[16] Within Palestine itself, there was some difference in scores between students who attended government, UNRWA, and private schools. Using data from the Science half of the exam (Palestinian students performed better on the Science portion than the Mathematics portion), the average score of eighth-grade students was 427 in government schools, 444 in UNRWA, and 491 in private schools.[17] To put these numbers in perspective, during 2003, the United States’ eighth-grade students averaged 527 on their science exam, while students in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon averaged 475, 421, 398, and 393 respectively. These numbers compare to Palestine’s total average of 435, when accounting for the greater number of students in public than private education. [18] Although the TIMSS is a useful tool in comparing international education systems, there are problems with the exam that could affect the scores of various countries and skew the results. The primary reason that critics of the test caution against relying too heavily on the results is “the opportunity to learn argument, i.e., it could be that some of the content tested is not covered by the Palestinian curriculum – or it is covered but not with enough depth.”[19] That is, Palestinian students are not given the opportunity to succeed on the test because their curriculum may not cover some material on the test. Unlike other exams, which are specifically designed to be “curriculum-neutral… the TIMSS is supposed to reflect the curriculum of participating countries.”[20] This means that in order for countries to succeed on the exam they must adapt their curriculum to match more closely with the test material.

Another factor that must be considered when studying the results of the TIMSS exam is the country’s GDP per capita the same year the test was issued. By taking both GDP and test scores into account, the TIMSS creates a benchmark for education evaluation for each country. This benchmark is lower for countries with lower GDP because the presumption is that with less funding, there can only be lower investment in education, and following lower investment there may be lower enrollment in the low-caliber education system. By comparing a country’s results to the benchmark we can get a better idea as to “how ‘optimistic’ or ‘pessimistic’ we want to be with regard to education quality.”[21] When it comes to Palestine, students achieved an average score in mathematics that was just below the benchmark, but in science, the average score was very close to the benchmark. These results were all reason to be optimistic about education in Palestine; however, MOEHE public school results lagged behind the private and UNRWA schools. There were several reasons for the disparity:

First, [UNRWA] schools have been established for much longer and, up until the establishment of the PA in 1994, MOEHE schools were under the direct control of the Israeli government and, as a result, seemed to have received less attention. Secondly, teacher pay has, until recently, been considerably higher at UNRWA schools. And thirdly, UNRWA has well-established systems for the continuous professional development of both teachers and school managers, and a more effective and relevant network of supervision and inspection services.[22]

All of these factors are differences that should be leveled out over time as the MOEHE continues to establish itself and progresses in developing its system of education.

The Palestinian Curriculum

In 1994, Israel relinquished control and censorship of the Palestinian curriculum to the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education. This marked the beginning of the exclusive Palestinian control over the country’s curriculum and system of education. Previously, Palestinian education “[had] suffered from sequential colonization by the Ottoman Turks; the British, Jordanian, and Egyptian administrations; and the Israeli occupation authorities. These successive waves of external control erased Palestinian history and culture from the textbooks and curricula.”[23] In 2000, the newly designed curriculum was introduced into schools and was gradually implemented over the span of 2000-2005. Understandably, there was a large effort to “develop a system which is uniquely and vigorously Palestinian in nature.”[24] The MOEHE advertised its curriculum as Palestinian in nature by describing “its core contents as defined by national values, Islamic religion, national heritage, customs and traditions, and the Declaration of Independence (1998).”[25] Generally, the creation and implementation of the new national curriculum has been described as “a major national accomplishment and a source of pride.”[26] However, the new Palestinian curriculum has not been without fault.

Much of the criticism of the new curriculum surrounded “how ‘peaceful’ or ‘violent’ Palestinian children are taught to be.”[27] Allegations were brought that the new curriculum’s textbooks teach violence, and do not place any emphasis on promoting peaceful coexistence. Virtually all these accusations of violence in the curriculum came from the Centre for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMIP), a group based in Jerusalem, created “‘to determine whether children are being taught to accept and recognize the right of the “other” to exist’”[28] The group claimed that the new Palestinian textbooks refer “‘explicitly to Jews and in very negative terms,’”[29] however, multiple independent analysts have found inaccuracies in the evidence that CMIP purported as supporting its accusations. “For example, the first CMIP report was based on a review of the old Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks rather than the new Palestinian curriculum.”[30] On the initiative of MOEHE, another independent group, the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, evaluated the new curriculum’s textbooks and reported responses starkly contrasting those of CMIP. “One conclusion of this study is that the overall orientation of the curriculum is peaceful despite the harsh and violent realities in which schools operate. It emphasized that there is no open incitement to hatred or violence, and that religious and political tolerance is emphasized in a good number of textbooks and in multiple contexts.”[31] However, despite the dubious nature of CMIP’s charges, it did not stop them from being widely circulated, and they were cited by a United States Senate subcommittee and referred to by the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.[32] “The implications of [CMIP’s] allegations have been tremendous. As a direct result, donors have sometimes shifted funding away from curriculum development and textbook production.”[33] Although these charges of anti-Semitism in the curriculum appear to be largely unfounded, teaching Palestinian history while the modern Palestinian-Israeli conflict is still ever-present in Palestinian society remains a substantial challenge. “‘I can believe in and work for a political solution,’ explained one activist, ‘but my grandfather is buried in what is now Israel, and I don’t want my children to forget that.’”[34]

Besides the difficult and precarious issues surrounding the politics of the curriculum, there has also been some criticism of the structure and educational demands of the curriculum itself. The curriculum was ambitious to begin with, containing many impressive innovations, some of which launched Palestine to the forefront of the field of education in the Middle East. For example, the curriculum made Palestine the “first Arabic country to teach English from 1st grade,”[35] as well as one of the first to introduce technology as a compulsory subject from 5th-10th grade. These, among many other innovations, have garnered praise for the curriculum’s “emphasis on foreign languages and the introduction of subjects with a prominent applied dimension.”[36] However, educators and families alike have concluded that despite the curriculum’s lofty goals, in reality, it is too long and demanding, and causes a serious problem of overload. Because of the raw quantity of information that teachers must impart to their students, teachers cannot customize or tailor their class to particular groups of students, such as those with special needs, or those who are exceptionally gifted.[37] In fact, many “parents and students feel that the new curriculum is geared towards the more intelligent students, and not the average student.”[38] This has led many students to feel overwhelmed by the expectations of the curriculum and teachers to slow the pace of class to assist their students, thereby falling behind the high-pace demands of the material. As MOEHE had anticipated, the curriculum is still a work in process and MOEHE has acknowledged, “there is need to review the curriculum. This was originally envisioned by the MOEHE when the curriculum development plan was formulated.”[39] It was not unforeseeable that a completely new curriculum would have some shortcomings, but despite these problems, MOEHE’s new curriculum has been largely successful and can be credited with some of the recent success in Palestinian education.

Funding Education in Palestine

While it is impressive to observe the great strides that Palestine has made in taking autonomous control over its education, the question looming in the background is how this system receives funding given Palestine’s weak GDP? The financial situation in Palestine is precarious and heavily reliant on international donor support from Western countries and the Arab world. “For the month [of March 2006] the [Palestinian Authority] received revenues of $33 million against total expenditures and net lending of $139 million.”[40] This severe dependence on outside support means that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is continually insecure in terms of its financial future; however, this is the reality of how the PA has operated for the duration of its existence. When the PA was first established with the Oslo Accords, the World Bank could not financially support it because it was not a sovereign state; however, within weeks following the agreement, over 40 donors stepped in and pledged $2.4 billion over the next five years.[41] Although the Palestinian Authority has become increasingly adept and efficient at handling the large volume of donations, it has become continually reliant on outside support. However, following the 2006 elections, which handed Hamas control of the Palestinian Authority, Palestine faced a fiscal crisis that threatened the existence of many of its services, including MOEHE. The immediate causes of this crisis were “the Israeli decision to withhold [customs] clearance revenues, the termination of budget support from the donor community, and the US threat to prosecute any banks engaged in financial transactions with the PA.”[42] This immediate threat to funds was the result of the poor reputation of Hamas among the PA’s predominantly Western donors. Simultaneous to this, abrupt disruptions and uncertainty in revenue was the skyrocketing cost of salaries, which cost the PA an estimated 90% of its recurrent expenditure.

While the issues surrounding the 2006 elections have largely been resolved, as Fatah (the political party which had previously controlled the Palestinian Authority) has retained control of the West Bank for all intensive purposes, the financial situation in Palestine still remains dire. As recently as June of 2012, government employees only received 60% of their salaries because of massive government debt and lack of funds.[43] In July of 2012, “the PA envoy to Saudi Arabia, Jamal Shobaki, estimated the PA government’s debts at $1.5 billion. He said that to overcome the crisis, the PA was in urgent need of at least $500 million.”[44] In addition to the PA’s massive debt, there have also been frequent accusations of corruption within the PA’s various ministries. However, a glimmer of encouragement emerged from the corruption scandal in that according to a United Nations Special Committee’s investigation in 1997 of corruption in Palestine “the MOEHE was the only government agency within the scope of the investigation found to be free of corruption and to deserve special mention for the fact.”[45]

While Palestine has historically used funds from other nations in the form of loans and financial assistance to operate the government and system of education, it remains to be seen what sustainable, long-term solution there will be to ensure the continuity of the education system Palestine has established.


To conclude, Palestine has made impressive strides with its education system since gaining independent control in 1994. Since then, MOEHE has created and implemented the first uniquely Palestinian national curriculum with measureable and impressive success. MOEHE has appropriately recognized the need to continually adapt and adjust the curriculum to the needs of its students and teachers. Prior to Palestinian control of the education system, external influences diminished any sense of Palestinian pride and caused many Palestinians to migrate out of the country after receiving their education. This new education system and curriculum has inspired hope that a new sense of Palestinian nationalism will encourage Palestinian youth to remain in Palestine. As of 2005, 52% of the Palestinian population was under 18 years of age,[46] which means that in the near future, Palestine will have a large, young, and well-educated population, raised with the principles of the new curriculum, and instilled with a sense of Palestinian pride. Members of this upcoming generation will find themselves in the unique circumstance of being highly educated while having grown up in an environment of oppression and adversity, something they may not be willing to tolerate as adults if they chose to stay in Palestine. It is impossible to predict what this generation of Palestinians will accomplish, but their potential is certainly cause to be optimistic about Palestine’s future, so long as the current generation can manage the current financial situation, and leave a stable foundation for the youth to continue to expand upon and develop.


Works Cited

[1] Zahir Jamal, and Barbara Brewka, ed. United Nations Development Programme. (Amman: United Nations Publications, 2006.) s.v. “Arab Human Development Report 2005.” Statistic on page 43

[2] Arab Human Development Report 2005 page 43

[3] Arab Human Development Report 2005 page 45

[4] Arab Human Development Report 2005 page 298. All dollar figures are measured in US currency.

[5] Arab Human Development Report 2005 page 298

[6] Described in the report as being the literate percentage of the population ages 15 and above.

[7] Arab Human Development Report 2005 page 296

[8] Arab Human Development Report 2005 page 288

[9] World Bank Bisan Center for Research and Development. The World Bank Group, 2006. s.v. “The Role and Performance of Palestinian NGOs: In Health, Education, and Agriculture.” Page 53

[10] The Role and Performance of Palestinian NGOs: In Health, Education, and Agriculture page 53

[11] The Role and Performance of Palestinian NGOs: In Health, Education, and Agriculture page 53

[12] The World Bank Group, Middle East and North Africa, Human Development Group. The World Bank Group, 2006. s.v. “West Bank and Gaza, Education Sector Analysis, Impressive Achievements Under Harsh Conditions and the Way Forward to Consolidate a Quality Education System.” Page 6

[13] The Role and Performance of Palestinian NGOs: In Health, Education, and Agriculture page 53

[14] UNICEF, At a glance: United States of America, Statistics

[15] The Role and Performance of Palestinian NGOs: In Health, Education, and Agriculture page 53

[16] The total average on the international exam was a 473, while Palestine’s combined average was a 435.

[17] The World Bank Group, West Bank and Gaza Education Sector Analysis page 17

[18] Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, TIMSS USA

[19] The World Bank Group, West Bank and Gaza Education Sector Analysis page 17

[20] The World Bank Group, West Bank and Gaza Education Sector Analysis page 17

[21] The World Bank Group, West Bank and Gaza Education Sector Analysis page 17

[22] The World Bank Group, West Bank and Gaza Education Sector Analysis page 21

[23] Christina, Rachel. Tend the Olive, Water the Vine: Globalization and the Negotiation of Early Childhood in Palestine. Greenwich, Connecticut: Information Age Publishing, 2006. Page 32

[24] Tend the Olive, Water the Vine: Globalization and the Negotiation of Early Childhood in Palestine page 33

[25] Nicolai, Susan, ed. UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning. London: Save the Children UK, 2006. s.v. “Fragmented Foundations: Education and Chronic Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” Page 87

[26] Ministry of Education and Higher Education Palestine. 2008. s.v. “Education Development Strategic Plan 2008-2012: Towards Quality Education for Development.” Page 32

[27] Fragmented Foundations: Education and Chronic Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory page 89

[28] Fragmented Foundations: Education and Chronic Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory page 89

[29] Fragmented Foundations: Education and Chronic Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory page 89

[30] Fragmented Foundations: Education and Chronic Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory page 90

[31] The World Bank Group, West Bank and Gaza Education Sector Analysis page 27

[32] Fragmented Foundations: Education and Chronic Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory page 90

[33] Fragmented Foundations: Education and Chronic Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory page 90

[34] Fragmented Foundations: Education and Chronic Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory page 91

[35] The World Bank Group, West Bank and Gaza Education Sector Analysis page 29

[36] The World Bank Group, West Bank and Gaza Education Sector Analysis page 30

[37] The World Bank Group, West Bank and Gaza Education Sector Analysis page 30

[38] Fragmented Foundations: Education and Chronic Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory page 88

[39] Education Development Strategic Plan 2008-2012: Towards Quality Education for Development page 33

[40] The World Bank Group, West Bank and Gaza Education Sector Analysis page 42

[41] Fragmented Foundations: Education and Chronic Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory page 61

[42] The World Bank Group, West Bank and Gaza Education Sector Analysis page 42

[43] Taomeh, K. A. (15 June 2012). “Saudi Arabia to transfer $100 million to PA to avert crisis.” The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved from

[44] “S. Arabia to transfer $100m. to PA to avert crisis”

[45] Fragmented Foundations: Education and Chronic Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory page 64

[46] The World Bank Group, West Bank and Gaza Education Sector Analysis page 42

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