From the Stars and Stripes archives

Education on the Gaza Strip

A sewing class at Camp Jabaliya, one of the refugee settlements on the Gaza Strip, in February, 1958.


By ROBERT J. DUNPHY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 9, 1958

Education is on the march in the Gaza Strip, the narrow 25-mile-long finger of Mediterranean shoreline separating Egypt and Israel.

For some 227,000 Arab refugees from Palestine trapped for almost a decade in the tiny sun-baked tinderbox, the world of knowledge has come to represent the biggest hope for freedom and a new life.

Along the beaches and in the fields, sullen-eyed youths with nowhere to study can be seen poring over thin copybooks, while scores of others use the busy highways as blackboards to chalk out their problems in arithmetic.

Outnumbering the local population two-to-one, the Gaza refugees represent only part of nearly a million Palestinian Arabs being fed and cared for almost entirely by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Victims of the political impasse that has existed between the Arabs and Israelis since the state of Israel was carved out of their former homeland in 1948, the Palestinians are truly men without a country.

Most of the refugees fled Palestine when the Israeli state was proclaimed, and Israel today refuses to take them back. The Arab countries, on the other hand, are reluctant to resettle them, considering this tantamount to accepting defeat at the hands of Israel.

Since 1948, the majority of the Palestinians have dreamed only of the day they might return in martial triumph to their homeland, but as a decade of exile nears its end and Israel grows in strength, their hopes have begun to wane.

The youth in the Gaza Strip — and about half the 227,000 refugees are under 16 — chorus today "Education before Bread" and the 45,000 pupils enrolled in UNRWA's 77 Gaza schools reflect this thinking.

The old Palestinian flag still flies over all UNRWA schools and the refugee children still sing about the day they will return to their homes, but the old-timers in the camps shake their heads pessimistically.

"Education in itself is not the solution," declared New Zealander Roy W. Lucas, director of UNRWA in the Gaza Strip. "The problem of the refugees is a political problem and does not admit of any but a political solution.

"You might ask why educate the refugees — where can they go? The refugees look upon education on the strip as sort of a giant lottery. It's only a chance, but if they don't have a. ticket, they stand no chance at all."

There is little hope of even the educated refugees finding jobs on the Gaza Strip aside from working for UNRWA itself. Of the strip's total population of 310,000, more than 70 per cent are receiving UNRWA rations.

While the Arab countries don't like to admit openly that they're giving jobs to Palestinians, some educated refugees are being hired as teachers and skilled workers throughout the oil-rich Middle East.

One of the main escape channels has been via the pilgrimage to Mecca. The refugees look for jobs while visiting the holy city in accordance with the Moslem religion, and if they succeed in their efforts, they simply fail to return to their camps.

UNRWA, headed by an American, Henry R. Labouisse, with headquarters in Beirut, was founded as a temporary organization in 1949 to provide basic relief and rehabilitation to the refugees, most of whom were living in tents at the time.

Still going strong after eight years, the agency today employs more than 8,000 workers and covers an area scattered over 100,000 square miles. It feeds and houses 934,000 refugees and builds schools and hospitals for them — all at the low cost of $27 per person per year.

By far the greatest percentage of the refugees are in Jordan, where the 500,000 Palestinians constitute more than one-third of the country's total population. The prospects of employment even there, however, are not so blank as on the Gaza Strip.

The hot pursuit of education is not confined to refugees on the Gaza Strip alone, but has spread like a fever through all the camps in the Middle East. So extensive has it become that it may result in the Palestinians winding up as the intellectual elite of the Arab world.

Nearly 400 refugees are studying in Middle East universities today on UNRWA scholarships. Few return to the camps upon completing their schooling, however, realizing that their chances of finding jobs will remain slim until the refugee problem itself is resolved.

The wholesale quest for knowledge also goes beyond mere book-learning, and extends into the fields of vocational training and handicrafts. UNRWA employs 18 instructors in Gaza alone, providing the refugees with training in carpentry, tailoring, shoemaking and sewing.

In addition, the agency has established a comprehensive teachers' training program on the Strip; a fledgling broom-making cooperative; a rug-making enterprise, and a vast afforestation project.

Besides this, many of the refugees are engaged in private occupations such as fishing or cloth-weaving to augment their rations. The refugee remains on the dole, however, and is not considered "settled" unless he earns more than 15 pounds a month, or approximately $42.

Of the 217,000 persons drawing rations on the Gaza Strip (infants draw milk and are excluded from the ration rolls until they attain the age of one year) only 133,000 live in the eight camps UNRWA operates on the Strip. The remainder are Bedouins, or others who prefer to live outside the camps.

The basic ration distributed by the agency consists of flour, sugar, beans and oil in amounts representing 1,500 calories a day. The agency also serves 12,500 hot meals daily to undernourished children and provides nursing mothers, and others who need them, with extra rations.

All this takes a lot of money to finance and Labouisse has had trouble convincing the nations of the world of the urgency in making good their pledges of aid to UNRWA, 70 per cent of whose costs in the past have been borne by the U.S.

The UNRWA director recently went before the UN General Assembly and requested $40 million to run the agency for 1958 Concluding his plea for funds, Labouisse said:

"While we are solely a humanitarian organization with no political role, we cannot help being reminded daily that UNRWA is one of the prices — and perhaps the cheapest — that our assembly of nations is paying for not having been able to solve with equity the political problem of the refugees from Palestine."

Women and children wait their turn at the dispensary at Camp Jabaliya, one of the refugee settlements on the Gaza Strip, in February, 1958.

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