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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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From Gaza to Harvard: The Politicization of Mental Health and the Education of Palestinian Children

Filed under: International Law, Israel, Palestinians, Peace Process
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 522    September 2004

  • Academic and professional reports implicating Israeli policy and actions in the deterioration of the mental health and education of Palestinian children are characterized by questionable scientific methodology and a reliance on distortions, omissions, and misrepresentations.

  • Mental health consequences are discussed without reference to terror activities and incitement to violence in Palestinian media, schools, and universities.

  • Researchers generally do not acknowledge that the Palestinian Authority has had full control of the educational system since 1994.

  • There is also little reference to the PA’s failure to create a curriculum that emphasizes peace and tolerance. It promotes messages that demonize Jews and Israel and tolerates open calls to violence by various factions within Palestinian society.

  • Claims that Israel’s security barrier has “affected” Palestinian children are made despite the absence of clinical data linking the barrier with any documented negative effects.

  • Reforming the Palestinian system to educate for peace and promote an attitude of reconciliation would be in the common interest of all parties in the region.

Bias Disguised as Research: Palestinians, Academics, and Harvard

A report entitled “The Effect of the Israeli Occupation on Education from 28/9/2000-6/5/2004,”1 conducted by the Palestinian Ministry of Education and published by the Palestinian NGO Miftah,2 makes a series of largely misleading and/or unsubstantiated claims relative to Israeli responsibility for the state of affairs in the Palestinian educational system.

Citing “human, physical, and psychological” consequences for Palestinian society, an indictment is made of “Israeli aggressive policy” as the sole cause of these effects since September 28, 2000.

Another ostensibly more professional and peer-reviewed report published by a group of Canadian and Palestinian researchers claimed that “Israeli settlement encroachment” was responsible for mental health problems in Palestinian children.3

A partnership project between Harvard Medical School and the Gaza Community Mental Health Center focuses on the effects of violence on the mental health and functioning of Palestinian children. In an abstract of the proposed collaborative work between the two institutions,4 the Palestinian researcher, Dr. Eyal El-Sarraj, is described as a “highly respected community psychiatrist.” The report goes on to note the effects of “political” and “military” violence that Gaza children have been exposed to.

What all these reports have in common is an attempt to politicize clinical findings related to the mental health, education, and overall well-being of Palestinian children. What is also common to these reports is the use of half-truths, omissions, and distortions to paint a one-sided and biased picture of alleged Israeli abuses in the face of what is often portrayed as legitimate Palestinian resistance and general good will.

Take, for example, the case of Dr. El-Sarraj, who, despite Harvard’s claim, has made inflammatory, bigoted, and inciteful remarks regarding Jews and Israelis. In an interview in Tikkun, he repeatedly demanded a formal Israeli apology for behavior towards the Palestinians, rebuffing any suggestion that Palestinians needed to reciprocate. He also said: “I’ve asked myself: ‘Are they evil by nature, these Jews? Or are they stupid, born mentally subnormal? Why are they doing this?’ It’s unbelievable. And I found after long, long thinking about it that they are not born evil. And they are not stupid. They are psycho-pathologically disturbed.”5 This is from a man described by Harvard as an advocate for the “peaceful resolution of the long-standing conflict” who heads a center that Harvard considers worthy of collaboration and funding.

The PA Has Been Responsible for Palestinian Education Since 1994

Although Israeli administration of the Palestinian educational system spanned from 1967 until 1994, when the Palestinian Authority assumed responsibility, the official Palestinian report noted above chose September 28, 2000, as the start date for assessing its effects. The implication is that Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount that day led to the outbreak of Palestinian violence. In reality, at least two other unprovoked violent incidents by Palestinians preceded Sharon’s visit.6 The attribution of the Sharon visit as initiating the violence is challenged even by Palestinian officials such as Imad Falouji, who said that the violence “had been planned since Chairman Arafat’s return from Camp David, when he turned the tables in the face of the former U.S. president and rejected the American conditions.”7

Just as the evidence shows that the outbreak of Palestinian violence was intentional and planned, so does the evidence show that Palestinian malfeasance, rather than Israeli policy, is primarily responsible for the suffering of Palestinian children and the state of affairs in its educational system.

Until the Palestinian Authority takeover of the system in 1994, access to educational opportunities for Palestinian children had actually improved when Israel took over responsibility from Egypt and Jordan in 1967. According to one 1994 report: “the number of educational facilities as well as student numbers have grown significantly. In 1967-68 West Bank schools numbered just over 800. Currently, over 1,300 schools exist. In Gaza the number of schools has increased from 166 in 1967 to approximately 340 today. The expansion of educational services has been especially notable on the post-secondary level of community colleges and universities.”8

The Violent Results of the Palestinian Takeover of the Educational System

A psychology of violence lies behind much of the experience of Palestinian children. Attributing this to Israeli polices, however, is misleading.

Many reports tend to highlight claims that Israeli aggression, sieges, incursions, and military occupation have affected students and teachers. Citing alleged suffering and humiliation by students at “military checkpoints between cities and villages,” the Palestinian Ministry of Education report, as well as other reports, fails to note the context for the checkpoints and the documented instances of Palestinian terror organizations utilizing students to carry out terror attacks.

According to IDF data, since the beginning of the violence in 2000, 29 suicide attacks were carried out by youth under the age of 18. Since May 2001, 22 shooting attacks and attacks using explosive devices were carried out by youth under the age of 18. Since the beginning of 2001, more than 40 youth under the age of 18 were involved in attempted suicide bombings that were thwarted (three during 2004).9

A number of these attempts or attacks were high-profile cases, covered by the international media. One case involved 12-year-old Abdullah Karan, who was apparently unwittingly used by Tanzim terrorists to transport a bomb through the Hawara checkpoint.10 Less than two weeks later, 16-year-old Hussain Abdo was stopped at the same checkpoint. In a film clip broadcast throughout the world, this youngster was seen removing a suicide bomb belt that was strapped to him.11 In a subsequent investigation, another 16-year old, Nasser Awartani, was arrested, having recruited other teens after reportedly being recruited himself by fellow students in his 10th grade class.12

One Palestinian human rights group reported this as an arrest of “Palestinian schoolchildren.”13 To further illustrate the PA’s misplaced indignation, they reported the arrest as follows: “Israeli military forces backed up with military armored vehicles broke into Balata refugee camp, starting searching and storming operations, then they arrested citizens Thaer Qandil,15, Nasser El-Awartani,15, and Hani Khalil, 21.”14

When two other high school students were found to be responsible for a terror attack in Ashdod that left 11 dead, news reports noted that their fathers were “proud of their sons.”15 Israel news broadcasts following the attack showed the principal of the school where the terrorist youth attended placing a memorial wreath on a school chair where one of the perpetrators sat.

In claiming psychological damage to Palestinian schoolchildren, some research attributes this morbidity exclusively to Israeli actions without addressing the active incitement to and glorification of violence that fosters an atmosphere of adoration and reinforcement for Palestinian youth who participate in violent activities. Documented reports have shown in detail how Palestinian children are systematically indoctrinated in school and at home, through the official media, to serve as human shields, terrorists, decoys, and participants in violent demonstrations.16 Other reports describe cases where they have been injured or killed as a result of Palestinian fire.17

Professional research, including the studies cited here that indict Israel, often fails to note that Palestinian children are routinely exposed to messages promoting “martyrdom.” Human rights lawyer Justus Weiner describes one such television program:

Television broadcasts frequently include what in many Western countries would be deemed “hate speech.” On July 2, 1998, in derogation of its commitments to combat incitement under the interim peace agreements, a Palestinian television children’s show called “The Children’s Club,” similar in its basic structure to “Sesame Street,” aired an episode in which young boys with raised arms chanted: “We are ready with our guns; revolution until victory; revolution until victory.” On the same show, an 8-year-old boy announced to the audience (a group of children), “I come here to say that we will throw them to the quiet sea. Occupiers, your day is near, then we will settle our account. We will settle our claims with stones and bullets.” Also on the Children’s Club program, on February 8, 1998, a girl who could not have been more than ten years old declared that she wanted to “turn into a suicide warrior” in Jerusalem.18

The PA Failed to Introduce a Curriculum Consistent with Peace

Much of the background for the phenomenon of the violence of Palestinian youth must be laid at the feet of the Palestinian Authority, which failed to introduce a curriculum consistent with teaching peace when it could. The Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, a non-profit American group, has documented in several studies the use of abusive terminology, denial of Israel’s legitimacy, a lack of promotion of peace, and discussions of war, jihad, and martyrdom common in Palestinian textbooks throughout the educational system.19

Terror Activities in Palestinian Educational Institutions

In presenting figures on “human losses,” the Palestinian Ministry of Education report includes a category that specifies “martyrs,” a term that Palestinian society routinely applies to perpetrators of terror attacks against Israel. In an extensive analysis entitled “The Martyrdom and Suicide Culture in Palestinian Universities,” the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies presents a detailed report on the recruitment and use of university students for terror attacks.20

Reviewing numerous examples of terrorist activity supported in a number of Palestinian educational institutions, the Center’s report describes one event at An-Najah University in Nablus: “One example of the extent of the incitement that the students at the university are exposed to is an exhibition that was opened after the suicide bomb attack in the Sbarro Restaurant in Jerusalem. The Hamas exhibition showed a model of the restaurant after the attack. Inside the model, dummies and limbs of fatalities were dispersed to represent the casualties. The exhibition was organized by a member of the student council which is identified with Hamas. While the exhibition was taking place, posters depicting the September 11 terrorist attack against the New York World Trade Center were put on the university’s walls.”21

The PA report also describes the damage to infrastructure caused by “Israeli occupation.” The report claims that “498 schools were disrupted and closed because of curfews, sieges, and district closures.” Yet in a table showing the disruption in schools in April 2004, the total number of disrupted days averaged only 0.7%, an insignificant figure.

In providing data on damage caused to school buildings, the report fails to account for any damage caused by Palestinian fire. The failure to admit any Palestinian-caused damage not only lacks credibility from a logical perspective, but runs contrary to media reports that have in fact documented instances of Palestinian fire directed at or landing near schools.22

Palestinian schools have also been used as shelters for terrorists engaged in attacking Israeli positions. “There have been several occurrences of infiltration of armed Palestinians into UNRWA facilities in the Gaza Strip, such as UNRWA-operated school facilities or housing projects, from which gunmen carried out shootings against the Israeli Defense Forces posted in the area.”23 David Raab quotes Andreas Reinicke, the German liaison to the Palestinian Authority, warning that “armed Palestinians” using a Beit Jala school for their activities would inevitably lead to the school being turned into an “armed battleground.”24

Jerome Marcus, a former U.S. State Department attorney, has described “bomb factories Israel found throughout the West Bank…located in…schools and other civilian sites.”25

In describing Israeli actions that “stole hard disks and floppy disks containing lots of information,” the PA report again fails to account for material related to incitement, violence, and terror that was present in the schools.

Palestinian schools have served as centers for the perpetuation and glorification of terrorists and terror activities against Israelis. Another report by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies documents how schools under the Palestinian Authority serve as centers of incitement to violent terrorism.26 The findings detail how photographs of terrorists, along with reading material from terror organizations, are displayed and distributed throughout the Palestinian school system. Photographs of schools in Kalkilya, Nablus, Ramallah, and other sites illustrate how these pictures are prominently displayed, along with captions describing the “martyrs” as “heroes.” One such example is a photograph of Saleh Sawi, responsible for the death of 22 Israelis in a 1994 suicide attack, who was hailed as the “hero of the Dizengoff action.”27

Despite being described as victims of violence, Palestinian children have often been the perpetrators. In the Canadian-Palestinian study, unsubstantiated “anecdotal evidence” and “personal observation” along with a citation by well-known anti-American and anti-Israel political activist Noam Chomsky are brought to support the notion that the presence and “encroachment” of Jewish settlements is responsible for the poor mental health of the Palestinian children in the study. Stating that Palestinian children feared these Jewish communities, they fail to cite a single documented case where Jewish residents near these Bethlehem-area villages were involved in violence against any children. The authors note a “significant military presence” and expansion of “infrastructure,” while ignoring the documented history and experience of hundreds of Israelis who were regularly stoned by children from a Palestinian school on a frequently traveled road in the same area. As noted in a UPI report: “A high fence that once protected Israeli motorists from Arab stoning there is gone. The Israelis built a new road, farther to the west.”28

Although academic and research reports have generally failed to address the exposure of Palestinian children to Palestinian-generated and planned violence, recent press reports have reported on the phenomenon. In a report on Sky News, correspondent Emma Hurd visited a Gaza camp for children where “the only lesson taught is how to kill Israelis.”29 With children as young as 10, Hurd described how the camp prepared them for the “ways of war,” including carrying out ambushes, using assault rifles, and mock killings of Israelis.

The results of the Palestinian indoctrination of children are felt even in families where parents support peaceful coexistence with Israelis. James Bennet describes a Palestinian father who spoke of peace and a two-state solution, but whose children, when asked about being friends with or interacting with Israelis their own age, responded by saying, “I want only to stab (them)” or “It’s impossible.”30

The Funding of Violence

Several reports on Palestinian children and the educational system discuss the considerable financial losses caused by damage to buildings, furniture, and equipment. However, in a report discussing World Bank funding of Palestinian universities, Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch discussed the practice of Palestinian universities serving as centers for the glorification of terror, saying, “The World Bank will be building the university infrastructures that will be used by student terrorist organizations to form the backbone of suicide terrorism in coming years.”31

In fact, members of the U.S. Congress, recognizing the misuse of international funds by the Palestinian Authority, had called for U.S. intervention to insure that UNESCO and the World Bank stop funding the publication of anti-peace textbooks that promote the incitement to terror and violence that Marcus and others have documented.32 Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) spoke specifically of UNRWA’s involvement in supporting schools that promote anti-peace messages among Palestinians and demanded that the United States end funding for UNRWA activities of this type.33

Arnold Roth described in detail in Wall Street Journal-Europe how EU and other funding sources have in fact contributed to teaching Palestinian schoolchildren messages of violence, jihad, and terror.34

At An-Najah, Al-Azhar (Gaza), and other Palestinian universities, students publicly encourage terrorist activity. Several terrorists, including two women students planning suicide attacks in Tel Aviv,35 hailed from An-Najah. That university’s Hamas and Islamic Jihad student cells sponsored activities that have included public demonstrations supporting Osama Bin-Laden.36 Hebron University has actively been involved in terror activity, with one chemistry class used to teach students how to make explosives that were later used in terror attacks.37 At Al-Quds University, an obituary was published praising a female suicide bomber.38 Bir Zeit University opened the 2003-4 academic year with a memorial ceremony to two students who carried out suicide terror attacks in Jerusalem.39

In a report on UNRWA schools in the Palestinian Authority, extensive documentation was presented on the use of material that glorified violence against Israelis, effectively turning schools into an “incubator for incitement and hate against Israel.”40

Misstating the Facts on the Security Barrier

A common recurrent theme in many reports is the description of Israel’s security barrier as an “apartheid wall.” The PA Ministry of Education report stated the “The Wall’s height is 8 meters and it’s long (sic) is 360 kilometers or more.” In fact, only a small portion of the barrier is actually a “wall” (mostly on certain highways, to protect motorists from sniper fire, or in areas where topography prevents a fence from being built), representing less than five percent of the total planned length of the barrier.41

Despite claims that Palestinian students are being “deprived from (sic) their right of education,” the PA report fails to note that where the barrier does in fact physically separate students from their schools, gates are present that allow unimpeded access to and from school. This “open gate” policy insures that civilians not involved in terror can travel across the barrier to tend crops or attend school. Despite Israeli intentions to minimize hardships, terrorists posing as innocent civilians have nonetheless cynically tried to exploit this policy and have attempted to use these “open gates” to carry out terror attacks within Israel.42

The PA report presents a table listing 2,898 students and teachers who are “affected” by the security barrier, without providing any description or documentation of any deleterious effects on education resulting from the barrier. Indeed, the report fails to provide any background or context to the building of the security barrier, especially the need to prevent the infiltration of terrorists into Israel.43


Reports on the status of Palestinian children’s mental health and the nature of the Palestinian educational system purport to present data that implicates Israel as responsible for a lamentable state of affairs. In reality, responsibility for the current state of affairs lies with the Palestinian Authority and with Palestinian terror organizations, both of whom promoted, funded, endorsed, and encouraged a culture of violence, hatred, incitement, and terror using children and students as its foot soldiers.

In November 2002, Br. Neil Kieffe of Bethlehem University discussed some of the problems besetting the Palestinian educational system: “Palestinian educators, with the help of educators from other countries, have to decide exactly what outcomes they want from the system and then design a new mode of instruction that will provide it. The goals cannot just be the mastery of certain amounts of knowledge. That produces technicians. We need education that draws the best capabilities from the students. Palestinians are very competent people, but they need to learn that they can be creative, that they can be leaders, that working together they can produce more than they can as individuals. With such an education there is the possibility of a new Palestine in this new millennium.”44

Kieffe’s sentiments would find strong support among all those who support a revamping of a system that has cultivated students for war instead of preparing them for peace.

*     *     *


2. For a complete discussion and analysis of Miftah, see “The Anti-Israel Agenda of MIFTAH,” NGO Monitor, January 27, 2003;
3. T.L. Zakrison, A. Shahen, M. Mortaja, and P.A. Hamel, “The Prevalence of Psychological Morbidity in West Bank Palestinian Children,” Can J Psychiatry 49 (2004):60-63.
7. “Palestinian Authority Admits: Warfare Was Planned,” Associated Press, March 4, 2001;
8. M. Heiberg and G. Ovensen, “Palestinian Society in Gaza, West Bank and Arab Jerusalem: A Survey of Living Conditions,” Fafo Report 151 (1993, 1994);
21. Ibid.
24. See, n. 31.
25. Jerome Marcus, “Jenin’s [Palestinian] War Criminals,” Wall Street Journal, April 30, 2002.
27. Ibid.
28. “Visitors Get a Feel of Life in the West Bank,” UPI, April 4, 2004.
30. James Bennet, “In Chaos, Palestinians Struggle for a Way Out,” New York Times, July 15, 2004.
32. Fouad Moughrabi, “The Politics of Palestinian Textbooks,” Journal of Palestine Studies XXXI, no. 1 (August 2001):5-19.