Court petitioned for more classrooms in east Jerusalem

Four years after municipality said it would build 245 classrooms, only 13 had been built.

The Jerusalem municipality and the State of Israel have evaded their responsibilities for the education of children in east Jerusalem, according to a petition submitted to the High Court of Justice on Tuesday. The petitioners - the Ir Amim organization, the Beit Hanina Community Development Association, the Kfar Aqab Residents' Committee and Jerusalem City Councilman Yosef Pepe Alalu (Meretz) - were pressing ahead in a legal battle, that has lasted five years, to get the municipality to build enough classrooms for east Jerusalem's students. The battle started in 2001 when, following decades of neglect in classroom building in the eastern part of the city, residents appealed to the High Court of Justice. The court ordered the construction of 245 new classrooms, which the municipality and the Education Ministry said would be completed within four years. By September 2005, with only 13 classes completed and 34 funded but not built, the groups asked the High Court to find the municipality and the Education Ministry in contempt of court and to fine them accordingly. While the Court did not find them in contempt, it gave them until April 2006 to come up with a building plan and to conduct a survey of the youth population in east Jerusalem in order to determine the scope of the problem. While the state filed a response in July 2006, which detailed a plan to construct new classes on a scale smaller than that promised in 2001, it has yet to conduct the population survey. So, while the needs have grown at least in keeping with the natural growth of east Jerusalem's population, the promised classroom additions have not materialized, and the state has failed to determine precisely what is needed. The result, according to Ir Amim's estimate, is a lack of some 1,100 classrooms in east Jerusalem. For many parents, this leaves them the choice of sending their children to schools operated by the Waqf (Muslim religious trust) or letting them wander the streets during the day. "Palestinian children in east Jerusalem are not a political force," says Sarah Kreimer, associate director of Ir Amim, "since [east Jerusalem Arabs] don't vote in municipal elections by choice, and have no right to vote nationally." Even so, she emphasizes, "We're talking about the law. The [mandatory education] law says that every parent must send his child to school." And while east Jerusalem's parents "are trying to do so," they're coming up against a system that does not care about their needs, or the legal obligation to provide their children with classrooms, Kreimer says. Of particular concern is the lack of concrete information regarding the scope of the problem. In a meeting with east Jerusalem parents on Wednesday, "We tried to determine how many kids won't have where to go [at the start of the school year]," Kreimer says. "One of the things we're saying in the petition [to the High Court] is that the system must register all the children in Israel. It has to register them and enter them into the public system." But, according to Kreimer, the system "is built backwards," intentionally - and against the High Court order - refusing to count the youths of east Jerusalem. That way, Kreimer explains, "no one can sue the authorities. If they register thousands of students they're not funding, it becomes evident that they're not funding the classrooms." The Education Ministry responded to Ir Amim's claims by saying that the government was working hard to solve the problem. The director of the Education Ministry's Development Authority, Shai Kna'ani, told The Jerusalem Post that the state and the Jerusalem municipality "were doing everything in their power to expedite the building of schools in east Jerusalem." The problem, he explains, "is the difficulty in acquiring land on which to build schools, and this leads to delays." However, Kna'ani said, "We are making every effort to find temporary alternative solutions." The Jerusalem municipality told the Post in a written statement that part of the problem was the "sharp increase in the number of east Jerusalem residents in the last few years, due to changes in the political and security situation and the construction of the security fence surrounding Jerusalem, which naturally brought about an increase in the number of students." Municipality spokesman Gidi Schmerling also noted that "the municipality has solved the issue of receiving all kindergarten and first-grade students," and that children who could not study in schools in their neighborhoods "are transported to schools in nearby neighborhoods." Schmerling listed one new school opening on September 4, another being built and three more that were planned for construction in east Jerusalem. "The funding for school construction," noted the municipality's spokesman, "comes from the Education Ministry." Nevertheless, for Ir Amim, the problem is at least in part a bureaucratic unwillingness to deal with the situation. For instance, said Kreimer, "Ir Amim offered the municipality to find someone who would find plots for schools, and even to pay the bill for him. Only in their answer to the High Court [some three months after the offer was made] did they note they were willing to accept our offer." "Part of the story," Kreimer believes, "is that the system, ever since the unification of the city, never prepared to truly serve the east Jerusalem population, not in education, sewers, roads, housing, nothing." While "the unification of the land was done happily," Kreimer added, the municipality and the state didn't invest in serving the people of the united city. After all, she says, "Even according to the municipality's own reports, some 200 classrooms [demanded by the High Court] were still not built." No response was received from either the Jerusalem Municipality or the Education Ministry regarding the failure to carry out a survey of east Jerusalem's population.