Textbook injustice in Gaza

Schoolchildren are stuck for basics as Israel blocks supplies

As the 456,000 schoolchildren in the Gaza Strip start their academic year, they face chronic shortages of everything from paper, textbooks and ink cartridges to school uniforms, school bags and computers, the result of the Israeli blockade. At the same time, severely overcrowded classrooms are having to accommodate students whose schools were destroyed or damaged in the last siege, early this year.

The only supplies on the market are smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt. Yet even when materials are available, many cannot afford them: 80 per cent of Gaza's 1.5 million people live below the poverty line. The ministry of education has instructed teachers not to expect pupils to have "too many textbooks", but Ahmed Abdelhameed, who has eight school-age children, says that "teachers still ask for the full quota of school supplies, as if we were living in Sweden".

"I can no longer understand why we need to suffer, why textbooks and pencils are not allowed," he says. "Does Israel see these as threatening weapons, too?"

Shared stationery

The paper available is of poor quality. Abdelhameed says one of his daughters is just starting school and he has bought smuggled notebooks for her. But "when she uses an eraser, the paper tears", he says. "This makes a mess of the next page, too." With such quality problems, supplies run out fast, which raises the cost. "What gets through is never enough," he explains. "I will have to continue next week to roam around the Gaza Strip looking for stationery and school bags for the kids.

"I am lucky enough to be able to afford some notebooks, but I hear stories from my daughter about kids in her class having to use pieces of palm leaves as rollers and garbage bags as school bags."

A maths teacher from Khan Younis says that "some of the students share stationery. Others use old notebooks."

The deputy director of the chamber of commerce, Mahmoud al-Yazji, says Gaza faces a grave problem in getting supplies to students. He estimates that 90 per cent of the student population is affected. "Israel is deliberately aiming not to allow stationery into the Gaza Strip," he says. "Occupation forces blocked 1,750 containers of school supplies and stationery worth US$150m."

Merchants in the occupied territory have ordered tens of thousands of school bags from foreign suppliers, but Israel is still blocking all imports. Opening the Israeli-controlled crossings to Gaza, he points out, is the way to secure supplies for the students.

Effects of Israeli assault

A higher education spokesman, Khalid Radi, is adamant that his department has instructed teachers not to pressure students, and in the meantime is in contact with humanitarian groups from the Arab world and beyond to find ways of getting stationery into Gaza. But "all [the] latest attempts from human rights groups have failed", he says. "It makes me wonder if these pupils holding a pencil are viewed as more dangerous than if they were holding a rocket."

In the last assault on Gaza, 18 schools were destroyed and at least 280 damaged. Many are still in need of building materials to complete repairs, say UN sources. Radi says the shortage of materials is affecting students badly. "The weather is getting colder. We don't have replacements for damaged school windows, and students will suffer the effects of the last assault on Gaza throughout the coming year, with destruction in their heads," he says. The ministry of education reports that classes often have to squeeze in up to 55 students.

"The blockade has caused untold suffering to children in Gaza," says Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories. Dr Fadel Abu Hien, a professor of psychology at al-Aqsa University, says many students stop attending classes due to shortages of books, pens and paper. "Israel is using the control over Gaza's borders to cause psychological destruction among students who want to study and learn."

No relief for refugees

Human rights groups have criticised Israel's restrictions on the Gaza Strip and the limits placed on supplies. Only basic food and rudimentary materials are allowed through. The groups describe these as "inadequate for the needs of over 1.5 million people". UN officials say that instruments and equipment for school science laboratories are also in short supply. The humanitarian co-ordinator representing UN aid agencies in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), and the Association of International Development Agencies (Aida), represented by at least 25 NGOs, have demanded full and unfettered access into and out of Gaza in particular to restore the education system.

Maxwell Gaylard, of the UN Special Co-ordinator Office for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO), concedes that Gaza needs more school supplies, despite the efforts of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to bring in basic school stationery. Gaylard says UNSCO has repeatedly asked the government of Israel urgently to facilitate entry of construction materials and schools supplies in the coming weeks, It has also requested that students, teachers and trainers be allowed to move freely in and out of Gaza so that education can progress. Asked if the information about the shortage of essential materials is reaching the higher levels of the Israeli government and the UN, he says: "Yes, but it seems that Israel has a different definition of humanitarian needs from the definition that we use at UN."
The shortage of supplies is just another example of the frustration imposed on Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Mohammed Omer
Getty
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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.