"He used to teach us ethics in our elementary school and talk to us in a really open way about our feelings. When he came back, we saw how mentally destroyed he was. He changed completely."
This is how Leen, a tenth-grade Palestinian student, described a beloved teacher from her school to me. She and several other classmates told me that the teacher had been detained, tortured and imprisoned by Israel for protesting its occupation in the West Bank.
The teacher spent five years in Israeli prison, including several months of solitary confinement in a tiny cell—often with a bag over his head, as he later told the students. At the end of his sentence, the teacher was able to return to his former life in Ramallah—this time, as a stranger in his own land.
The harsh treatment was designed, the students believed, to send a message to anyone else who might dare voice similar sentiments. "He used to have a really good physique. Now he is in a wheelchair and can't even walk," another tenth-grader, Bassem, told me. "The methods of abuse are so inhumane. They go against every human right."
To say the students at the Ramallah Friends School have had to grow up too fast under the Israeli occupation is an understatement. They described life under the restrictive system of checkpoints and other forms of control and repression.
- Hassan El-Tayyab
Leen and Bassem were among the second, fourth, fifth, sixth and tenth graders with whom I spent several days at the Ramallah Friends School earlier this year, a 150-year-old Quaker independent school in Palestine. We discussed the occupation and what I do in Washington as a lobbyist for Middle East peace, and wrote songs about bullying, racism and the occupied Palestinian territory.
To say the students at the Ramallah Friends School have had to grow up too fast under the Israeli occupation is an understatement. During our time together, they described life under the restrictive system of checkpoints and other forms of control and repression. They shared that their families are often held for hours with no explanation at Israeli checkpoints throughout the West Bank and are subject to bullying and harassment by the Israeli Defense Forces. Because of the checkpoints, the students could often be late for school, or miss important holiday celebrations with family and friends in nearby cities like Jerusalem, just 12 miles away. A relatively short drive or bus ride in the West Bank can often turn into a day-long journey, if they are allowed to travel at all.
Students lamented the double standards they witnessed: Israeli settlers' cars fitted with yellow Israeli license plates are able to travel in and around the West Bank with ease, while Palestinian cars with white plates experience a completely different system of rules that includes far more scrutiny by Israeli authorities. They have also witnessed brutal violence against Palestinians and, despite those abuses, constant Israeli impunity.
To grasp the perspective of these students, it is helpful to understand their academic environment. The Ramallah Friends School is not just another school, but an institution woven into the history of Palestine. Founded when Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, in 1869, the school has survived two world wars, including when it was occupied by both Turkish and British soldiers during World War I. It operated under the British Mandate and, from 1948 to 1967, under Jordanian rule, until Israel's occupation. Since the Oslo Accords designated Ramallah, and other Palestinian cities, as "Area A," the Palestinian Authority controls most affairs in the city, although Israeli forces can still launch security raids. Throughout its long history, the school has also doubled as a medical facility and shelter for refugees, as well as a hub for lectures, community events, concerts and much more.
Today, the Ramallah Friends School serves over 1,500 students, and is the only school in Palestine offering a fully inclusive education to students of varying abilities, grounded in Quaker principles of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship. Even with restrictions under Israeli occupation, the school continues to provide a world-class education to their student body and remains in high demand.
My time there was a highlight of my trip to Palestine, but sentiments about the current political situation abounded. Teachers and staff repeatedly raised the new policies by the Israeli military government in the West Bank, known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, to limit and regulate international travel to and from the West Bank. The new restrictions on the entry and residence of foreigners, including those of Palestinian origin, complicates already confusing and rigorous travel restrictions imposed by Israel. New information that visitors must disclose to Israeli authorities include details about any land they might own or be in line to inherit in the West Bank.
COGAT will also more closely track and trace foreign nationals traveling in the West Bank, while imposing new caps on the number of foreign scholars and students who can teach and study in Palestinian schools and universities—with direct implications for the Ramallah Friends School, which hasn't been able to match its increased classroom sizes with faculty increases. COGAT could even prevent me from returning to the Ramallah Friends School in the future.
These new restrictions are another challenge for the Ramallah Friends School, on top of all the existing ones of the occupation, as it seeks to support its students and their families. Nevertheless, the school remains a veritable haven amid the dystopia of occupation. It is among the most elite schools in the Middle East, and has regularly produced heads of state, ambassadors and critical thinkers. Yet, if even the most privileged students in Palestine—tuition and fees for the Upper School starts at around 16,000 shekels (about $5,000)—are living with fear and suffering, one can imagine what those in other environments face.
If even the most privileged students in Palestine are living with fear and suffering, one can imagine what those in other environments face.
- Hassan El-Tayyab
I talked to the students about some of the work I have been doing on Yemen, including a six-year arc of advocacy to end U.S. military participation in the Saudi-led war and blockade, which has pushed millions to the edge of famine. The passage of the Yemen War Powers Resolution by Congress in 2019, and other legislation to end U.S. military support for the war, changed what was thought to be impossible in Congress. I told them how collective advocacy efforts across the U.S. mobilized hundreds of thousands of activists to win bipartisan majorities for the resolution in the House and Senate. I explained that despite then-President Donald Trump's veto of the resolution, these successful votes pushed the United Arab Emirates to draw down its military forces in Yemen, spurred a reduction in cross-border attacks, and helped revive negotiations between the warring parties.
This reflection prompted a lively brainstorming session among the students about possible solutions in Palestine. Congress has rarely forced votes on Israel and Palestine in support of accountability for Palestinian rights. I committed to the students that I would push for congressional votes that finally start to shine a light and chip away at the daily inhumanity Palestinians face.
On the last day of my trip, I awoke to the horrific news that acclaimed Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh—a dual Palestinian-American citizen—had been killed while reporting on an Israeli military raid in Jenin. After landing back in Washington, I watched news footage of her funeral in Jerusalem, where the pallbearers were beaten by Israeli police. Despite numerous media investigations, and the firsthand accounts of Palestinian witnesses, all indicating that Israeli soldiers fired the bullet that killed her, Israel has continued to deny responsibility.
A diverse chorus in Congress is calling for an independent investigation into her death. I'm currently working to support Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana and several other members of Congress to secure a vote on the Justice for Shireen Act, which, if passed, would force the State Department and the FBI to investigate who was responsible for Abu Akleh's murder and find out if U.S. weapons were used. This small action, no matter how long it takes, can be a significant tipping point in achieving accountability and progress for Palestinian rights.
In my time with the students in Ramallah, we also wrote songs. Their favorite had a refrain—"it takes all of us"—sung to the tune of Bill Withers' and Grover Washington, Jr.'s 1980s hit, "Just the two of us." The lyrics reflected their understanding of what is needed to achieve lasting, positive change in Palestine. The music brought a certain levity to my time in Ramallah, punctuated by the innocence and clarity of the students—an invaluable break, albeit temporary, from the omnipresent anxiety and heightened emotions surrounding the Israeli occupation. Mariam, a sixth-grader, shared that she wanted to make peace with Israel but was worried she might be bullied for her opinion. A few kids in the room snickered. One of her classmates raised her hand and assured her she would not bully her, despite disagreeing with her position.
Several people in Ramallah told me that violence toward those who speak out against corruption in the Palestinian Authority has had a chilling effect on free speech in the West Bank. Many Palestinians who hope for political change live in constant fear of retribution, with threats from both the Palestinian Authority and the Israel Defense Forces. A taxi driver in Ramallah compared living in the West Bank to being caught between a pair of scissors: the IDF and the Palestinian Authority. U.S. tax dollars, which go to both Israel's military and the Palestinian security forces, too often fuel human rights violations against Palestinians, sending a message of impunity to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Nevertheless, I wasn't surprised by the students' optimism and resilience, against all odds, as they developed the lyrics of that song: "It takes all of us." Embedded in their school's mission is "helping each person recognize their responsibility to society," right along with equality.