Despite Court Decision, Jerusalem Has Not Built 2,000 Classrooms for Arab Neighborhoods

In 2011, High Court gave state five years to answer the public school shortage in East Jerusalem, yet only 237 classrooms have been added since.

An elementary school in Abu Tor in Arab East Jerusalem. The balconies have been converted into classrooms.
Emil Salman

It is five years since the High Court of Justice gave the government and Jerusalem municipality five years to build the classrooms needed to cover the shortage in schools in East Jerusalem. In that time the authorities have failed to make progress and the classroom shortage is now greater than it was in 2011.

In 2011 the Supreme Court ruled on a petition filed by parents from East Jerusalem along with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel that the Jerusalem municipality and the Education Ministry must build enough classrooms so that every student who wanted to could transfer from private or other recognized non-state schools to a state school. Since then mayor Nir Barkat has announced on a number of occasions increased efforts to build new classrooms in the capital’s Arab neighborhoods, but the figures show these efforts have led to little change on the ground.

A report from the Ir Amim nonprofit organization states that since 2011, only 237 classrooms have been finished out of the 2,000 needed. Jerusalem municipality Director General Amnon Merhav told the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee that the city needs to build another 1,300 classrooms to enroll the students from the private and non-state schools, along with another 700 classrooms needed to replace schools now located in homes and rented buildings that are not appropriate to be used as schools.

The problem is not budgetary, says Ir Amim, contradicting what city hall says – the problem is discrimination in planning that has caused a shortage of land available for constructing public buildings in East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Even when such land is available, it has been allocated for other uses, says the organization. For example, available land for public buildings in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood was recently allocated by the Israel Lands Authority for a yeshiva, with the city’s support.

In a letter Merhav sent nine months ago to the director general of the Education Ministry, he gave a number of recommendations to solve the problem, including building high-rise schools and leasing private land for building schools. The Moriah Jerusalem Development Corporation, the city’s arm for infrastructure development, has established a special administration for solving the classroom shortage. This has led to the advancement of a project to build an educational complex in Jabal Mukkaber with a number of schools and preschools.

Over the last year the number of children in non-state schools has risen in East Jerusalem. Today, about 40 percent of these students study in the city’s school system, 40 percent in “recognized but unofficial” schools, and 20 percent in private schools. The city says a few thousand children are not registered in any school.

The court ruled that as of February 2017, parents of children from East Jerusalem who cannot find them a place in the municipal school system will be entitled to have the government pay for the tuition they pay to the private schools. But the authorities are expected to make things difficult for parents who request the money, says Ir Amim.

A month ago, the city’s parents organization, along with Jewish and Palestinian parents, filed a petition in court against the Education Ministry and municipality asking for the court to order the respondents to explain why the previous court decision has not been enacted. The petition states that in addition to the 2,000 missing classrooms in Arab neighborhoods, ultra-Orthodox schools have a shortage of another 1,600 classrooms throughout Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem municipality said it is making great efforts to reduce the shortage in classrooms that has been created over the past 50 years. “It is a national mission and not a task just for the city, and great improvement has been made during Barkat’s term,” said a municipal spokesperson.

“Jerusalem has a shortage of 3,800 classrooms for all students, while the government is responsible for budgeting the funds to build them. On average, the city receives funding for some 100 classrooms a year for the entire city.”