(New York) In response to reports that armed Israeli police are confiscating textbooks from Palestinian students in Jerusalem, PEN America said the following:

“The images of heavily armed Israeli police rifling through childrens’ school bags searching for any material pertaining to Palestinian identity portray a book banning nightmare, come to life. This  practice suggests Israeli authorities are targeting Palestinian students’ freedom to read, write, and learn. Palestinian students have already faced significant obstacles to access education under military occupation for decades. The Israeli government should immediately stop this cruel and malicious practice of book banning at gunpoint,” said Justin Shilad, research and advocacy lead for the Middle East and North Africa at PEN America.

Israeli police stationed at the entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound in Jerusalem have reportedly been searching the bags of students attending schools in the compound since the beginning of the school year, confiscating textbooks displaying the Palestinian flag and containing other “incendiary material.” Video footage published in a September 10 Haaretz report shows police officers pushing one of the students back while their bag is searched, while in another video a student walks away with his backpack still open after an Israeli police officer takes a book from it.

Schools in the Al-Aqsa compound are run by the Jerusalem Waqf, a Jordanian organization, and teach the Palestinian Authority’s curriculum, as do 80% of schools in occupied East Jerusalem. 

The Israeli police checkpoints to search for offending material parallel their broader push to outlaw and censor any display of Palestinian national identity, as well as efforts by the Israeli government to deny Palestinian students’ access to education. To the extent that the Israeli government is concerned about messages in schoolbooks that may contribute to a climate of violence, the intimidation of students and confiscation of these materials risks feeding into the very perceptions and frustrations that fuel conflict. 

In recent months, police have also reportedly been demanding that shopkeepers in Jerusalem’s old city not display clothing or trinkets that feature Palestinian flags, maps, imagery, or the phrase “Free Palestine,” and have also arrested protesters in Sheikh Jarrah for raising Palestinian flags. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has moved to bar funding to schools teaching Palestinian curriculum, as well as attempted to censor Palestinian curriculum being taught in Jerusalem schools to remove any mention Palestinian identity or rights. There have been efforts to prevent Palestinian students from accessing higher education preparatory programs, and to bar the Palestinian national flag from universities entirely.

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