Gaza Strip and West Bank

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Gaza Strip and West Bank

Basic Data
Official Country Name:Gaza Strip and West Bank
Region:Middle East
Population:1,132,063(GS); 2,020,298(WB)
Language(s):Arabic, Hebrew, English
Literacy Rate:NA

History & Background

The West Bank and Gaza Strip lie on the western edge of Asia; both are territories of Israel. The West Bank is 130 kilometers long and ranges from 40 to 65 kilometers in width, and the Gaza Strip is 45 kilometers long and ranges from 5 to 12 kilometers in width. In 1997 the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was 1,873,476 and 1,022,207, respectively.

About 50 percent of Palestinians in both areas are under 15 years of age, and this percentage is likely to increase; the fertility rates in both are among the highest in the world. Projections of population growth suggest that there will be over 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the year 2010, over 5 million in 2015, and over 7 million in 2025, presenting a significant challenge to the maintenance of a high quality educational system. Palestinians value education highly: literacy rates for males and females (approximately 92 percent and 77 percent respectively) are among the highest in the Arab world.

Education in these Palestinian territories during the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. There were two kinds of schools for Arabs: government and private. The private schools were Christian or Moslem institutions that had been established by missionaries or landowners. By 1917, the end of the Ottoman Era, there were 379 private schools and 95 government schools.

Between the end of the Ottoman Era and the founding of Israel in 1948, education in Palestine was controlled by Great Britain. The demand for education grew in both urban and rural areas, and by 1946 there was a total of 795 schools available to Arabs in Palestine (with 118,335 Arab students), of which 478 were government schools, 134 were private Moslem schools, and 183 were private Christian schools.

Following the 1948 war, Jordan assumed responsibility for education in the West Bank and Egypt for the Gaza Strip for children who didn't reside in refugee camps. Both created a government school system with elementary (grades 1-6), preparatory (grades 7-9), and secondary (grades 10-12) levels. Both governments instituted a matriculation examination at the end of the twelfth grade, commonly known as the Tawjihi, which was used to assess applicants for postsecondary education. The majority of the children of registered Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who resided in refugee camps received their first six to nine years of education at schools maintained by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the rest in government schools. There continued during this period to be private Moslem and Christian schools in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The basics of the Egyptian-Jordanian curriculum for the government schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip remained intact after Israel occupied both in 1967. The Israeli occupation authorities (first military, then civil administration within the Ministry of Defense) took over the functions of the education ministries of Egypt and Jordan. They exercised control over curricula in the UNRWA and private schools as well as the government ones and, according to the Palestinian National Authority, attempted to suppress the teaching of Palestinian culture and history. The attempt to do so was at least partially successful: a group of 33 Palestinian students from the Gaza Strip taught by the author in 1994 had received almost no information about the history of the Gaza Strip during their previous education.

Educational SystemOverview

The Ministry of Education of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) assumed responsibility for the education of the Palestinian populations of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in October 1994. Because the educational systems in both of these territories had been controlled by a foreign power for hundreds of years, this was the Palestinians first real opportunity to define and control their educational system. According to the PNA, the system was in poor condition in almost every possible way when they assumed control.

There are three supervisory authorities for the schools in the Palestinian territories: the government (PNA), UNRWA, and the private sector. The total number of schools in 1995-1996 was 1,474. Of these, 1,074 were government schools, 253 were UNRWA schools, and 147 were private schools. Total enrollment was 661,610 students, with the government schools enrolling approximately two-thirds of them. This number, however, does not include all Palestinians who are in school. Many families from the West Bank and Gaza Strip send their children elsewhere for at least part of their education. The number of teachers was 24,342, of which approximately 60 percent were in government schools. Finally, there were 17,962 classrooms, yielding an average class size of approximately 37 students.

The educational system in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has five cycles. The first is preprimary (kindergarten) education for four and five year olds, which lasts for two years. It is provided by local or international nongovernment agencies and organizations (NGOs). The second, or basic, cycle consists of 10 years of education for 6 to 15 year olds. The third, or secondary, cycle lasts for 2 years and caters to 16 and 17 year olds. The fourth, or postsecondary, cycle consists of two years in a technical or vocational college. And the fifth, or higher education, cycle consists of four or more years of schooling.

Primary & Secondary Education

The 10-year basic education cycle is compulsory and free of charge in government and UNRWA schools. UNRWA schools cover only nine grades, so students from these schools transfer to government or private schools to complete their education. Students who successfully complete the 10-year basic education cycle are promoted to a 2-year secondary cycle.

There are two types of secondary schools: academic and vocational. Each is two years in duration. The academic secondary school program is divided into two streams: scientific and literary. The vocational secondary school program is divided into four streams: commerce, industrial, agriculture, and nursing. At the end of this cycle, students take the General Secondary School Examination (Tawjihi ). Their performance on this examination affects their likelihood of being admitted to a college or university in these Palestinian territories or elsewhere in the Arab world.

Higher Education

There are 16 community colleges in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 5 of which are government sponsored. Study duration is two years after the Tawhiji examinations, leading to a diploma. They are one of three types: technical community colleges that prepare technicians, academic community colleges that prepare teachers, or hybrid community colleges that prepare both technicians and teachers. The total number of community college students in 1999-2000 was 5,286, distributed among 44 disciplines.

The higher education sector consists of 10 universities and a polytech. The universities, as a group, contain the following faculties: arts, sciences, commerce and economics, engineering, agriculture, law, pharmacy, medicine, medical professions, nursing, education, and hotel management. All were established during the 1970s or later. Their total enrollment for 1999-2000 was about 60,000 students, all but about 2,400 of which were under-graduates.

Two universities are located in the Gaza Strip: Al-Azhar University and Islamic University. The remaining eight are in the West Bank: An-Najah University, Birzeit University, Bethlehem University, Hebron University, Arab-American University, Jerusalem School for Economy and Diplomacy, Al-Quds University, and Al-Quads Open University. The polytech is in Hebron on the West Bank. The offerings of these universities are supplemented occasionally by those of foreign schools. Marquette University (United States) and the University of Calgary (Canada), for example, have conducted degree programs in the Gaza Strip in several rehabilitation and special education fields for which local training was unavailable.


Palestinians have traditionally had a reputation for maintaining a high-quality educational system. According to the PNA, the system deteriorated significantly after 1967 for a number of reasons, including frequent school closures, curfews, and other restrictions resulting from the Intifada (civil uprising); a lack of financial resources for the maintenance and construction of school buildings; and insufficient preservice and in-service training for teachers. Spokespersons for the PNA's Ministry of Education have stated that they hope to restore the educational system to at least its previous level as quickly as available funding permits. The pace of such restoration is likely to be affected both by their ability to get grant funding from international governmental and private entities (e.g., NGOs) and by the Arab-Israeli peace process.


Palestinian National Authority. Education in Palestine, December 2000. Available from

Franklin H. Silverman