Thousands of children in Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods were kept out of classrooms on the first day of school Tuesday because of Israeli government neglect, activists and human rights groups said.
The Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem lack more than 1,000 classrooms needed to accommodate schoolchildren, according to the report issued by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Ir Amim, an Israeli nonprofit that promotes coexistence in the city.
The report estimates that more than 5,000 would-be students in east Jerusalem were not enrolled in any school.
"There has been a huge increase in the population in east Jerusalem, and that has not been followed by a huge increase in classroom construction," said Sarah Kreimer, associate director of Ir Amim.
The Jerusalem municipality rejected the report, saying the numbers were "distorted."
Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it, a move that has not been recognized by the international community. Palestinians want east Jerusalem for the capital of a future state.
Israel sees the whole city as its capital but allows significant gaps in municipal services, building permits and public funding between the relatively prosperous Jewish west and the poorer Arab neighborhoods of the east. Jerusalem's Arabs — roughly a third of the city's population of 750,000 — also largely boycott municipal elections to avoid recognizing Israeli control, a move that means forfeiting any clout they could wield at City Hall.
Of the nearly 90,000 children between 5 and 18 years old living in east Jerusalem, fewer than half were enrolled in municipal public schools last year, the report said.
Students who don't make it into public school because of the classroom shortage are forced to consider private schools, often at a steep cost, Kreimer said. Some families get priced out, and many students end up at home.
The report also said many existing classrooms were "small, crowded, unventilated and lacking support classes or playgrounds."
Fares Kales, a father of five who heads the parent-teacher association in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, called the lack of classrooms "a policy to discriminate."
Kales said 50 children who were supposed to start first grade Tuesday at one Silwan elementary school were not enrolled because of a lack of space.
"In west Jerusalem, you won't see a parent walking around for five hours looking for a place for his child's mandatory education and can't find a seat in a classroom," he said.
The municipality challenged the numbers in the report and said it had a "multiyear plan" for the construction of new schools. In the last two years alone, the statement said, the city built new schools with 200 classrooms for Arab schoolchildren.
"In wake of this great effort, the gaps in the education system in all parts of Jerusalem have been growing smaller recently, in contrast with what is presented in the distorted report," the statement said.
The report notes that the city is working toward acquiring 25 lots for construction to build 650 new classrooms, but calls that effort "too little, too late."
Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said Israel's unequal policies in Jerusalem are part of a battle for supremacy over the city.
"Israel is not interested in allocating the budget to Palestinian Arabs that Israel sees as a demographic threat to the Jewishness of the city," Klein said.