Education Under Threat: Palestinian Refugee Children in Ein El-Hilweh Camp
Mariana Mayor Lima
Middle East and Human Rights Researcher
Global Human Rights Defence
In early September, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (“the UNRWA”) projected that 6,000 Palestinian children would be unable to attend school as the new academic year began due to clashes between rival factions in the Ein el-Hilweh camp, Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp.  However, by the end of the month, this estimate had risen to over 11,000 Palestinian refugee children.  These statistics underscore the severe educational crisis arising from the ongoing violence in the camp.
In recent months, the clashes between rival factions within Ein El-Hilweh, triggered by the murder attempt of an Islamist militant of the group al-Shabab al-Muslim, “Muslim Youth”, and the successive assassination of a commander from the Palestinian Fatah movement, Abu Ashraf al-Armoushi, have escalated, resulting in the displacement of thousands of refugees, numerous casualties, and significant disruptions to the daily lives of camp residents. One particularly concerning consequence of this conflict is the armed groups’ occupation of all eight UNRWA-run schools in the camp, as confirmed by the agency.  The utilisation in the form of military occupation of educational institutions by armed groups and factions such as Fatah, constitutes a serious violation of fundamental principles established in international humanitarian and human rights laws.
In addition to the immediate threat to the well-being and prospects of the entire community, the occupation of schools in this context jeopardises the right to life and physical safety of both students and educators. In terms of law, such actions violate the rights outlined in international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, which aim to mitigate the impact of armed conflicts primarily on civilians.  These actions also contradict provisions in human rights instruments such as article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’, and article 38 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ‘States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities’. 
Recent developments suggest an attempt at a ceasefire between armed factions and the evacuation of the eight schools. During negotiations, the “Palestinian Joint Security Forces”, a unit of different Palestinian factions responsible for maintaining order in the camp, were designated to protect the schools.  However, the effectiveness of this endeavour remains uncertain, as one faction, Fatah, still insists on the apprehension of those responsible for al-Armoushi's death, which appears unlikely.
The current situation highlights the urgency of protecting children and upholding their right to life and education. Aiming to guarantee safety within educational spaces, in June and May of 2015, Lebanon and Palestine, respectively, signed the “Safe Schools Declaration”, which states that any form of attack on educational institutions or the military utilisation of schools is unacceptable.  Moreover, the non-state parties to the conflict must show its support and commitment to the “Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use”, in which case, the declaration’s endorsement would extend to non-governmental entities.  Furthermore, Human Rights Watch underlines the crucial role of foreign governments in supporting the UNRWA and providing funds to maintain the essential school budget, which is in shortage. 
In this collective responsibility to safeguard civilians and ensure children’s access to education, all involved parties, as well as the international community, must act toward the effective implementation of the aforementioned laws and the commitment to upholding these declarations. The children of Ein El-Hilweh have the right to return to school safely, and there is an urgent need for a coordinated international response to make this a reality.
Sources and further readings:
 United Nations, ‘Lebanon: School occupations condemned as violence grips Palestine refugee camp’ (8 September 2023) <Lebanon: School occupations condemned as violence grips Palestine refugee camp | UN News> accessed 06 October 2023.
 UNRWA, ‘Lebanon: UNRWA Forced to Postpone Start of School Year in The South Due to Ein El Jilweh Events’ (27 September 2023), <Lebanon: UNRWA forced to postpone start of school year in the south due to Ein El Hilweh events> accessed 06 October 2023.
 UNRWA, ‘More UNRWA Schools Taken Over by Armed Groups in Southern Lebanon Refugee Camp’ (19 August 2023) <More UNRWA Schools Taken Over by Armed Groups in Southern Lebanon Refugee Camp> accessed 09 October 2023.
 International Committee of the Red Cross, ‘The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols’ (01 January 2014), <https://www.icrc.org/en/document/geneva-conventions-1949-additional-protocols> accessed 09 October 2023.
 United Nations, ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (10 December 1948), <https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights#:~:text=Article%203,liberty%20and%20security%20of%20person> accessed 09 October 2023.
 United Nations, ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’ (20 November 1989), <https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/convention-rights-child#:~:text=Article%2038,-1.&text=States%20Parties%20shall%20take%20all%20feasible%20measures%20to%20ensure%20that,a%20direct%20part%20in%20hostilities> accessed 09 October 2023.
 Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, ‘Safe Schools Declaration Endorsements’ (2023), <Safe Schools Declaration Endorsements> accessed 09 October 2023.
 Human Rights Watch, ‘Clashes in Lebanon Risk Disrupting Education for Thousands of Children’ (29 September 2023), <https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/09/30/clashes-lebanon-risk-disrupting-education-thousands-children> accessed 06 October 2023.