Palestinian-Arab students in the Israeli Periphery Following the COVID-19 Crisis

Tal Meler, Zefat Academic College


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the health, work, family life and learning of students worldwide. Due to concerns regarding the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic, the Israeli higher education system, similar to other countries, was obliged during 2020 to initiate ‘remote learning’ in higher education institutions. This directive was designed for the heterogeneous public of students from various ethno-national-class-occupational and gender positions in various life stages, family situations and heterogeneous home spaces. Since then, over the last two years the studies have been delivered through offline courses (e.g. face to face lectures, seminars, labs, tests, etc.) and from time to time return to a synchronous format.

In this paper, I would like to analyze the subjective experience of ‘remote learning’ among Palestinian-Arab FGS attending colleges in the Israeli north periphery, and to analyze their accessibility to such ‘remote learning.’ This impact adds additional difficulties to barriers for minority and ‘first generation students’ (FGS)[1] paths into higher education.

Israel is a diverse society, with the periphery’s districts areas of especially highly diverse ethno-national composition.[2] The population in the periphery are characterized by pre-academic achievements (matriculation and psychometric scores) and socio-economic status that are lower than those in the center of Israel.[3] Until a few decades ago, these populations were largely excluded from integration into the higher education system. However, since the 1990’s, the higher education system in Israel has been extended to these peripheral areas, resulting in improved accessibility for these previously excluded populations. Based on this policy, for over three decades, national resources have been directed to colleges in Israel’s periphery. Most of them are autonomous public colleges that function as multicultural campuses, characterized by a highly diverse population religiously and ethno-nationally.[4] Even though higher education has experienced significant expansion and diversification, there are still gaps in access to the higher education system in Israel between different social groups, and inequality is maintained on the basis of ethnicity and status.

This paper focuses on Palestinian-Arab FGS students in Israel.[5] Since the 1970s, the Palestinian-Arab minority has enjoyed markedly increased accessibility to higher education. The increase in academic education is particularly evident among Palestinian-Arab women,[6] due to an increase in matriculation eligibility rates among Palestinian-Arab girls and the establishment of regional colleges (in the 1990s). As students, Palestinian-Arab face significant barriers to their integration into academia compared to Jewish students. However, I would like to focus on their experience as students in mixed institutions. Due to their exposure to ethnic, national and gender mingling in the campus they have to deal with integration problems into the Israeli ethos. The need to bridge the social norm gaps between cultures and societies may cause cultural shock, especially to female students who compared to men are even less exposed to Jewish culture before entering a campus, including a mixed (gender and ethnic) environment, language and teaching methods. Furthermore, some have never left their village, known what city life is like, or met the Jewish population.[7]

While discussing the Palestinian-Arab student’s situation during the pandemic, 4 points that are crucial to understand their situation should be emphasized. The first one is the digital gap. A recent report prior to the pandemic outbreak pointed to a digital gap between Jewish and Palestinian-Arab society in Israel, even among the young population.[8] The digital gap is expressed in the availability and quality of accessibility to digital means and the internet, awareness of the possibilities of using the internet, and the skills that enable optimal use of the Internet. The sources of digital gap are usually low investment in infrastructure on the part of the State, local authorities, and business entities; lack of economic resources; low level of education and skills; limited job opportunities and conservative social perceptions.

The second point relates to barriers in the labor market. The labor market in Israel has a segmented nature, where employment in the periphery perpetuates Palestinian-Arab marginality.[9] Many Palestinian-Arab workers are employed in low-income jobs due to low skills and are employed in low-quality employment with limited options for social mobility. The third factor concerns the housing density and the average number of rooms per person in Palestinian-Arab households in Israel that is higher than that of Jewish households.[10] This situation stems from the severe housing shortage due to natural increase along with a national policy of restricting and developing settlements and reducing the land reserves of Arab communities.[11] The last one relates to the dropout rates from college. In general, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics data, the dropout rate in Israel for Palestinian-Arab students is 26%, which is significantly higher than the percentage for Jews (16%).[12]

Methods: Data were collected from students studying for a bachelor’s degree in two colleges in the periphery in Israel. These colleges are autonomous multicultural institutions, characterized by a highly diverse population in terms of religion and ethnicity (Christians, Druze, Jews: secular and ultra-orthodox and Muslims). The sample included 657 participants.

Table 1: Demographic and background characteristics of the study sample


Variable Entire sample Jews Arabs
Sex, n (%)
Male 160 (24%) 91 (27%) 69 (21%)
Female 497 (75%) 250 (73%) 247 (79%)
Age (years)
Mean 28.01 31.51 24.20
Religion, n (%)
Jewish 341 (52%) 341 (100%) 0 (0%)
Muslim 183 (28%) 0 (0%) 183 (60%)
Christian 40 (6%) 0 (0%) 40 (13%)
Druze 81 (12%) 0 (0%) 81 (27%)
Other 12 (1%) 0 (0%) 12 (0%)
Marital status, n (%)
Single 289 (44%) 83 (24%) 206 (65%)
Steady relationship 355 (54%) 249 (73%) 106 (33%)
It’s complicated 13 (2%) 9 (3%) 4 (2%)
Country of birth, n (%)
Israel 584 (89%) 288 (84%) 296(93%)
Other 36 (5%) 29 (9%) 7 (2%)
Missing 37 (6%) 24 (7%) 13 (4%)
Parents’ country of birth, n (%)
Both were born in Israel 435 (66%) 152 (45%) 283 (89%)
One was born in Israel 77 (12%) 69 (20%) 8 (2%)
Both were born not in Israel 105 (16%) 94 (28%) 11 (3%)
I don’t know 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
Missing 40 (6%) 26 (8%) 14 (4%)
Education-Mother, n (%)
Primary 59 (9%) 15 (4%) 44 (15%)
Secondary 332 (51%) 166 (49%) 166 (52%)
Tertiary 168 (26%) 102 (30%) 66 (21%)
I don’t know 22 (3%) 10 (3%) 12 (4%)
Missing 76 (11%) 48 (14%) 28 (9%)
Education-Father, n (%)
Primary 69 (11%) 28 (8%) 41 (13%)
Secondary 329 (50%) 155 (46%) 174 (55%)
Tertiary 162 (24%) 98 (29%) 64 (20%)
I don’t know 19 (3%) 12 (4%) 9 (3%)
Missing 78 (12%) 48 (14%) 28 (9%)


In addition, I conducted a qualitative study in three samples.[13] The students (n=150) who participated in these studies are from an ethnically mixed public college located in the periphery of Israel. In one of the courses, they were asked to write an analysis report on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on different populations. In the last part of the report, they were also asked to write a short freestyle section on their experiences during the transition to remote learning, focusing on gender and national aspects. Data from the students’ responses to open-ended questions in an online questionnaire were used to examine Palestinian-Arab students’ experience. Methodologically, this can be defined as ‘experience questions’ asking participants to describe subjective experiences they had in a particular framework.[14] A specific focus was on the changes due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the measures that were implemented by the college institutions as a result of the pandemic.

Social distancing policy creates an opportunity to examine the issue of family relationships. Little attention has been directed up to now onto those who depend on their families and whose families depend on them in understanding students’ experiences. Obviously, the COVID-19 crisis presented a challenge for students who have to routinely maintain their employment, struggling to both cover living expenses and pay higher education loans. My objective was to compare the ways in which negotiating support interacts with student reflexive processes while considering higher education requirements against family obligations.

Findings: The issue of digital gaps arose in almost every interview and can be a basic component that explains the distance learning experience among Palestinian-Arab students. Almost all of them had to deal with lack of access to equipment and unsuitable network connections. This is what Bayan described:

“My room did not have internet so I would occasionally go either into the living room or another room … The router connection didn’t reach my room, so I could only study at night when everyone was asleep and when no one else was surfing the internet….”(21, single, Druze FGS, not working).

Similarly, Rasha described:

“In our village there are sometimes unexpected power outages that affect internet reception, and during the rainy season, when there was heavy rain and thunderstorms, I would not go to lectures. I remember that I once had an exam and it was in the winter, it started to rain and the internet disconnected in the middle of the exam … ” (20, single, Muslim, FGS, not working)

There were also important changes in the labor market. Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, there has been an almost daily increase in the number of job seekers registering with the Employment Service. The number of job seekers has exceeded one million people and on April 21, 2020, accounted for more than 27% of the labor force. Most new job seekers registered due to being placed on involuntary unpaid leave. Furthermore, due to various legislative circumstances, many of them realized that they were not eligible for unemployment benefits, or that the unemployment benefits received were insufficient for subsistence.[15] These general data on the exacerbation of the barriers in the labor market are relevant to understanding the impact on students who had to engage financially and integrate into the labor market to provide assistance to their families. Before and after COVID-19 Palestinian-Arab female students were the group that worked the most hours for the least pay compared to Jewish women or Palestinian-Arab men.

Another major difference between Jewish and Palestinian-Arab students is the availability of personal space for studying, which is a significant factor in the context of remote learning and may affect the quality of learning.[16] This is how Lubna described her experience:

“Before COVID-19 I used to study in the evening in the living room quietly without any noise around but during COVID-19 I had to study with everyone around me and a lot of noise and also I had to listen to lessons while looking after my children. …. Since C-19 I feel that I have no privacy, I have no room of my own where I can sit quietly and study …. and I have to move to a different room to study because of the kids … ” (33, married +3, Muslim, FGS, not working).

And Asraa described the lack of proper study space:

“From the start of remote learning I studied at home in the kitchen, in the living room, wherever I happened to be… before I lived in an apartment and I’m now living in my parents’ house where my siblings and neighbors are always around and there is lot of noise ….” (21, Muslim single woman, FGS)

In order to create, claims Woolf (1929) ,[17] a woman needs ‘a room of her own’ – a private space to allow her to disconnect from the world, and a fixed income to allow her freedom of action. Especially for female students these conditions were not met due to returning home and social distancing. Family claims on them increased greatly during the COVID-19 period. When required to remain in the family space, they were asked more than usual to engage helping out (housework, cooking and childcare, whether the children were siblings or the student’s or of other family members). And later in the interview, Asraa, described:

“… I deal with the laundry. Sometimes I help my mother at work, a regular cleaner Previously I did not live at home and I did not help my mother with the cleaning, I just studied and did nothing else. Before Covid-19, we spent most of the time in our apartment and at the weekend my sister and I would go home … making excuses not to help ‘we are tired from the trip’ and not helping … but now yes … ”

As Asraa described, many of these female students were asked to support their family due the crisis either financially or by in-kind contribution (e.g. childcare or housework). This expectation explains the deterioration of personal study time for many of them – a learning practice that is essential in the format of remote learning imposed during COVID-19 (that resonates from the data). From the findings, it emerges that social gaps intensified, and the COVID-19 crisis may have accelerated the dropout rates. This acceleration reflects students’ differential ability to engage in home-based remote learning polarizing digital inequalities and the need for students to dedicate themselves to family commitments of care and paid work. It may assume that different levels of barriers and support interact with Palestinian-Arab students and in particular FGS reflexive processes while considering higher education requirements and family obligations.

Conclusion: The research data support the original hypothesis of this study: Palestinian-Arab FGS who live in the geographical and social periphery in the north of Israel who were forced to engage in remote learning due to the COVID-19 crisis reported difficulties, and their coping was complex. However, my findings provide a better understanding of the challenges that FGS who are members of minority groups faced in the transition to remote learning focusing on family relationships.

Unlike previous studies which focused on the differential ability of Palestinian-Arab students in Israel to engage in home-based remote learning due to digital inequalities,[18]  my findings suggest that during the COVID-19 crisis, many FGS did not have permanent and convenient residences other than their family homes. Furthermore, these findings have special significance when presenting a gender analysis. Returning home from a gender perspective creates a prism for examining additional dimensions concerning female students in gender-ethno-national intersection. Due to the pandemic, they were forced to face many obstacles that impaired their ability to successfully perform learning tasks. Additionally, they experienced financial hardships, including the requirement to pay tuition fees at a time when many of them had either lost their salaried-jobs or reduced their working hours, causing them concern over lack of financial stability. These data indicate the dependence on the family context during the COVID-19 crisis among FGS. Many of them support their family either financially or as daughters or mothers by in-kind contribution (e.g. childcare or housework). This expectation explains the impairment in the personal study time of many of them – a learning practice that is essential in the format of remote learning imposed during COVID-19.

Scholars who studied dropout rates before the COVID-19 pandemic devoted minimal attention to diverse patterns of family life, shaping the student’s family relationships and support, despite reports showing that 41% of dropouts are attributed to family obligations.[19] Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis, many students were sent back from the college environment to their parental residence. They were exposed to their family relationships, a crucial change affecting their ability to cope with remote learning. This process created a dual analytical opportunity. The emerging conditions are conducive to the further understanding of the intersection of family relationships and belonging to a minority community in accounting for students’ higher education dropout or at least dealing with an array of difficulties. This intersection has received minimal attention so far despite its broad potential implications. Moreover, locating this intersection within the web of institutional sources of support, would allow for a theoretical elaboration of theories, which see family context as crucial to educational failure.

My findings shed light on the importance of using the FGS variable as well as its analysis from ethno-national and gender positions. In general, according to Dayan and Ben-Shushan-Gazit[20] (2021) working class parents without any academic education do not have any sort of ‘cultural capital,’ a resource that is crucial in an emergency situation when colleges require their students to adapt and prepare themselves immediately for remote learning.

Furthermore, my findings also highlighted the processes that distinctly undermine the possibilities of female students from a minority group for remote learning while understanding the family and social context. These circumstances shed light on the difficulty for Palestinian-Arab students, especially female students, to succeed in their studies and remain in the framework despite the epidemic while maintaining the policy of social distancing. This policy that has been pursued in other countries and its implications for women are also evident in the study of Youssef and Yerkes[21] (2022) on domestic violence in Tunisia strengthens the understanding that the home is not always the safest space for women. In addition to my findings and those of Youssef and Yerkes (2022) the need to highlight a gender perspective also emerged in Youakim and Abdullah’s[22] study, (2022) who adopted a feminist view to investigate how women experience work and life in the midst of the pandemic and the ‘new normal.’ Implementing gendered thinking would be a first step in improving the effectiveness of the public policy.[23]

Drawing on my findings the importance of the study is in developing a policy intervention in some directions, firstly in underlining the salience of students’ accommodation during times of crisis, preparing for the possibility that returning home is detrimental to continuing study; secondly in reinforcing helplines for students’ emotional support focusing on the possibility of coercive family relations; and lastly in incorporating insights of remote learning by combining both synchronic and a-synchronic classes to accommodate the need for flexible hours in coordinating multiple remote learning tasks in the same household for students in different family situations.




[1]  The term FGS was defined as a social category in the 1960s in the U.S.A., to describe the demographic stratum of the first member of their family to acquire higher education. For a detailed discussion, see Patrick T. TerenziniLeonard Springer, Patricia M. YaegerErnest T. Pascarella and Amaury Nora . “First generation college students: Characteristics, experiences, and cognitive development.” Research in Higher education 37, no. 1 (1996): 1-22.

[2]  Sammy Smooha, “The Jewish ethnic divide and ethnic politics in Israel,” in Oxford Handbook of Israeli Politics and Society, ed. Reuven Y. Hazan, Alan Dowty, Menachem Hofnung, and Gideon Rahat. (Oxford Handbooks Online, 2019), 1-33.

[3]  Lilach Lev-Ari, and Shlomo Getz, “Peripheriality and higher educational choices among    undergraduate students,” Israeli Sociology 15, no. 2 (2014):360-388.

[4] Najeeb Amariya, and Ze’ev Krill,”Barriers to Arab Integration into Israeli Higher Education,” Ministry of Finance. (2019). [Hebrew]

[5] Palestinian-Arabs constitute a national minority in Israel (21.1% of the general population in Israel, for the data see Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, “Population of Israel on the Eve of 2022,” (2022).  [Hebrew].). Palestinian-Arabs in Israel suffer from discrimination and oppression by Jewish Israeli society and are deeply divided from it. See Yair Bauml, “61 years of supervised abandonment: Decoding Israeli governmental policy toward Arab citizens”. in Abandoning State Supervising State: Social Policy in Israel, 1985–2008, eds. Hanna Katz, and Erez Tzfadia (Tel-Aviv: Resling, 2010), 35-54. [Hebrew].

[6] The number of Palestinian-Arab undergraduates in 2019 was 18.1% (more then 50,000). Twenty-three percent of them attend public colleges. The increase in academic education is particularly evident among Palestinian-Arab women, constituting about 68.9% percent of Palestinian-Arab students in Israel, for the data see Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, “Higher education 2016-2017”, 2019.  [Hebrew].

[7] Ariella Friedman, Dialogue on campus: Jews and Arabs sharing a common space (Tel-Aviv: Hakibutz Hameuchad, 2018). [Hebrew].

[8] Asmaa N. Ganaim, “The internet in Arab society in Israel: Initial snapshot and policy recommendations,” Israeli Internet Association. (2018).    [Hebrew]

[9]  Nabil Khattab and Sami Miaari, (eds.), Palestinians in the Israeli labor market: A multi-disciplinary approach. (Springer, 2013).

[10] For the data see Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. “Households: Economic characteristics and housing density, based on labor force surveys 2018”. (2020). [Hebrew].

[11] Bauml, Supervised Abandonment, 35.

[12]  For the data see Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, “Higher education 2016-2017,” (2019).  [Hebrew].

[13] The data were collected in March-April, 2020, May, 2020 and December, 2020.

[14] Aasher Shkedi, Words of meaning qualitative research – Theory and practice (Tel-   Aviv: Ramot, 2003). [Hebrew].

[15] Bank of Israel, 2020 Bank of Israel Research Department analysis, “The Unemployment Rate and Its Definition During the Corona Period,” (2020)

[16] Tal Meler, “‘A room of one’s own’: Remote learning among Palestinian-

Arab female students in the Israeli periphery following the COVID-19 crisis,” Gender and Education, (2021). DOI: 10.1080/09540253.2021.1924361

[17] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Hogarth Press, 1929).

[18] Hama Abu-Kishk, and Jonatan Mendles, “Trying to connect: Digital divide and distance learning among Bedouin students during the COVID-19 crisis,” (Mofet and Sapir College, 2020). [Hebrew]; Sarab Abu-Rabia, and Yossi Dahan, “Startup nation? Hundreds of thousand students are excluded from online education,” (2020). [Hebrew]

[19] Value colleges, (2020).

[20] Hila Dayan, and Efrat Ben-Shushan-Gazit, First generation”. Mafte’akh 16, (2021): 3-27. [Hebrew].

[21] Maro Youssef, and Sarah Yerkes, “COVID-19 and democratic transitions: Pandemic response and impact on civil society in Tunisia,” POMEPS Series: COVID-19 in the MENA: 2 Years Later. (2022).

[22] Claudia. E Youakim, and Crystel Abdullah, “COVID-19 in the MENA: An exploration of gender sensitive responses.,” POMEPS Series: COVID-19 in the MENA: 2 Years Later. (2022).

[23] Mary Daly, “Gender mainstreaming in theory and practice,” Social Politics 12, no. 3, (2005): 433-450; Sylvia Walby, “Gender mainstreaming productive tensions in theory and practice,” Social Politics 12, no. 3, (2005): 321-343.