Arab students welcome return to school. Reopening of classrooms shows Israel is confident calm will prevail
Al-Amari, Israeli-occupied West Bank
At 7:30 yesterday morning, the principal of an elementary school in this refugee camp made the rounds of his classrooms with a simple message to the pupils: Keep the peace. The warning came at the start of the first day of school after a four-month closure of Palestinian educational institutions in the West Bank ordered by the Israeli military government.
The schoolchildren seemed pleased to be back in class after four months of enforced idleness.
What did they do during the long break? ``We were fighting the [Israeli] Army,'' said a girl at the Jelazoun refugee camp.
``Some kids went to work with their fathers. Others stayed at home,'' said a boy at the Kalandia refugee camp. ``I went to work at a supermarket.''
The closure had been ordered after protests erupted at several schools during the early weeks of the Palestinian intifadah (uprising) that began Dec. 9 in the occupied territories. More than 190 Arabs have been killed since the uprising started. An Israeli soldier and an Israeli settler have also been killed.
The military authorities had hoped to defuse major centers of tension by closing the schools. By allowing yesterday's reopening, the Army signaled it was confident that it had put a lid on the rioting.
However, the real test of whether the schools will remain calm will come in the next three weeks, when higher-grade schools reopen.
The opening of elementary schools and kindergartens was the first phase of a program to reopen gradually all schools in the West Bank. Junior high schools are to open next week, followed by high schools in the first week of June. Palestinian universities, traditionally a hotbed of anti-Israeli demonstrations, will remain closed.
If quiet is maintained, by the middle of next month 300,000 pupils will be back in class at 1,200 schools.
The reopening was welcomed by both pupils and Palestinian education administrators who had repeatedly protested the long shutdown. Leaflets distributed by the underground leadership of the uprising had charged that the closure was deliberately intended to keep Palestinians ignorant. They urged pupils and teachers to defy the closure order and go back to school.
There was also an informal network of alternative education. One boy said his father gave him lessons at home, and pupils from Al-Amari said makeshift classes had been held at the local mosque. The classes were attended by several dozen elementary school pupils, who studied Islamic religion, arithmetic, and science, the schoolchildren reported.
Both teachers and students spoke about education as a national goal. The headmistress of a girls' school in Jelazoun said her opening-day message to her pupils was: ``Your only weapon is education. Knowledge is better than ignorance, and your head is the best weapon you have.''
At the Kalandia camp, a boy walking home from school said: ``Of course I'm glad to be back. We have to study so we can liberate Palestine.''
The school year has been extended until August to make up time. Extra class hours have been added.
The return to the classroom has introduced an added element of normalcy to life in the West Bank, though it is still heavily disrupted by persistent commercial strikes and skirmishes between protesters and Israeli troops.
The entrance to the Al-Amari camp, which had been the site of daily clashes between Palestinian boys and Israeli soldiers, was deserted yesterday. The youngsters who for weeks had burned tires, pitched stones, and hurled stones from slingshots, were trooping off to school with bags over their shoulders. They sat at their desks, obediently listening to their teachers as if the uprising had never happened.
The weeks in which the boys had ruled the streets, confronting soldiers as their parents looked on, seemed forgotten for a moment. The teachers were in full command, and it seemed that the uprising, led by Palestinian youths, had done little to upset traditional patterns of authority.
``There is discipline here today, intifadah or no intifadah,'' one teacher said. ``They listen to us. Everything is under control.''
The school's headmaster, who like other Arab school officials had been sternly warned by the Army to keep his school calm, said: ``I went from class to class and told the pupils that we were here to teach them, and they were here to learn. I said: `Let us teach you in peace, and you don't make trouble.'''
The principal blamed the presence of troops near the school for much of the previous unrest and said that if the Army would stay away, there would be little incentive for pupils to throw stones.
The soldiers kept out of sight yesterday and classes ran smoothly.