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Palestinian schools hit hard by conflict

Older students in the West Bank headed back to school yesterday, to begin cleaning up battle damage.

With machine guns pointed at his back, Ramez Ansara was under orders to wait while Israeli soldiers kicked down the door of a kindergarten run by the Lutheran Church in Ramallah and marched him inside.

"I was the first one to be pushed in and they followed behind me. I was used as a human shield. It was like being part of a Hollywood movie or something," says Ansara, the church rector, trying to make light of a situation he says has left him shaken and angry.

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Ansara says soldiers returned three times to search the religious compound, which contains a school, a kindergarten and a church. They blasted open doors, defaced maps of the Middle East, left graffiti on the chalk boards, ransacked the library and administrative office, left half-eaten food strewn around and took three boxes of communion wine.

"I was surprised, shocked, in fact," says Ansara. "It is a complete mess and I don't have any idea why they have done it. There are no gunmen here. We wouldn't allow it. This is an educational and religious center, not a military base."

While the world evaluates the devastation inside the Jenin refugee camp, reports are also emerging of damage to the Palestinian civil society and economy. And although classes for grades 7-12 were set to resume in parts of the West Bank yesterday, students will, in many cases, be returning to damaged buildings. Though Israeli forces withdrew from Nablus and parts of Ramallah on Sunday, traversing war-torn West Bank territory still under partial occupation makes for a difficult trip to school.

Across the West Bank, educational and research facilities, cultural organizations, and media outlets, as well as Palestinian Authority ministries, have been targeted in what Israel says is a campaign to destroy an infrastructure of terror. Files and computers at the ministries of agriculture, industry, civil affairs, and finance have been seized. The Land Registry office, Central Bureau of Statistics, Palestinian Legislative Council, local government buildings, human rights organizations and medical institutions as well as private radio and television stations have also been ransacked and searched. Schools and universities have been taken over as military bases.

"The policy of the Israeli Defense Force right now is to seek out terrorists and their weapons. It's that simple," says IDF spokesman Capt. Joel Leyden. "Palestinians have set up their structure of terror to use civilians and civilian facilities as shields. A perfect example is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem."

But Palestinian community leaders say the strategy for rooting out militants has also severely undermined progress since the 1993 Oslo accords in building a civil society that would be essential for creating a viable Palestinian state.

The disruption to education, in its fourth week, is something that will be felt acutely by Palestinans, says Carmela Armanios, vice president for administrative and financial affairs at Ramallah's Birzeit University.

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More than 60 percent of Palestinians are under 18, and 35 percent of the population, about 1 million people, are students.

"We can't make up for the days that have been lost, and many projects in community health, media, women's studies, and continuing education have already been cancelled," Ms. Armanios says. "It's difficult to know when we can proceed. Our students come from all over the West Bank, but even after an IDF withdrawal, Palestinian towns will be ringed by Israeli military. We doubt if many students will be able to attend classes. At the same time we have a liability to continue paying teachers' salaries, and if students drop out we will face financial pressures."

Primary and secondary education has also been affected. Naim Abu Hommos, acting education minister for the Palestinian Authority, says 166 schools have been taken over, 47 damaged and 11 destroyed.

The ministries of education and higher education have been extensively searched. Computer hard drives and files were taken and offices damaged. "All the information we have gathered since 1994 is gone," Mr. Abu Hommos says. "The injured body of our ministries remain but the brain is gone."

Damage to the education system will make an impact on children for years to come, say observers. Armanios warns without education Palestinian youths risk being further radicalized. "The aggression of the Israelis will make it very difficult to convince students that democratic values and freedom of expression can get us somewhere," she says. "All they see is that these principles have not achieved anything."

Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem, agrees. "In the long term we will be dealing not only with traumatized children, but children who have missed education that can help them to learn that violence is not the best weapon against occupation."