Palestinians defy curfew to attend classes
Three weeks into school year, Israel keeps West Bank closed for security.
NABLUS, WEST BANK
Najjah Dweikat is giving a physics lesson, explaining different ways a body can move from one point to another.
It's an ironic topic for the Palestinian students here, whose own movements have been severely restricted by an Israeli curfew on the West Bank in effect since June 20.
The clampdown, part of Israel's response to the Palestinian intifada, has led to a boom in makeshift schools, hastily set up in Palestinian neighborhoods so that teachers and students do not have to travel by car or bus to attend. Anything can become a classroom: an empty wedding hall, a living room, a shaded alleyway. Seating is so scarce that pupils often tote cheap white garden chairs to class.
For Palestinians, the schools are an attempt to regain some measure of life as normal and not let their children fall too far behind in their studies. To the Israeli army, which views this city as a place that has churned out more than its share of suicide bombers, the secret schools violate the curfew but might go overlooked by authorities thorities if they only cause a few youngsters to hurry furtively down local streets.
Yesterday, after six weeks without a suicide bombing, a man blew himself up at a bus stop in northern Israel, killing himself and an Israeli policeman and wounding an officer and a bystander. The new violence came a day after Israel rejected a Palestinian offer to halt attacks on civilians in Israel, as the initial stage of a gradual truce. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that no progress could be made without "total cessation of violence and terror."
The curfew on the West Bank has meant that, three weeks into the school year, Mrs. Dweikat still is unable to leave Nablus to reach the school where she normally teaches, in a town about 40 minutes away. Instead, she volunteers her services at the makeshift school in her neighborhood, held at the Balata mosque.
In one room, 35 teenage girls are crammed into a space that would be comfortable for 15. The lucky sit on plastic chairs and use their laps for desks, while latecomers stand against the wall.
"Most students have no books," says Mrs. Dweikat. "I have no educational materials. This is a mosque, not a school," she says, pointing to the only books available here: a pile of Korans, kept for boys who would normally come here for after-school religious studies. Now, local girls sneak here to study, while boys head to another nearby mosque.
People here count 87 days of being under curfew, excepting a few hours every few days for people to stock up on food or run an important errand. Some travel on foot is overlooked, but most travel by car or bus the way most Palestinians get to school or work does not.
While a few schools are actually closed by the Israeli army or too damaged from Israeli shelling to be used, most Palestinian schools here are closed as a side-effect of the curfew: Teachers and students are officially not allowed out, and can't travel far enough to make it to their normal classes.
Theoretically, school attendance is not allowed, says an Israeli army spokesman. "But of course the army has no problem that a few children are sneaking to a class at someone's house to be taught, which doesn't show any danger to anyone." However, when Palestinians attempted to hold classes at a real school here on Tuesday, at the Askar refugee camp, the Israeli army dispersed them with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets; three Palestinians were injured.
"What they did was illegal because there was no permission to open that school on that day," the spokesman says. "When the curfew is imposed, you cannot go out of the house."
But several of the more daring do. Rose Samir, 16, says that when she was on her way to the Balata mosque school with three friends on Tuesday, they saw a tank and quickly slipped between two houses. "We waited until the tank moved away and then we came here," she says. Most students, she says, are not in class, and it took some persuasion before her worried parents let her come. "My mother reads the Koran before I leave the house." Most of the girls here are dressed in long, loose coats and white headscarves, but the adhoc curriculum does not seem to be infused with any particularly religious or political ideology: In other rooms of the Balata mosque, girls learn accounting and Arabic.
But at least some of the organizers of the "popular schools" seem likely to use their success in defying the curfew as a way to build up their political credentials. Abdel Sattar Kassem, a professor at an-Najjah University here, says he has established 10 unofficial schools here and that he is planning to challenge Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in elections slated for January.
Other organizers simply wanted to get their children to class. Sami Aziz, an unemployed taxi driver, says he started organizing an underground school in his neighborhood two weeks ago because he saw his own children's behavior deteriorating after a long, stifling summer and no start to the school year. "The children are nervous," Aziz says of his three, aged 8, 9, and 11. "They feel they are in a prison. They're just beating each other up because they have nothing to do."
Hussam Khader, a Nablus member of the Palestinian legislative council, says make-do education first surfaced during the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, from 1987 to 1993. But it has become more widespread now, he says, because the curfews particularly in Nablus have been so strict.
In the two years since the peace process evaporated here, schools continue to be part of the battleground. Children on both sides of the conflict have fallen victim to shootings and bombings.
The family of one of the teenage boys hurt when Palestinians tried to hold classes at the Askar refugee-camp school sat in their living room wondering, as his mother put it, "How long can we live like this?" Her granddaughter, Alah El Bahahoul, 9, has been going to a residential building where empty apartments are being used as classrooms. "At my regular school we have more teachers, more students," she scowls. "It's just better."
In a separate incident Tuesday, a Palestinian school in Hebron was rocked by a blast that injured five students. Israeli officials suspect that the bombing was the work of Jewish vigilantes.
For things to change here, the Israeli army says, Palestinians will have to put a stop to the attacks on civilians that led to Israel's reoccupation of most of the West Bank. "Nablus is really one of the biggest places for the terrorist infrastructure," says Lt. Col. Olivier Rafovich, head of the foreign press branch of the Israel Defense Forces. "The curfew has been lifted in certain places at times, to provide people with food and water," he adds. Even when the curfew has been lifted for half a day or for eight hours, he says, the army has found evidence of Palestinians using the time to try to launch attacks. "The curfew is a must when we are facing such threats coming from the big cities. It is one of the only ways to stop terrorists from crossing into Israel."