West Bank School Closings Frustrate Palestinians
PRECAUTION - OR PUNISHMENT?
JERICHO, WEST BANK
DURING normal times, Saeb Erakat earns his living expounding on Locke, Hume, and Nietzsche - as a political science professor at the West Bank's An-Najah University. Today, the book he teaches from has brightly colored pictures of children and animals with captions that read: ``This is a cat,'' and ``I am a boy; my name is Ahmed.''Skip to next paragraph
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Hunched over the dining room table between his twin seven-year-old daughters, Professor Erakat is trying gamely to fill in the void left when Israel closed down the West Bank's 1,200 public, private, and UN-operated schools, leaving more than 300,000 Palestinian children with no access to formal education.
Eighteen months later, Palestinian parents are growing increasingly bitter as their children fall farther and farther behind.
``How much more frustrating can it be?'' asks the sturdy, bearded academe, known as a leading Palestinian activist. ``We can't replace the school environment. We haven't achieved 20 percent of what the schools can accomplish.''
``What kind of security threat is this?'' Erakat asks rhetorically, pointing to the absorbed young readers. ``Jews are the people of the book, but they prevent my kids even from reading mama and abu [mother and father].''
Except for two months last summer and a month this winter, West Bank schools have been closed by military order since February 1988.
In addition, five West Bank and Gaza universities and half a dozen community colleges have been ordered shut since the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising, began in December 1987.
Palestinians have experimented with various ways of getting around the ban. Albert Aghazarian, the public relations director of Bir Zeit University in the West Bank near Ramallah, estimates that as many as 1,000 university students attend clandestine lectures held in mosques and private homes around the West Bank.
``Popular education,'' impromptu private neighborhood schoolrooms for the younger grades that sprang up a year ago, were also suspended when Israel outlawed their sponsoring ``popular committees'' as arms of the outlawed underground uprising leadership.
Military authorities say the closings are required because schools had turned into staging grounds for violent demonstrations.
``When we tried reopening the schools we had a lot of violence, in or on the way to or from school,'' says an Israeli security source who asked not to be named. ``Despite the fact that we want the schools to be open, our general policy is to do whatever we can within the framework of the law to decrease the violence.''
By contrast, schools in the Gaza Strip have remained open except during curfew periods because ``the Gaza population understands that the schools should not be used as tools of the intifadah against the Army,'' says the source.
Critics of the education ban say that what started as a security move has become a punitive measure. They say a reliable correlation between school closures and the level of violence has yet to be established. Blanket closures that fail to distinguish between regions of unrest and tranquility are a form of collective punishment.
According to the Palestinian human-rights group Law in the Service of Man, the extended closure is without modern international precedent and disregards Israel's obligations as an occupier under international law.
This view was underscored recently by a group of Hebrew University law professors who, in a press conference, said there was no continued justification for the closure and demanded that schools be reopened.