West Bank School Closings Frustrate Palestinians

PRECAUTION - OR PUNISHMENT?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.''

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.

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``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.

``It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the objective today is the prevention of education and the acquisition of knowledge and education - not the limitation of violent activities which are instigated in the schools,'' Israeli Knesset member Dedi Zucher, a human-rights activist, wrote to Israeli teachers and school administrators last April.

Meanwhile, parents and teachers calculate the growing social costs of the extended closure.

``There are critical ages at which you have to learn critical skills, especially language skills,'' says Khalil Mahshi, principal of the Quaker-run Friends Boys School in Ramallah. ``If they don't acquire them at an early age they never perfect them to the same level. This is almost irreparable damage.''

For the lower grades, the stakes are more critical. ``The younger students will have forgotten what they have studied and gone back to illiteracy,'' Mr. Mahshi says.

His 100-year-old school, one of the most prestigious in the West Bank, may soon be boarded up, a casualty of financial losses suffered because of the prolonged closure by the Israeli authorities.

When and if schools are finally reopened, the problem will be compounded by the bulge of youngsters waiting at the entry level and the pressures - inimical to maintaining high academic standards - to push them through the system as fast as possible to make up for lost time.

After the Army outlawed popular education a year ago, Mahshi tried another approach. Instead of convening classes, he prepared home study kits, complete with examinations, which parents were to pick up and return to the school on two-week cycles.

Although there were no apparent security risks, Mahshi was called into military headquarters and ordered to stop what he calls the ``teaching at a distance'' experiment.

``They came close to telling me that they were using the closure of schools as a way of putting pressure on the community,'' says Mahshi, recounting his conversation with the authorities. ``It's not security only.''

Bir Zeit's Albert Aghazarian draws larger conclusions: ``It's an attempt to destroy vengefully the Palestinian infrastructure. It's our schools, our agriculture, our businesses.''

``There is no policy in Judea and Samaria to punish the population,'' insists the security source, using Israel's name for the West Bank, in which, before the intifadah, illiteracy was virtually unknown among school age children under 12.

The failure to create viable alternatives has faced many West Bank Arabs with the cruel choice of whether to seek alternative schooling. Some better-off families have sent their children to East Jerusalem, where schools remain open, or abroad to live with relatives.

``It's a cruel choice. We're torn between feelings as parents and as Palestinians,'' says Mahshi.

For the vast majority of children who stay behind, excellence in education has given way to a new standard, linked to the uprising that dominates every facet of life in the West Bank.

``Now there's a new standard of excellence: suffering and sacrifice. Now daughters are putting roadblocks in the road. In their age group they will be outcasts if they don't. You see how painful it is to be a father?''

A June 12 article on Palestinian education misstated the number of West Bank Palestinian primary and secondary students. There are 500,000.

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