In West Bank, corruption-busting teenagers shake up local government

While Israeli-Palestinian talks aim for Palestinian statehood, a devoted band of educators is grooming the rising generation to be citizens of a vibrant democracy.

By , Staff writer

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    High school students Ayat Tabakhi and Fatmeh Abu Afifeh (c.) were part of a team headed by principal Abla al-Akhdar (l.) that confronted local officials in charge of a construction project. Here, they take a break from a culminating conference in Ramallah, where they and 15 other teams shared their experiences. Principal Amneh Atawneh (r.) said the three-day August meeting provided a huge 'morale boost.'
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Fatmeh Abu Afifeh doesn't look like someone who could intimidate tough bureaucrats. Demure and only 17, she had never even spent a night away from her family until now.

But armed only with fine pearl pins that keep her head scarf firmly in place, Fatmeh is here in Ramallah with dozens of other students who exposed significant corruption across the West Bank.

"All the people [we interviewed] would say, 'We are engineers and we are unable to grasp what's going on – how can young girls?' " recalls Fatmeh, who says that confronting local officials about lax oversight of a sports stadium building project made her a better citizen. "I no longer care only about my interests; I care about the interests of society."

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The project sought to prepare 16 teams of Palestinian youths to become citizens of an eventual Palestinian state. Part of a movement known as "civic education," such initiatives build familiarity with democratic mechanisms, respect for the rule of law, and the confidence to hew to those ideals.

Such education is "a precondition to be liberated from the [Israeli] occupation and establish a viable Palestinian state," says human rights advocate Issam Aruri, who represents 132 Palestinian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). "Independence is not just raising the flag or having the president walking on a red carpet. That's not a state. The state is ... to feel that our dignity is protected."

Creating a nation of leaders, not followers

Civic education is an ambitious push in a school system struggling to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population. But proponents see it as crucial to transforming a school system that has been restricted – by tradition but also by political influence and a lack of resources – largely to rote learning.

More than 35,000 new students enter the Pal­es­tinian school system every year, burdening classrooms already packed with 30 to 40 pupils. Almost 1 in 4 teachers don't have a bachelor's degree, and some hold additional jobs to feed their families.

Even well-trained teachers face equipment shortages. Information technology instructor Islam Rada's high school has only one computer linked to the Internet – and it's in the principal's office.

Eighth-graders' scores on a math test administered internationally fell to 42nd out of 48 in 2007, just ahead of Botswana – a "terrifying" decline from 38th in 2003, says Mr. Aruri. But his primary aim is an overhaul of dogmatic practices that produce narrow-minded graduates more likely to follow than lead. "We need a revolution, really, in education," he says.

A need to instill self-government

To Aruri, it's a choice between instilling order in the rising generation or imposing it on every street corner – where flagrant disregard for traffic laws speaks to a deeper disrespect for the rule of law.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank adds challenges by stirring anger in students, say many here.

"When the Israeli occupation goes into town and destroys ... then students imitate them in school, against each other," says parent Abdelwahab Abu Safat, also blaming violent Israeli settlers. "All of the behavior of settlers affects the behavior of students, who won't listen to principals."

Refaat Sabaah saw an opportunity to help teachers address such tensions through civil education, and founded the Teacher Creativity Center in the 1990s. It has worked with the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Education for a decade.

Educators, once resistant, now laud initiative

TCC held a five-day workshop in January to introduce the social-audit program, the one Fatmeh took part in. But teachers were convinced that local officials – not to mention parents – would oppose the idea, says TCC coordinator Fadel Suleiman.

"They said, 'It's not our duty. Don't put us in this situation,' " he recalls. But by the end of the workshop, the teachers had shifted. Upon returning home, they managed to win over parents, if not administrators. "I was against [my students] being monitors, lawyers, arbitrators," recalls Abla al-Akhdar, Fatmeh's headmistress. "The mayor didn't want us to check anything, but our teachers and students insisted.... Thank God, we succeeded."

Many educators at the culminating conference in Ramallah echoed Ms. Akhdar's sentiments.

"This is an unprecedented approach to providing liberal thinking to our students," says Um Mohammed, a headmistress from Deir Ghusun, who boasted that her team had uncovered many illegal procedures. "Here we have female students using words like 'tenders, contracts, projects' – words they didn't know before. Suddenly our students are reading the laws, analyzing the laws, [enforcing] compliance of the laws."

'We discovered a bribe of 28,000 shekels'

Students also took pride in their participation, which was based on a competitive selection process at each school.

"We discovered a bribe of 28,000 shekels [$7,000]" in Yabad municipality, says Ahmed Atatara from Jenin, while checking his Facebook page. "Everybody now is jealous, everybody wants to be asking questions like us."

Now there will be an additional computer for him and his teammates to use, because they were one of three teams to win a PC and printer in recognition of their affect on the Jenin community.

"We provided like a [warning] siren for [those in power], like, 'We are watching you,' " says Ahmed's principal, Mohamed Saadeh.

The project's future is subject to funding. This year TIRI, a London-based NGO dedicated to "making integrity work," gave $50,000.

Despite uncertainty and the resistance encountered by most of the teams, those involved vowed to press on.

"Shall we stop all our work just because people at the top are not responding to our recommendations? No. All these challenges should push us to do more," says Mr. Suleiman, reminding the group that students like Ahmed and Fatmeh were learning to become leaders themselves. "In 10 years, they'll be in those positions."

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