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.
Ramallah, West Bank
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."
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."