JUST before the school year began, Israel dispatched a message to the fledgling Palestinian Authority (PA) in charge of implementing limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The gist: educating the 600,000 students in the occupied territories is now up to you.
The right to run their own affairs is what Palestinians have demanded from Israel ever since it took control of the two territories during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. Hundreds of young Palestinians were killed and wounded in an uprising starting in 1987 to advance that cause. But the Aug. 29 grant of responsibility in the area of education came with such suddenness and completeness that it promises to tax their capacity for self-rule to the limit.
``What the Israelis did was to withdraw from education and leave it to us. Administration, decisionmaking - it's all in the hands of Palestinians now,'' says Khalil Mahshi of the Palestinian Ministry of Education. ``Education is a test case. If we succeed with education, I think we will have the confidence to run our own affairs. We now have the freedom to be better.''
The green light to run their own schools is part of an Aug. 29 agreement bestowing ``early empowerment'' in education, tourism, health, social welfare, and tax collection on West Bank Palestinians, including those not in the current self-rule areas.
Ground rules remain
It does nothing to change the basic ground rules of the 27-year Israeli occupation. Israeli troops will still occupy the territories, Israeli laws will still govern, and Palestinians will still be denied major legislative and judicial powers in the territories.
But with respect to education, at least, early empowerment comes close to being full empowerment. The PA will take control of the budget, employing teachers, maintaining buildings, and unifying a sprawling system which, since 1967, has been based on separate curricula - a Jordanian curriculum for the West Bank (formerly occupied by Jordan) and an Egyptian curriculum for Gaza (formerly occupied by Egypt).
``When Palestinians are in charge, it's different than when the one who is in charge is your enemy,'' says Akram Abu Nigem, principal of a public school here. ``For those of us who run the schools, we will now have more authority.''
A few changes are already visible. Palestinian flags fly atop school buildings. Pictures of Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat are posted on classroom walls. The school day now routinely begins with the singing of the Palestinian national song.
Palestinian education ministry officials predict that it could take five years to effect deeper changes, such as reforming the curriculum and writing texts to replace the Israeli-censored Jordanian and Egyptian texts now used. When that happens, school children will be able to see the word ``Palestine'' written on maps of the Middle East. Designations like ``Judea and Samaria,'' the Biblical names for the West Bank used by Israelis, will be stricken. And the history of Palestinians will be featured.
Just as important, Palestinian educators say, will be the autonomy that will replace the atmosphere of intimidation in which hundreds of teachers were dismissed by the Israeli authorities for incorrect teaching and inciting student demonstrations during the Palestinian uprising.
``Much of the change will be psychological,'' says Fawzi Khalaf, the principal of the private Friends School in Ramallah. ``We know we can't change a lot overnight but we know we can make our own decisions now. It helps our spirit. It make us feel proud of our nationality.''
Ministry faces huge task
The huge task of running the schools falls to a small but growing Ministry of Education. It is one of a dozen ministries created by the PA, which is based in the 1993-designated self-rule enclaves of Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho.
Whether it succeeds will largely depend on whether it can raise the money to do the job properly. Initially, the Ministry will be relying on money promised by foreign donors. About $150 million has been pledged to cover expenses for the current school year and another $100 million for qualitative improvements in education.
Significantly, Saudi Arabia last week pledged $2.5 million to renovate a dozen school buildings - the first grant to the territories since the Gulf war during which Palestinians gave moral support to Saudi Arabia's adversary, Iraq.
Since Israel will only finance the first month of the school year, longer-term viability will be linked to the ability of the PA to collect taxes - which will take at least half a year to develop, PA officials predict. ``If we don't get money from taxes, the whole thing will collapse,'' Dr. Mahshi says. ``But it's not in Israel's interest to see that happen.''
Israel says early empowerment will pave the way for the redeployment of Israeli troops in the territories and for eventual Palestinian elections.
Though unconvinced that early empowerment means real empowerment, many Palestinians see the arrangement as - in the words of one Palestinian journalist - an ``appetizer'' leading to the main course of elections and eventual self-government.
``It's exciting,'' Mahshi says. ``We finally have control over what we teach and how our children learn. If we do not succeed, we won't be preparing well for the future in terms of developing our society and building a state. This time, it will be our failure and no one else's.''