Palestinians in a class of their own

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The Independent Online
AT RAMALLAH boys' school, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the 'children of the stones' flocked to their newly 'liberated' classrooms on the first day of the first Palestinian term.

The Israeli military government, which has controlled every aspect of Palestinian education for 27 years, yesterday handed over the schools to the new Palestinian National Authority. Schools throughout the West Bank, even in areas still under Israeli control, are now in Palestinian hands. The exception is Jerusalem, which is excluded from the autonomy deal.

Teachers spoke of 'rebuilding a Palestinian identity' and of teaching the 'facts' for the first time. Pupils spoke of studying their struggle, instead of fighting. 'We can learn our real history now,' said Saed Hawani, 18.

Near the school a star of David flag flapped above an Israeli watchtower, a reminder that the front-line was still perilously close. While Israeli forces have pulled back within Gaza and Jericho, there has been no redeployment in the rest of the West Bank. Here, Israeli guns are still trained on Palestinian schoolyards, which Israel has long viewed as breeding grounds for the foot-soldiers of the intifada. And the walls of Ramallah boys' school are still daubed with the slogans of struggle.

For the Palestinian leadership, education is potentially the most significant of five administrative areas handed over by Israel, which also include tourism, health, tax, and social services. In the schools there is now a chance to mend a shattered society, to end the rule of street youths, restoring authority to teacher and parent.

For Israel, relinquishing control over Palestinian education holds many risks. Another battle may now open up - a battle over the 'facts' of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six-Day War, the military government first tried to impose an Israeli curriculum in the Arab schools which fell under its control. After strong resistance the Jordanian system, which existed in the West Bank, and the Egyptian system, which existed in Gaza, were left in place. But heavy censorship took place. Draconian military orders were passed, banning books, controlling the movement of pupils and allowing widespread closure of schools and universities.

Now Israel must expect Palestinians to promote their own symbols and make their own selection of facts, just as the new Israeli state did after it was created in 1948 and still does, albeit less overtly, today. A new Palestinian curriculum has been devised which will be viewed as dynamite by the Israeli right-wing.

The proposed curriculum defines Palestine as set out by the pre-1948 British mandate, therefore including present-day Israel. 'The map will be taught on that basis. The facts show that this was the first time Palestine's borders were defined,' said Fathiyeh Nasru, coordinator of the curriculum. 'Events that took place subsequently on that map - the Zionist claims and the Palestinian exodus of '48 - will then be taught also,' she added, making clear that the creation of Israel would be dealt with as a historical event.

Palestinian schools will teach a history of Jerusalem, asserting their claims to east Jerusalem as their capital. The 'right of return' for Palestinian refugees will now be taught in schools as will the history of the 'Palestinian liberation movement'.

The question is whether such teaching will be an aid or a hindrance to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. There will be little discussion of Israeli history in the Palestinian curriculum, and no mention of the Holocaust in the context of Middle East history. 'Inasmuch as they teach about our suffering, we will teach about theirs,' said Professor Nasru.

'Any young nation wants to promote its own view of recent history - to realise its own dreams, not to emphasise reconciliation,' says Meron Benvenisti, a leading Israeli expert on the history of the occupation.

The Israeli government is clearly calculating that such teaching in schools can do no harm to Israel. After all, attempts to quash Palestinian history by military order abjectly failed - the Palestinian facts were simply taught in the homes or the prisons instead of the schools. 'They can show their map; we can show our map,' said Doran Shohat, director of the Israeli education and democracy department. The Israeli curriculum is now being overhauled to introduce classes on the peace process, with history and geography more slanted to the Arab world. But post-1948 Middle East history is rarely taught in Israeli schools, being viewed as too controversial.