Sir: As the process of withdrawing Israeli forces from Gaza begins, as a Palestinian I find myself bubbling with contradictory emotions.
Relief because the Palestinians living in Gaza will now be left to run their own lives without the crushing occupation of Israeli forces. Optimism because I would dearly like President Abbas to succeed in running this small territory to prove that Palestinians are capable of making a success of their affairs.
Scepticism because Israel might be withdrawing its forces but it will retain its pernicious interference in Palestinian affairs and its hegemony over a new Middle East. Anger because the settlers who settled on illegally occupied land will be given generous compensation for going home.
Fury at American double standards in allowing Israel to get away with every single act relating to illegal occupation and funding every such act whilst telling each and every one of us Palestinians that we need to learn about democracy and fair play. Sadness at the huge number of Palestinians, Arabs and Israelis who have died over the last half a century in order to reach half the solution that they could have reached in 1947.
Despair at the realisation that I shall never be able to return to my homeland and live on the land that had been my father's and his father's before him back to time immemorial.
Upset because nobody wishes even to recognise that I am a Palestinian who wants to go home but can not do so whilst men and women from New York and Birmingham appear on the news to tell us that God gave them the right to live on my land in Palestine. And finally, regret at the stupidity and callousness of leaders on both sides for destroying so many lives and so many opportunities for peace over the years.
And yet, I cannot but have an overwhelming sense of hope without which we will all be the losers. Ordinary Palestinians and Israelis see this move as the beginning of a two-state solution to an intractable problem. I can live side by side with Israel. In fact, like the late Professor Edward Said, I would happily subscribe to a binational state where we can all live together. Is anybody listening? I, as a Palestinian, have listened to Israel's narrative very carefully. Would Israel now listen to mine?
DR F H MIKDADI
A-level grades fail to reward hard work
Sir: I am a sixth-form student intending to continue with German to A2 Level. Having read the article concerning the dramatic decrease in the number of candidates taking this subject (15 August), I feel impelled to point out other influences which have swayed pupils to favour "softer" subjects, such as media studies.
Last May I sat examinations in both AS French and German. Whilst completing papers from recent years as preparation I was shocked to discover the wide difference in grade boundaries between the two languages. In many past examinations, the mark for an A grade in French translates to a C in German. This not only infuriated the dual linguists in my year but also discouraged plans to continue with German to A2 level.
Year-11 students contemplating taking German AS level next year were swiftly deterred by angry sixth formers' comments of high grade boundaries overshadowing a year of enthusiasm and hard work.
If demanding language A-levels are to survive, examination boards should be prepared to adjust their grade boundaries. This may seem to embrace " A-levels getting easier", yet it is unjust if students of German do not attain the grades to be accepted onto a university course when they have achieved just as highly as those studying French or a "soft" subject.
Sir: My daughter is awaiting her A-level grades, so I took particular interest in your editorial "The university challenge" (11 August).
I take exception to your assumption that "the inflation of A-level grades" (students getting higher grades than they deserve, or would have got in the good old days) is real. I know of no dispassionate research (almost impossible anyway, because syllabuses are so different) which comes near to proving this. The alternative explanation, that students study harder and teachers teach better, seems to me more likely. My daughter has certainly worked harder than I did.
If universities start testing applicants, there will be no guarantee that the test results will enable them to "make fair decisions" any better than now. I predict a heated debate in years to come about whether the tests measure real ability, or intelligence, or potential, or merely give a spurious objectivity to the selection process. And there would still be 5,000 youngsters a year with three As not getting their first choice - just a different group of disappointed students.
Sir: Having just retired after 38 years of teaching, I am intrigued by the debate about the standards of A-levels. The reason the pass rate is so high now is simple. This exam used to be norm-referenced. In other words the numbers passing were decided on a statistical basis, so many grade As, grade Bs and so on. Now, rather like a driving test, it is criteria-referenced and with the aid of a good instructor, we would expect most competent students to pass.
The answer seems remarkably simple. It does not, however, answer the anecdotal evidence that A-levels are easier now, but that is a separate issue.
Sir: I am waiting for A-level results and was outraged to read your article "Ministers in storm over 'easiest ever' A-levels". I need three A grades to meet the terms of my offer from Cambridge, and despite being perfectly competent and working extremely hard throughout the exams, I found them difficult and am concerned about my results.
The people who make such sweeping statements, declaring the exams " discredited" should be made to take A-levels themselves. Their slurs demean the months of hard work and dedication that the majority of students have put in. If we all failed the exams and neglected our studies, there would be a different kind of outcry.
Sir: In anticipation of the publication of GCSE and A-level results, is it too much to hope that one, just one, of the high-achieving students lauded in the media has some intention, having gained so much from inspirational teaching, of joining the teaching profession, rather than Oxbridge, medicine or law ?
Given the fat-cat salaries such students can expect to demand on graduation compared to the pathetic salaries teachers earn, one has little expectation.
Owls thrive in nesting boxes
Sir: The Hawk and Owl Trust was pleased to read Cahal Milmo's feature on the recovery of the barn owl (12 August).
As the UK's leading charity concerned with the conservation of owls and other birds of prey, we too have noticed early breeding of barn owls and above average broods of young. Indeed one of our volunteers in Wiltshire has ringed more than 600 young owls already this season - his best year ever. But we must beware of complacency as in 2003 breeding pairs in the same area were 30 per cent down, hitting an all-time low.
With so many young owls looking for suitable nesting sites next year, artificial boxes such as those put up and monitored by the Hawk and Owl Trust will be in demand. With the loss of traditional sites in both trees and derelict buildings, it is estimated that four in five barn owls now use nestboxes.
DIRECTOR, HAWK AND OWL TRUST TAUNTON, SOMERSET
Intelligent design: the 'Wow' factor
Sir: Dr Milton Wainwright (letter, 11 August) asserts that " evolutionists" think they have found the final word on life. If he were correct, there would be no scientists working on evolution other than those trying to discredit it.
If there is evidence to indicate a designer (or "creator") then that evidence should be seen. The only arguments in favour of intelligent design I've heard can be summarised as "wow, look how complicated it all is", a revelation shared by many a young person venturing for the first time into the world of music festivals and Aldous Huxley.
The fictional idea of a Muslim community
Sir: By definition, a community must have a communal language. Muslims in Britain speak a myriad of ancestral languages: Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Hausa, Swahili, Serbo-Croat and others.
Within each language there are dialects which are, sometimes, too disparate for communication. The "Muslim Community" is a fictional category; no more a community than the left-handed, the gay, the vegetarians, the marxists or the diabetics. Fictitious "communities" are often created by enemies of the common character.
It makes the attribution of other unsavoury characters more plausible. The Government, the press and the lazy public like the notion of a Muslim community. Ambitious Muslim politicians, who wouldn't cut any mustard on any platform, love the notion most. They are thought of as leaders. They are entertained by ministers, interviewed by journalists, quoted, praised, loathed, attacked and talked about.
The scene could have been penned by Stoppard. I hope he is taking notes.
DR YOUSEF ABDULLA
Growing popularity of botanical science
Sir: Your contributor Michael McCarthy writes in The Independent Magazine (23 July) with understandable enthusiasm about three new books on British orchids but they are three more titles to add to the shelves of books on orchids while less obviously attractive plant families are ignored by publishers. Who will put money into producing similar volumes on goosefoots, spurges, or willowherbs?
Mr McCarthy suggests that botanists try to keep their science arcane and inward-looking. I don't believe this is deliberately so but every human activity develops its own vocabulary and often rules as well, witness sport and music. In this respect botany is no different but it is also a science and science requires precision and accuracy for its proper study. The use of Latin allows plant names to be understood in any language, and these names are learnable: people with only a slight interest in plants cope with rhododendrons and chrysanthemums.
My own interest in botany began in childhood but I soon recognised that the only way to pursue it as a serious study was to join the Botanical Society of the British Isles. Though it does not have a large membership, as McCarthy points out, it is a developing society already embracing modern methods - just look at its website at www.BSBI.org.uk.
Sir: Beware not only the erosion of civil liberties when terrorism is rife, but also those who would capitalise on our compliance for personal gain. Last weekend we attended a family event in Manchester where my wife acceded to an attendant's request to check inside her handbag.
The security lady then brightly said, "That's fine - we just want to make sure people don't bring in their own food." The price tag of £2 for candy-floss only clarified their corporate reasoning.
THE REV PETER SHARP
CHEADLE HULME, CHESHIRE
Sir: As a pedestrian I was prepared not to agree with Robert Hanks about cyclists ("How to be an easy rider", 15 August). However I did not expect such an asinine comment as "cycling on pavements is fine." When a cyclist bears down on me on the narrow footpath of Hammersmith Bridge, my daily commuting route, I have no idea whether he will respect my presence or treat me like an obstacle on a slalom course. I have to watch him rather than the scenery. My life would be less stressful if all cyclists kept to the road or cycle paths.
Sir: When discussing the Iranian government's right to explore nuclear technologies ("Iran has a perfect right to go nuclear", 11 August), consideration must also be given to the rights of ordinary Iranian people. The regime treats women with contempt and is not averse to executing minors. Punishments for "crimes" such as attending parties or adultery (if you are a woman) include public lashings. If the Iranian regime is determined to treat its own people in such a violent way, why would anyone be surprised that questions are asked over their intentions towards the wider world?
Sir: I fail to understand why it is that the only governmental power on earth to have used nuclear weapons, is the one that decides who gets to manufacture and store them. Does their experience give them some great insight into human nature?
Books and business
Sir: With your report (13 August) that Bloomsbury are not to go ahead with the paperback version of a book that has sold 30,000 copies in hardback because, it is now discovered, the text showed suspicious similarity to the books of Hilary Mantel, Graham Greene, Charlotte Bronte and Antonia White, I cannot help wondering whether the many professionals through whose hands it passed are familiar with these writers. Or is it more important for them now to have highly developed business skills than expert knowledge of the bit of our cultural life that they administer?
EASTBOURNE, EAST SUSSEX
Sir: It is possible that Tony O'Brien (letter, 11 August) does not have access to a photocopier or computer and may like to have a simpler solution to his problem. Two "post it" stickers attached to the sides of the Sudoku grid will provide scribbling space. On completion of the puzzle - peel these off. The solution may not be correct, but at least it looks neat and clean!