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Secret schools

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AP World Politics

Palestinians run `secret schools' to get around Israeli curfew
Sat Sep 14, 2:42 PM ET
By MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH, Associated Press Writer

NABLUS, West Bank - On the way to class in a cramped dorm room, the children of the Al Qasr neighborhood dodge Israeli military patrols. They sit on chairs they brought from home or crouch on mattresses. Their teachers have no textbooks, only a blackboard.

The "secret school" in Al Qasr is one of several that have sprung up in mosques, empty factories and apartments in Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, since Israel first imposed a round-the-clock curfew on June 21 to prevent Palestinian militants from attacking Israeli civilians.

With no sign of the restrictions ending, parents and teachers say they don't want the kids to fall behind. "If we stay at home waiting for lifting the curfew, the students will lose their future," said Fida al-Khayat, who teaches elementary school Arabic.

Secret schools were common during the first Palestinian uprising, between 1987-1993, when Israel closed schools for extended periods, arguing that they were hotbeds of violence. Teaching was sporadic, and many Palestinians of that generation still have serious gaps in their basic education.

The Israeli military, which reoccupied most West Bank towns in June, lifts curfews in most areas during the day to allow schools to operate. But even there, students and teachers from outlying areas have to get around checkpoints, taking bumpy backroads or climbing over earthen barriers put up by the army.

Army officials said that in Nablus, the easing of the curfew on the first day of school, Aug. 31, was followed by a shooting attack a day later on a nearby Jewish settlement in which a pregnant woman and her husband were wounded.

The army spokeswoman, Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, said that if attacks on Israelis stop, the curfew will be lifted.

Earlier this week, a group of children from Nablus asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan ( news - web sites) to pressure Israel to lift the restrictions. "We have been stripped completely of our right to education," the students said in a letter to Annan.

About 150,000 people in Nablus and nearby refugee camps have been confined to their homes for the past 84 days by the Israeli restrictions.

With shops and businesses closed, men spend their days playing cards, smoking cigarettes or water pipes, and watching satellite TV. Kids who aren't in school play soccer in the streets, then run away when tanks come rumbling by.

Children attending secret schools are often accompanied by parents for the first few days, until they make friends. After that they move around town together.

"Our mother told us that when we hear the sounds of a jeep or a tank, that we should to run into the nearest house and wait for them to leave," said Lubna Ishbaitah, 8, who attends a makeshift school in the women's dorms at An Najah University, in the upscale Al Qasr neighborhood.

"I'm always scared, but I have to go to school," she said.

Yaron said curfew violators "will be turned back with a warning," if caught.

"If the curfew violation is more serious, with demonstrations, stone-throwing or shooting, then it will be met with more drastic measures, depending on the circumstances," she said.

About 290 students attend the school at the An Najah dorm. Students sit on mattresses or bring chairs from home.

"I go back home every day with pain in my back because there is no comfortable desk to write on," said Karim Anabtawi, 8, as he crouched on the ground over his Arabic notebook. He was one of about 20 students packed into a small dorm room.

The curriculum is often bare-bones, with subjects such as Arabic, English, mathematics and science. Many teachers are volunteers or other experts working outside their specialties.

Karim said he misses the specialized subjects taught in his real school, such as music, computer and drama.

Karim and his classmates have no textbooks. His teacher, al-Khayat, holds a degree in computer science, but volunteered to teach Arabic. "We are determined to teach our kids," she said, as she wrote the day's entire lesson on the blackboard.

Jouman Qarman, the head of the education office in Nablus, said that 51,000 students from government schools and about 9,000 students from private institutions are unable to go to school in Nablus.

"To prevent students from going to school is a silent violence of the occupation," said Qarman. "It is different from the noisy violence of tanks and weapons, but both have the same effect."

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