Unease Over West Bank Raids
Friday, July 18, 2008
NABLUS, West Bank -- When Faris Abu Hasan was deciding where to send his two young daughters to school, one factor stood out above all others: test scores.
So Abu Hasan opted against the beleaguered local government school, and chose instead the Islamic Basic School for Girls, where the classes were small and the teachers offered individual attention in math, science, history and English.
"I wanted them to go to the best school in Nablus. And this is the best school in Nablus," said Abu Hasan, a lawyer.
But the school is associated with Hamas, the Islamist movement that Israel considers a terrorist organization. One night last week, the Israeli military raided the school -- confiscating computers, trashing desks and ripping student artwork from the walls. The school was ordered shut for three years.
The operation was part of a much broader crackdown that Israel has recently initiated in the occupied West Bank against Hamas's extensive social services network. While Hamas is probably best known for its military wing -- which champions attacks against the Jewish state -- it is the group's sponsorship of schools, medical centers, orphanages and food banks that gives it much of its power and helped it sweep Palestinian elections in 2006.
With a fragile truce holding in Gaza, Israel has turned its attention to undercutting Hamas's charity work in the West Bank. The effort is needed there, Israel contends, to keep the group from seizing power from the more pragmatic Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, much as it did in Gaza last year.
But the raids have also sown resentment and have put the Palestinian Authority in an awkward spot: Although Hamas is seen by Fatah leaders as a mortal threat, it also provides valuable services that the Palestinian Authority can't easily replicate. Every time Israel cracks down and closes a school or a medical center, it leaves a void that makes people more dissatisfied with the Authority.
"The one served best by these crackdowns is Hamas itself," said Jamal al-Muhaisen, governor of Nablus and a Fatah member. "It's embarrassing for the Palestinian Authority that we cannot protect these institutions that are under our control. It causes the people to feel sympathy for Hamas."
The damage is especially severe in Nablus, Muhaisen said, because the city of 135,000 is supposed to be a model of Palestinian autonomy. Israel passed control of security in the city to Palestinian Authority forces late last year, and since then, Muhaisen said, they have succeeded in improving order. Such progress is critical to ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which are aimed at establishing a formula for Palestinian statehood by the end of the year.
But while Palestinian Authority forces control Nablus by day, the Israeli military still sweeps in most nights. In the past two weeks, Israel has sent nightly convoys of trucks and jeeps into the city center so troops can bang down doors at organizations with suspected links to Hamas, collect evidence and leave behind closure notices. More than a dozen offices have been targeted.
At the Islamic school, teachers arrived the morning after the raid to find the building almost completely gutted. "Everything was destroyed -- my books, my papers, my exams," said Haneen Abu Aisheh, who has taught English and art at the school since it opened four years ago.
She said the school had become popular in Nablus because the average class size is between 15 and 20 students, compared to government-run schools where classes can swell to 40 students or more.