BEITUNIA, WEST BANK -- First of two articles
The English textbook has lost its cover, and the pages are smudged and heavily underlined, but it has not lost its meaning for Akram Rahman.
The textbook is his passport out of the lost years. Rahman, a lanky, reserved 17-year-old from this West Bank crossroads, has spent his adolescence in the crucible of the Palestinian intifada, the uprising against Israeli occupation. He threw stones at Israelis and served 10 months in an Israeli prison. He is wise to the ways and streets of the uprising. But he has stumbled in school, is a grade behind his classmates and is desperately trying to regain his footing.
"I lost a year," he said quietly. "Now I am trying to catch up."
Five years after the intifada broke out, Rahman's battered textbook is a metaphor for consequences of the revolt not yet seen or widely understood. The intifada has left enduring scars on a young generation of both Palestinians and Israelis, and each group is just beginning to grasp how deep and lasting they are.
This article will examine the uprising's effects on the Palestinians, who have seen the intifada bring a collapse of their schools and, for hundreds of thousands of children, a tear in the delicate fabric of growing up. On Tuesday, a second article will focus on the Israelis and how -- after 25 years of occupation -- the perception of a generation of soldiers about their country's rule over the Palestinians has been changed forever.
Since the outbreak of the revolt against Israeli rule on Dec. 9, 1987, the rebellion has splintered. What began as a mass movement of stone-throwing demonstrations and civil disobedience designed to shake off the Israeli occupation has evolved in many directions. It is now a deadly war between armed Palestinian bands and Israeli troops. The violence also is turning inward as Palestinian factions battle each other and kill those suspected of collaborating with Israel.
At the same time, the intifada is a grinding day-to-day contest with Israelis over land and settlements. Like a glowing ember, the mass demonstrations can be fanned into new popular explosions, but the flare-ups are far less frequent than they once were. There are still commercial strikes, but many merchants and families yearn now for normalcy.
In Palestinian villages like Beitunia, or in densely populated Gaza City, or in middle-class Ramallah, family conversations often turn to the fallout from a disaster in education and discipline. Parents and educators worry about a "lost generation" of young boys and girls, who were just children five years ago but are now on the cusp of adulthood.
The intifada brought extensive school closures by the Israeli authorities, from kindergarten to college classrooms, and for five years each side has blamed the other for the shutdowns. The Israelis said the schools had become hotbeds of the revolt. The Palestinians complained that the closings were a particularly damaging form of collective punishment.
Schools in the West Bank were closed for nearly eight months in 1988 and for another six months in early 1989. All colleges and universities were shut for several years. In general, the schools began to reopen in 1989, although most of the colleges did not reopen until this year, and the Israeli authorities are still closing some schools in response to riots and demonstrations.
The extent of the education problem is impossible to measure. Test scores are unreliable, in part due to massive cheating; the impact of frequent school closings is difficult to judge; future attitudes and motivations are still intertwined with the emotions of the intifada itself.
But many parents and teachers have expressed fear that the setbacks will further damage a society that already is reeling. They see school curricula and study habits shattered, leaving behind young adults who are struggling to catch up to where they were, let alone prepare themselves for future jobs or compete in college classrooms.
The result of this gash in Palestinian society may be as profound as the political and violent aspects of the revolt, according to educators, businessmen and others in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. They say that without better schooling, without training, without jobs, the dream of independence or "autonomy" for the Palestinians -- the goal of the intifada in the first place -- will remain hollow and unfulfilled.
"I believe the injury we received in education is deeper than the injury in the hand by a bullet," said Anton Sansour, executive vice president of Bethlehem University. "It will take a long time to recover."
"If you look at the mentality of our kids now," he added, "they are not as well prepared. The schools were closed a long time. They lost their lives as children. They are mature in years, but not in thinking. We are not receiving students who are ready. They are missing memorization skills, and their minds are not ready to analyze."
But there are still deeper causes for the Palestinians' current predicament. The intifada was so spontaneous that few knew where it would lead, and Palestinian social leaders were slow to react. When they finally began to look for ways to compensate, it was too late.
Moreover, the intifada had a corrosive effect on family and school discipline. Both teachers and parents complain -- and students confess -- that the traditionally strong lines of authority in Palestinian society were badly eroded.
"The child who thinks of himself as a hero in the street, the child who can close down the street with stones, why should he listen to the teachers?" said veteran teacher Ghassan Abdullah, who works at a United Nations refugee camp north of Jerusalem. "The relationship with the teachers totally changed."
"The students started seeing any authority as oppressive," recalled Manuel Hassassian, dean of the arts faculty at Bethlehem University. "In schools, they started to break from any sense of tradition" and at home they were "revolting against the father, who is the patriarch. The student defied the tank, the soldier, and now he defies the father. This created a kind of unruliness. They have lost all sense of socialization."
Throughout the Arab world, the Palestinians long had a reputation for putting a premium on education, if only as a "ticket out of the ghetto," said Hassassian. They competed with the best students at Jordanian and Egyptian universities.
This image has been tarnished in the last five years, partly because of the intifada, which interrupted classes and matriculation exams needed for advancement, and partly because of the disastrous results of the Persian Gulf War, during which a quarter-million Palestinians were expelled from the gulf states, further straining the economy of the West Bank.
Today, in many Palestinian families in the occupied territories, education is once again looked upon as a passport out of the ghetto -- but they are poorer and more desperate and have far longer to travel.
The students too have been through a trial by fire. In recent separate interviews, a group of 16- and 17-year-olds all offered strikingly parallel memories of the last five years, a period marked not by soccer games and other youthful pursuits, but by demonstrations, prison terms and disruption.
Rahman, 17, the seventh of nine children in his family, said the world suddenly turned upside down the day after a truck accident in the Gaza Strip touched off the first demonstrations.
"We were in the school, and we heard about the incident in Gaza, and they started to protest, the school flooded outside into the streets to protest," he said. "We used to play football with friends in the street. When it started, and the soldiers came and the curfews, our parents started to be very cautious of our movements outside the house. They were afraid something else would hurt us. All the routines were interrupted. Instead of seeing each other in playing, we saw each other in demonstrations."
Rahman was arrested in January 1991, accused of throwing stones near the neighborhood school. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison and fined about $700. He served his time in Ketziot, the huge detention center Israel set up in the Negev Desert; there, in a special section for juveniles known as Small Lions, Rahman studied not school texts but the intifada lessons offered by the other prisoners.
"All my experience, I acquired in Ketziot," he said. "We learned a lot about the aims of the enemy. We knew the Israeli aims were to evacuate the people from the land, to get Palestinians to be collaborators. We learned how to deal with such problems -- every man struggling against the enemy."
The girls too found their traditionally close-knit world disrupted. Maysa Ali Hamdan, 16, the articulate daughter of a tailor from the Sateh Marhaba neighborhood of Ramallah, recalled that before the revolt she would walk placidly through a nearby refugee camp on her way to school. Then, that routine abruptly changed.
"I remember when it started in Gaza -- every day we went to school and heard of martyrs, we had strikes," Hamdan said. "I was very sad. I didn't get the lessons and the classes. The Israelis shut the school down continuously for four months. School began to seem very remote. I used to go through the refugee camp, but no longer. They put up the barrels" to seal off the camp. "The camp started to be ugly. . . . Everything started to be in chaos."
Fahed Shami, 17, a Gaza youth, recalled that "the concentration of the students moved from the schools to the streets, where they can explain and express their feelings. I discovered the fields of education were not so valuable as the field of the intifada."
In an effort to cope with the chaos of the early years, teachers tried for a while to set up popular committees to conduct classes in other locations, but the effort failed. The students were distracted by events in the street, and the teachers had difficulty preparing lessons. The Israeli government declared the popular committees illegal and arrested some of the teachers who had participated in them.
"We took the children to the mosques and the olive groves," recalled teacher Abdullah, "and we gave them the questions, and they brought them back, but the response and attendance started to decrease. We started with 20 students, and then 12, and 10, and 5."
Then, said Hassassian, the Bethlehem University dean, "we saw a loss of control of the education process." In late 1989, there appeared to be massive cheating on the traditional Jordanian matriculation exams known as tawjihi, which are critical to a students' advancement. Since classes were shortened or nonexistent, pressures increased to cut corners. "It was difficult for us to control the exam," said Hassassian. "The students didn't pass all the program, and they were cheating. They would say, 'He's in jail -- someone take the exam for him.' "
Last year, feeling growing pressure from parents, the intifada leadership began trying to end the school disruptions by ordering that masked men -- and factional rivalries -- be kept away from the schools. At the same time, the past year has seen a wave of introspection about the course of the uprising, some of it from parents who worry about where it has left the future brainpower and hope of their society.
"My children were affected by the intifada; they are sad, cautious, confused," said Ali Hamdan, 47, Maysa's father. "Now, they have six to seven hours of studying a day to catch up to what they have lost, but they have lost a lot of skills. And there is another problem; it is psychological. . . . They are getting frustrated and paranoid, and anyone who is feeling paranoid, his capacity will not be 100 percent."
His fondest wish for his daughter, he said, is to send her overseas, away from the problems of the West Bank and the conflict with the Israelis. "In one word," he said, "I would like her to breathe liberty."
NEXT: Israelis and the intifada