After years of sharp debate and bitter recrimination, one of the most delicate and politically loaded documents in the Arab-Israeli dispute was unveiled today amid great ceremony--and immediately delivered into the eager little hands of first- and sixth-graders.
The pupils were Palestinians returning to school in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the documents in question were glossy new school textbooks on civics and other subjects, the first written exclusively by and for Palestinians. They replace aging Jordanian and Egyptian volumes that the Palestinians have used for years.
The distribution of the slim, soft-covered books was a major event because in the Middle East, textbooks are not simply neutral educational tools but are read closely as indexes measuring each side's acceptance or rejection of peace. They are seen as a crucial instrument, along with TV, in forming Arab and Jewish images of one another.
Israeli critics have long said Palestinian textbooks are part of a general Arab effort to deny Israel's legitimacy. Some had hoped the new books would speak explicitly about Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and peace partnership. The Palestinians said they were determined to produce texts that were educational, not political. Their approach was to minimize references to Israel and Jews rather than to malign them--and that alone may represent an improvement of sorts.
However, inside the covers remain points of potential friction:
* Maps in a sixth-grade civics textbook depict a long, dagger-like green shape separating the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but do not say that the shape is known to most of the world as Israel. Nor does the map include Tel Aviv, although it does pinpoint other Israeli cities with large past or current Arab populations.
* A chapter on tolerance speaks generally of the importance of that rare Middle Eastern commodity, urging that it applies not only among religions but also sports teams and political parties. But there is no specific mention of tolerance for Israelis and no suggestion of Arab-Jewish reconciliation in the accompanying illustration--a Muslim sheik greeting not a rabbi but a Christian priest.
* When it is discussed, Israel is characterized as an "occupier" and treated more like an old enemy than a new peace partner. "The Palestinian people were expelled from their land as a result of the Israeli occupation of Palestine," the civics text says, "and have been subjected to massacres and banishment from their land to neighboring countries."
Still, from the perspective of peace supporters, the Palestinian textbooks are an improvement over the old Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks, nearly all of which were written before the Oslo declaration inaugurated Middle East peacemaking in 1993. Some contain virulent attacks on the "treacherous and disloyal" Jews and predict military victory for the Arabs over Israel. That made them handy ammunition for some Israelis, who said that using the old texts in Palestinian-run schools proved that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority was a racist and warmongering regime whose peaceable intentions were dubious at best.
Stung, the Palestinians noted that old Israeli textbooks contain unflattering references to Arabs as backward, shifty and unclean. They dismissed their Israeli critics as right-wingers opposed to peacemaking, and insisted that Palestinians should be judged only by their own textbooks.
Now, say Palestinian officials, the new books--the product of four years of work by hundreds of experts--represent an enormous step forward and a way station toward building an independent Palestinian state.
"We are going to teach the truth," Naim Abu Humus, the Palestinian deputy minister of education, said today.
Soft-spoken and U.S.-educated, Abu Humus told an audience including Arafat, diplomats and dozens of educators at the Education Ministry in the Palestinian-ruled city of Ramallah that the new texts fulfill "one of the dreams of the Palestinian people."
Later, in an interview, he insisted the books reflect sound educational principles and nation-building goals, and do their best to steer clear of politics.
"It's not necessary to relate everything to politics," he said. "In [the Israeli] curriculum they don't have the word Palestine. Our curriculum is not anti-anybody."
Abu Humus said the books' focus on Palestine, not Israel, is intentional. The chapter on tolerance was illustrated by a Muslim and a Christian because those are the two main religions of Palestinians, he said. As for the omission of Israel on the maps, that was the decision of political higher-ups, he said.
His brother, Omer Abu Humus, an education official who worked on the new textbooks, said the Palestinians were wise to sidestep the issue of Israel's borders, which are the subject of current peace talks.
"If I ask you to show me the exact borders of Israel, you can't show me," he said. "Why indulge in political questions which remain to be negotiated?"
Still, it may be difficult to convince some Israelis, particularly right-wing skeptics of peace who stress that there can be none until Palestinian officials and schools get used to the idea that Israel is here to stay.
"Not mentioning Israel on the map and only referring to cities with an Arab past is consistent with the ongoing media campaign," said Itamar Marcus, the Israeli research director for the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, a New York-based group that monitors Arab media.
"There's no attempt to create legitimacy or recognition that Israel exists," said Marcus, whose focus on Palestinian media has touched a nerve among Arabs. "They'll have to go through a major education campaign to reeducate people to see us as human beings. . . . The fact that there's not any vicious antisemitism is a basic minimum."
Marcus characterized as "very, very upsetting" the fact that the textbooks omit Israel and Jews from the chapter on tolerance.
His critique reflected a theme in Jewish-Arab discord: the Israeli insistence that the Palestinians must preach peace to their people as a means of reconciliation, and the Palestinian rebuttal that justice--the return of Palestinian land--is the only real route to peace.
"What will change the situation will be to give the Palestinians their rights," said Naim Abu Humus, the deputy education minister. "Without that, no newspaper, no textbook, will change the situation."
The textbooks released today mark the beginning of a broad curriculum reform for Palestinian schools, whose growth rate is among the fastest in the world. Until now, West Bank students have read textbooks from Jordan, and Gazans have used books from Egypt.
Funded by Italy, France, the Netherlands, Finland, Ireland and Belgium, new textbooks for all grades through high school are to be phased in over the next four years. They will be used by 865,000 students in the more than 1,750 schools administered by the Palestinians and the United Nations in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Arab schools in East Jerusalem. However, the new books will not be distributed to U.N.-run schools for tens of thousands of Palestinians classified as refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
The curriculum reform also calls for a 10 percent increase in class time, and all Palestinian students will be required to study English for 10 years, starting in first grade. Until now, compulsory English had been taught for only four years, beginning in fifth grade. Compulsory classes in civics, technology and science will be added, and more courses are to be offered in German, French and environmental studies.