- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2007

KUFR NAMEH, West Bank

Palestinian children spend more of their school day studying Islam. Critical jobs in public education are filled by Islamic stalwarts. A once-banned social studies reader, crammed with hard-line rhetoric, is now in classrooms.

During a year in power, the Islamic Hamas movement has begun taking control of Palestinian schools and is making changes.

Hamas leaders insist they are not trying to indoctrinate children. But moderate Palestinians say Hamas‘ goal is nothing less than shaping the political views of future generations.

It’s a battle for the Palestinian soul, part of a wider Hamas campaign to expand its influence in all spheres of public life, also including newspapers and unions, said Hanan Ashrawi, a secular former minister of higher education.

“You are seeing the gradual transformation of a largely secular national … education system and curriculum into a more ideological, closed system,” said Mrs. Ashrawi.

Hamas shares power with the moderate Fatah movement it defeated in last year’s election, and the terms of that coalition will keep it in control of the Education Ministry for three more years.

Hamas doesn’t have completely free rein in the schools. It’s being scrutinized by Fatah and by the largely secular Palestinian intelligentsia. Mrs. Ashrawi, now an independent legislator, says she has asked Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate who heads Fatah, to hand control of the curriculum to an independent commission but has received no commitment.

“We are not making education more Islamic,” Education Minister Nasser Shaer said before he was arrested by Israel in an anti-Hamas sweep last month. But he is also under pressure within his movement to apply a clearly Islamic, non-Western curriculum. For example: Hamas firebrands want to eliminate U.S. history from a textbook.

So far, Mr. Shaer has made only a few changes. He has increased religion classes from three to four a week and allowed a social studies reader with a strong Islamic bent to be used in the classroom.

He has focused mostly on moving Hamas loyalists into key positions in the education system, presumably preparing the ground for tighter control in the future.

When a high-level education job opens up, it goes to a Hamas supporter, with appointees often leapfrogging over other candidates with stronger credentials. Eight of 14 West Bank school districts are now controlled by Hamas, from none a year ago, and the new religion requirement meant hiring about 300 graduates of Islamic teachers’ colleges that are Hamas strongholds, Fatah educators say.

Hamas created another power base in education by forming its own teachers union, to compete with the one controlled by Fatah. It claims to have signed up about 18,000 teachers, including those in private schools but also many of the 40,000 teaching in public schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hamas teachers, many sporting the movement’s trademark beards, recently marched through Ramallah, chanting, “Let’s restore glory to religion and dignity to the teacher.”

In some cases, girls are pushed by pro-Hamas teachers to pray and wear head scarves, although no law requires it. Hala Barghouti, 11, from the village of Deir Yassin, said she is transferring from a public school to a private Christian one next year to escape the nagging.

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