Hamas permeates public schools

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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.

Political tension inside the schools is rising, others say.

Tenth-grader Sumara Awaiseh, a Fatah supporter in a Ramallah school, said he gets into fights with pro-Hamas classmates. “They’ll chant something against Fatah, and that’s how fights get started,” he said.

While Fatah supports a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Hamas refuses to recognize the Jewish state and renounce violence.

One of Hamas‘ first acts after taking control was to lift a ban on private teaching materials, including one that adopts a tough Islamic approach to the conflict with Israel.

That booklet was written by al-Buraq, a Hamas-allied education center shut down by Israel several months ago. The preface says it seeks to “emphasize the Arab and Islamic identity” of the Palestinians, highlight the “brutality of the occupier” and “to create the energy to get rid of all types of occupation.”

During the second Palestinian uprising, it says, U.S. cease-fire initiatives “ignored the political rights of the Palestinian people and did not recognize the Palestinian people’s right to resistance to regain its rights.” In contrast, the draft of a textbook for grades eight to 10 on modern Palestinian history, written when Fatah controlled the schools, is a largely matter-of-fact description of events. Fatah educators say Hamas held up its printing because it’s too neutral. Hamas denies it.

Mr. Shaer, while removing the ban, hasn’t explicitly recommended the al-Buraq booklet to the students — to the disappointment of the Islamic center, which had presumed it now had a sympathetic ear in the ministry. Some Hamas ideologues are growing impatient with the slow pace of change.

“We want to implement the Palestinian dimension, and the Islamic and Arabic dimension,” said Hamas legislator Sheik Hamed Bitawi. “Anything that comes in conflict with our Islamic ideology should be taken out.”

Last summer, Sheik Bitawi and other Hamas members of parliament’s Education Committee demanded that a chapter on U.S. history be removed from a 12th-grade textbook, arguing that the United States is an enemy of the Palestinians and that students instead should learn about Japan and other nations they deemed more supportive.

The proposal never got far — sidetracked in part because most Hamas legislators were rounded up by Israel after last summer’s capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas-allied militants in Gaza. Sheik Bitawi was also arrested in last month’s Israeli sweep, along with more than 30 senior Hamas officials.

Palestinian textbooks, written in stages over the past seven years to replace Egyptian and Jordanian imports, are under intense Israeli and international scrutiny for suspected anti-Israel incitement. For example, an Israeli watchdog group complained recently that the Holocaust is not taught in a high school history book.

Outside approval is important because Palestinian public schools depend on foreign aid. Before international sanctions were imposed last year in an effort to force Hamas to recognize Israel’s existence, public schools received more than $350 million over a decade, most of it for building new classrooms.

Any attempt to radically change the textbooks likely would create an uproar and undermine the government’s efforts to portray itself as politically moderate and restore foreign aid.

Where Hamas has been most aggressive is in replacing senior Fatah-allied educators with Hamas loyalists.

Fatah supporters old enough to retire were sent home. Others kept their jobs, but were stripped of their authority. Fatah’s Jihad Zakarneh, who had been in charge of hiring teachers in the West Bank, had his signing powers revoked. In Gaza City, a senior Fatah loyalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, said he now spends his day in the ministry reading newspapers.

In the West Bank city of Hebron, the Fatah-affiliated deputy chief of the local school district, Nisrine Amr, sued Mr. Shaer after he named a private Islamic school principal as her boss. When the new boss in turn was arrested by Israeli troops two months ago, another Hamas-allied educator was brought in as a temporary replacement, rather than allowing Miss Amr to step in, as protocol would have suggested.

“They didn’t even give us a chance to run [the district] for one day because we are not of their political persuasion,” said Miss Amr.

The Education Ministry denied it is hiring teachers and administrators based on their politics, but said that Mr. Shaer, like any other politician, had the right to surround himself with trusted staffers.

“In the recruitment policy, the changes were very slight,” said ministry spokesman Basri Saleh. “There is nothing about marginalizing that team of people or giving an advantage to this team of people.”

However, Hamas‘ rivals fear the Islamic movement has plenty of time to overhaul the system, slowly.

Azzam Al-Ahmed, the deputy prime minister from Fatah, said Hamas “tries and keeps trying” to change education. “If they continue in power for a long time, they will succeed,” he said.

Computer teacher Riham Diek says she already feels the shift.

“As a mother, I am very afraid for my children,” said Mrs. Diek, whose 14-year-old daughter, Naheel, is being hounded by pro-Hamas teachers in her West Bank village of Kufr Nameh to trade her jeans and denim jacket for a head scarf and robe.

“We want a generation that is able to deal with the rules of freedom and democracy,” she said.

c AP reporters Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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