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Educators ask questions amid conflict in Mideast


RAMALLAH, West Bank - In one set of schools, teachers began the first day of class by asking a question even third-graders know to expect: What did you do during summer vacation? In another, a half-million students never reached class because of a teachers strike.

For Palestinian and Israeli students, Saturday and yesterday brought at least an attempt to return to school in the midst of a conflict that has scarred both societies and made victims of children and parents.

In the West Bank, uniformed pupils walked through Israeli army checkpoints to reach their classrooms. In Israel, security guards were on duty in record numbers as teachers and the government squabbled over whether there was money for both education and war.

At Ramallah's Ideal School, Palestinian pupils gave teacher Salam Hammad the answers she expected. Boys and girls recounted games of dodging soldiers and throwing stones at Israeli tanks rumbling along the roads.

"We have to address the psychological situation of our students before we can educate them," Hammad said, explaining the opening day exercise. "Many students have trouble dealing with what they see. It is very difficult for them to live."

At Hebrew University Secondary School in Jerusalem, Principal Hana Levitt, an educator with more than four decades of experience, paced empty hallways in sullen despair.

"Everybody is waiting for the first day," she said. "It's so frustrating. We had our summer break, and now we're just sitting around planning alternatives."

Levitt sent the school's three armed security guards home, along with secretaries, janitors and the counselors called in to help grieving students deal with having friends killed or injured over the summer by Palestinian militants.

Israeli and Palestinian students alike must cope with the effects of violence. At least 17 Israeli primary and secondary school students were killed and scores injured in the past school year. The Palestinian Authority says the Israeli army killed 216 Arab students, wounded 2,514 and arrested 164 during the same period.

Palestinian officials said 17 teachers were killed and 71 arrested. They said 1,289 schools were closed for three straight weeks because of curfews.

Palestinians and Israelis listened to the radio to learn whether the first day of classes would take place on schedule - Israelis to find out if the strike threats were real, Palestinians to find out if the Israeli army had lifted curfews in place since June.

The Israeli military eased movement in all but two West Bank cities, Jenin and Hebron, where about 45,000 Palestinian students were prevented from reaching their classrooms. About a million Palestinian students made it to school on time.

The Ideal School, where Hammad teaches, shares its building with the Palestinian legislature and has about 350 pupils in grades one through four. It is a maze of grimy corridors and rooms with peeling paint, water-stained walls and wooden desks with rough tops.

Because of the Israeli curfew, Palestinian teachers and administrators could not reach the building before Saturday, preventing parents from registering their children and workers from making needed repairs.

On Saturday morning, teachers rang bells and pupils in blue-and-white-striped uniforms lined up, recited the first verse of the Quran and filed into the building.

Raeda Mohammed Abdel-al, 6, clung to her father's leg and cried, scared of being alone among strangers for the first time. Her father, Mohammed, 30, gave her a smile of encouragement and patted her Mickey Mouse book bag. It didn't help, he said, that they had passed a line of parked Israeli army vehicles on the way to school.

Hammad took control of her classroom with a stern voice. Her desk was bereft of papers, books, pens and files. The chalkboard behind her had been erased but did not have the freshly washed look that usually greets pupils on the first day.

Then came her question: "What did you do on your summer vacation?"

"We didn't do anything because of the siege," one girl cried out.

Mohammed Razowi, 8, leaped to the front of the class to act out how his uncle had barely escaped from his car as a tank approached.

"The tank just ran over it," he said.

Rawan Thabet, 8, said her cousin is wanted by the Israeli army.

"They came to my house and said that he had to turn himself in or they would destroy it," she said.

Leen Budari, 8, walked to the teacher's desk and told the class: "I want to challenge the tanks."

Hammad told Leen's classmates to clap for her.

In the hallway, posters of dead Palestinian children shared the walls with banners urging pupils to read.

Levitt, the principal of the Secondary School in Jerusalem, said the Israeli-Palestinian violence is as much a topic of classes as history, literature and drama.

A recent graduate of the school was killed and another wounded in bombings last school year - one aboard a bus, the other at Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus.

"We talked a lot about what happened and how to deal with it," Levitt said. "Sometimes the students don't want to talk. But we don't leave it alone. We always try to make lesson plans around the violence. It was a very difficult year, but we have to deal with it."

The teachers strike left Levitt nearly alone yesterday in her school, where she has been principal for 14 years. Halls that should have been filled with more than 1,000 students and 140 teachers were empty.

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