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Amid curfew, makeshift schools, Arab pupils find a way to learn


NABLUS, West Bank - Their classroom is an open courtyard shaded by the branches of a lemon tree. The luckiest pupils have plastic lawn chairs; others sit on concrete steps and use folded blankets as cushions. The lesson plan is written on a wooden board painted black.

For these 22 students, most of them first-graders, the tiled courtyard in front of Basma Malhas' house, within sight of a refugee camp, is the only school they've attended this year. They come for just two hours a day, in the morning, when it is safe.

The rest of the time, the first-graders and virtually everyone else in the city are confined to their homes. For more than 90 consecutive days, the Israeli army has kept this city under curfew in a stranglehold that has obliterated daily routines for its 150,000 residents.

Since June 21, soldiers have eased restrictions for just 70 hours - a short time to shop for groceries, breathe fresh air and see people outside one's home.

Last week, the Palestinian Authority tried to open a dozen schools in Nablus, but Israeli soldiers firing machine guns dispersed hundreds of uniformed youngsters who tried to march through the empty streets to their classrooms.

So, makeshift schools are appearing in mosques, storefronts and homes tucked away on side streets and hidden in the tangled warrens of refugee camps all over Nablus, where 60,000 students live.

"We have come to the point where we are like Afghanistan, where kids are learning on the streets," says Hasam Lubbadeh, 42, whose five children attend temporary learning centers. "Israel is taking everything away from these young people. Even if there is a curfew, they should allow people to go to school."

The classrooms, like the one at Malhas' house, are set up so children don't have to walk more than a few blocks. Still, the pupils have to keep a careful watch for soldiers and learn to quickly dart into a nearby home should an army patrol pass by.

The children arrive early and eager. Some put on their blue- and-white striped uniforms and their backpacks decorated with Disney characters, even though they have no books.

"I want to learn," says Ruba Hindi, a 6-year-old making the best of what would have been her first full year after kindergarten. One day last week, she was practicing her Arabic letters, writing them in three neat columns in a notebook.

"I want to finish school and go to a university," says Ruba, as she seeks approval of her work from Malhas, who offers gentle advice on penmanship. Still, Ruba understands the unusual circumstances. At one point, she raises her hand and asks Malhas, "When can we go to a normal school?"

The Israeli army allowed Palestinian schools to open Aug. 31 in most Palestinian cities, even though they remained under curfew, but the restrictions were tightened last week after a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. The rules are simple: No one can leave his or her home, for any reason, without permission from the Israeli army.

Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman, says that schools sometimes open under agreements between local Palestinian leaders and Israeli commanders, but he acknowledges that "it is very difficult" to open schools when a curfew is being enforced. Army commanders say they will leave West Bank cities when the violence against Israelis is halted, and blame the school closings on Palestinian militants.

As Israeli restrictions have tightened over the past two years, Palestinians have learned to adapt. So, when the Israeli army forced schools to close, parents were determined to find a way to educate their children.

In normal times, Malhas, 28, teaches at a private school near the center of Nablus. Unable to reach her classroom, she turned her attention to the children living in and near the Balata refugee camp.

"I don't want any kids to miss their education," she says, as she moves between students. "We have to have hope. This should prove to the Israelis that we will not give up and that we can cope with any circumstance."

The outdoor classroom is not elaborate. Malhas shoved plants to the side and cleared her patio furniture. Most students sit around a wooden table; others balance notebooks in their laps and sit on stools or steps.

The courtyard is below street level. The branches of the lemon tree form a canopy. Beyond the courtyard, a rutted road swirls with dust at every passing of a vehicle.

Her courtyard seems a separate, sheltered world. Malhas avoids any mention of politics with the children.

"They get enough of that when they leave here," she says. "They get all of that just walking home."

The plank serving as a chalkboard leans against a kitchen window. Written on it is this: "The door of my school is open. The flag of my school is raised. The teacher is standing in front of the students. The headmaster is welcoming the pupils."

All of which is an illusion, but a necessary one, says Malhas, who seeks to create the atmosphere of a normal classroom.

"What is the lesson of the day?" she calls out to her pupils. "It's called 'My family.' The alphabet of the day is the letter P."

Then she reads from a book: "My mom is writing. Abed is drinking milk. My brother is reading."

Malhas hands out small blue notebooks and instructs her charges to practice writing letters. Amir Younis, 6, bears down hard on the page with his pencil, but the small, round metal table wobbles.

"This isn't a good table to write on," he says.

In the distance, somewhere near Nablus' central marketplace, bursts of gunfire crackle, drowning out the chirping birds resting in the lemon tree.

The pupils pay no attention.

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