POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 4, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 2:27 a.m. HST, Nov 4, 2013
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip » When a class of Palestinian ninth-graders in Gaza recently discussed the deadly 1929 riots over access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, it was guided by a new textbook, introduced this fall by the Islamist Hamas movement.
Asked the lesson of the uprising, one of the 40 boys in class promptly answered, "Al Buraq Wall is an Islamic property," using the Muslim name for the site, one of the holiest in Judaism. Pleased, the teacher then inquired whether the students would boycott Israeli products, as Arabs had boycotted Jewish businesses in 1929. A resounding chorus of "Yes!" came back from the class.
For the first time since taking control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the Hamas movement is deviating from the approved Palestinian Authority curriculum, using the new texts as part of a broader push to infuse the next generation with its militant ideology.
Among other points, the books, used by 55,000 children in the 8th, 9th and 10th grades as part of a required "national education" course of study in government schools, do not recognize modern Israel, or even mention the Oslo Peace Accords the country signed with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1990s.
Textbooks have long been a point of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which dueling historical narratives and cultural clashes underpin a territorial fight. And they have been central examples of what Israeli leaders call Palestinian "incitement" against Jews, held up as an obstacle to peace talks newly resumed under American pressure.
Beyond their take on Israel, the new texts are also a salvo in the war for influence between the rival Palestinian factions: Gaza-based Hamas and Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank. They reflect a growing gulf between the 1.7 million Palestinians living in the densely populated Gaza Strip and the 2.5 million spread among the West Bank's cities and villages.
"Textbooks are always and everywhere a very important means of representing a national ethos," said Daniel Bar-Tal, a Tel Aviv University professor who helped lead a comprehensive recent study of Israeli and Palestinian textbooks.
"When a leader says something, not everyone is listening. But when we talk about textbooks, all the children, all of a particular peer group, will be exposed to a particular material," he added. "This is the strongest card."
What Gaza teenagers are reading in their 50-page hardcover texts this fall includes references to the Jewish Torah and Talmud as "fabricated," and a description of Zionism as a racist movement whose goals include driving Arabs out of all of the area between the Nile in Africa and the Euphrates in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
"Palestine," in turn, is defined as a state for Muslims stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. A list of Palestinian cities includes Haifa, Beersheba and Acre - all within Israel's 1948 borders. And the books rebut Jewish historical claims to the territory by saying, "The Jews and the Zionist movement are not related to Israel, because the sons of Israel are a nation which had been annihilated."
For contemporary history, there is a recounting of Hamas' battle with Israel last fall that exaggerates: The books say that rockets from Gaza sent "three million Zionists underground for eight days" (somewhat fewer Israelis were in and out of shelters sporadically); that Tel Aviv was hit (one missile landed in the sea and another fell well short) and that an attempted strike on Israel's Parliament building "forced the Zionists to beg for cease-fire."
Yosef Kuperwasser, a senior Israeli official who has led the charge against the incitement, said the new texts were blunter expressions of a dangerous message spread throughout Palestinian schools and news media.
"Palestinians have developed a system of deception - to English-speaking people they sell one story, and to themselves they have a different story," Kuperwasser said. "Textbooks are one of the tools with which they tell their children what is the truth." He added, "If you want real peace, it has to be based on a real change in the culture of hatred."
The study that Bar-Tal co-led found that Palestinian Authority books generally contained more negative characterizations of Israel and less self-criticism than Israeli books do of Palestinians, but that both sides presented the other as the enemy, failed to properly mark most maps, and lacked information about each other's religion, culture and daily life.
Hamas officials said they had introduced the new textbooks, and doubled the time devoted to the national education course to two sessions per week, because they believed that the Palestinian Authority was under pressure from Israel to sanitize its curriculum. "We need to make sure generations stick to the national rights," said one Hamas lawmaker, Huda Naim.
The Gaza Strip is home to 465,000 students. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which supports Palestinian refugee families, runs 250 schools for grades one to nine, and the Hamas government controls 400 schools serving all grades (there are also 46 private schools). Both Hamas and the refugee agency use the Palestinian Authority curriculum also taught throughout the West Bank, but Hamas has added some programs, like a military training elective introduced in high schools last year that focuses on resistance to Israel.
In April, Hamas approved a new law requiring gender-segregated schools from age 9, and making criminal any contact between educational institutions and Israel. Hamas has also recently increased modesty patrols to check clothing on college campuses and to stop young unmarried men and women from fraternizing in public.
Abdel-Hakim Abu Jamous, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority's Education Ministry in Ramallah in the West Bank, said no national education textbooks were used in West Bank schools, leaving individual teachers to run lessons as they wish. Jehad Zakarna, a senior official in the ministry, said he had not seen the Hamas textbooks, which were introduced at the start of school on Aug. 20, and therefore could not comment on them.
The new books, written by a Hamas committee, feature cover pictures of Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a West Bank city, both sites of continuing clashes between Muslim and Jewish worshipers.
Besides their questionable treatment of Israel and Jews, the textbooks present a decidedly Hamas spin on Palestinian politics and recent history. For example, Ahmed Yassin, a Hamas founder, is given equal billing with Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian president, who remains the definitive national hero in the West Bank.
Anound Ali, a 10th-grader at another Gaza City school, expressed concern that the new books could further divide Palestinians. "School textbooks were the last thing uniting us with the West Bank - now we study something different," she said one recent day after class.
She added: "The book has nothing about Oslo. It's our right to know about Oslo because it's a fact in our life."
At Suliman Sultan School here in Gaza City, a three-story L-shaped building overlooking the rubble of a stadium destroyed by an Israeli F-16 airstrike last November, many students and teachers were thrilled to have the new textbooks.
"It shows the cruelty of the occupation," said Ahmed Bessisso, a 15-year-old student in the class that discussed the 1929 uprising. "It encourages students to participate in national activities."
Ahmed's classmate Mohamed Ajour, also 15, said that he preferred "to study the history of Palestine instead of the history of Egypt or Jordan," and that the books present the "Palestine I want to learn about - I don't recognize that Palestine is only Gaza and West Bank."
Munir Qatayef, who teaches another national education section in the school, said the book had been "big for students."
"It's highly politicized," Qatayef said. "It's a lesson of nationalism and belonging."
--Fares Akram and Jodi Rudoren / New York Times