Teaching Democracy and Co-Existence in the West Bank


An American journalist befriends a Palestinian school.

by Brett Kline


© The Levantine Project, All Rights Reserved


      When I first arrived at the Hope Flowers School near Bethlehem on the West Bank, the children came running up shouting, "shalom,shalom."  They thought I was a new Hebrew teacher.  This was followed by, "what's your name, what's your name," in English.  They grabbed my hands and my bags, until their teachers yelled for them to stop.  The children at Hope Flowers, or Zohour Al Amal, were thrilled that someone would volunteer to teach them not only English, which they learn already, but also French, which they would hear for the first time in their lives.

      The sun was beating down on the pavement and the wind was kicking up dust off the rocky hills around the school.  Only a fool or a right-wing religious settler would describe this setting, with the olive trees dotting the dry brown rocky hills, as pastoral or biblical.  The challenges which school director Hussein Ibrahim Issa faces in offering students an education for peace, democracy and co-existence with Israelis, are modern, complex and political in every sense of the word.

      A secular, private school, Zohour Al Amal is housed in a massive, L-shaped 5-story building and is part of a rocky construction site in El Khader village.  The way in is too wide to be a path, but too bumpy and uneven to be a road.  The school suffers from a chronic shortage of funding.  Hussein Ibrahim Issa has attracted international attention with his policy of inviting Israelis here to teach a number of subjects, including Hebrew, on a volunteer basis.  Issa, a short, stocky man, a psychologist and educator originally from nearby Dieshe refugee camp, is the only school director in West Bank-Gaza to work with Israeli Jews.  This is not a popular thing to do among West Bank and Gaza leaders.  But Issa is firmly convinced that progressive, left-leaning Israeli organizations and indivduals have a role to play in building Palestinian society.  The why is not important, only the who, what and how.  In return for their work, Issa offers the Israelis and other volunteers Arabic lessons every Saturday morning.

     My lessons were going smoothly.  Shoukran jezilan, thank you very much ; merci beaucoup, the children repeated.  Achmar, red, rouge...Kif-halak, how are you, comment vas-tu...beit, house, maison.I used a microphone and tape recorder, the tools of a radio journalist.  The playback of each voice set them laughing.  One little boy, Omar, was quick to distinguish between the Arabic "r" on the tongue, the flat English "r", and the guttural French "r" in the throat.  Omar is extremely bright, organized and precise.  If he attracts the attention of the right people, he could be a leader of the Palestinian people, beginning with his training in democracy and co-existence at this school.  If he goes the wrong way, his brains and other capacities will attract the attention of extremists, and he will perhaps one day organize bus bombings and arms purchases for them.

     In West Bank-Gaza, this is all serious business, though the politics are hidden under the bedlam of construction, and the quiet trudging of donkeys carrying herbs and vegetables on the sides of the roads. One day, we had an unexpected visit by the Palestinian Authority undersecretary for special education.  He was surprised to see three languages on the blackboard, but quickly acknowledged the kids' enthusiasm.  For several years, the Palestinian Authority objected to the presence of the Israeli Jews at the school and even threatened to close it down.  Suddenly in March, the PA gave its official blessing to Issa and his education for peaceful co-existence.  He breathed deeply, and continued holding classes while shaking the bushes for funding.

     The PA official visiting my class would have been surprised to know who sponsored my stay and teaching.  The El Al flight from Paris was paid for by Josi Haklai, director of the Jewish Agency there.  As a former high school principal in the Galilee, Josi knows that education is the main way to combat the fear and hatred children learn at home and in the streets.  He took the initiative without asking his home office in Jerusalem.
 It was a young Palestinian business leader in Beit Hanina, north Jerusalem, Rick Dahoudóthe owner of Dalleh Al-Baraka Rent-a-Carówho gave me a car for the length of my stay.  "Anything to help the Palestinian children," he told me.  The Ritz Hotel in Arab East Jerusalem gave me a room at more than 50 percent off.  The hotel tab was picked up by the Meretz World Union, the international branch of the left wing Israeli political party.

     Secretary general Sheva Friedman noted that this partnership, limited as it is, is an example of the peace process working on the ground.  Hope Flowers director Issa is doing battle against powerful forces.  The rest of the world hears about Hamas fundamentalists when buses blow up and people die, but the daily work of Hope Flowers, in the field. is no less ardent.  Issa says Hamas officials visit the parents of his students every night to convince them that a peace education is un-Arabic, and that they should pull their kids out of Hope Flowers.  While a certain sheik in Gaza picks up millions of dollars with every foreign visit he makes, Issa has trouble paying his phone bill.

      As the West Bank wind whips sand across the basketball court and the garden he is planting in the rocky soil, Issa shrugs and with a bitter laugh, says, "they are rich and work for death and destruction.  We are really suffering for peace.  But the road to peaceful co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis is the only road to take.  We need only  a little help from our friends."

o o o

      Hussein Ibrahim Issa was obsessed with finishing the hotel construction above theschool to be able to host peace groups and Christian pilgrims visiting nearby Bethlehem.  He had major disagreements with American funding groups and the leftist Meretz political party working with the volunteer teachers.  They all pulled out.  Then the Israeli army harassed him for building without a permit and threatened to blow up his kitchen and water tower.  Husseinís Israeli lawyer saved the day in the court in Bet El.

      But Hussein didnít make it.  He died of diabetes and heart problems in March.  He always told me that he was the president of the "Tired Club," sleeping whenever he got a chance to sit down.  "I see the way you run around, we will soon make you a member," he said.  The club has been disbanded.

      The school has been taken over by Husseinís youngest daughter, Ghada Issa.  She is intelligent, well-spoken, determined to put the school back on trackÖand she is beautiful.  For all these reasons, she runs into a lot of walls.  The PA can tolerate a smart woman talking about education, but not about money.  Palestinian banks do not take her seriously.  Her tireless assistant, Gene Sandretto, who also worked with her father, is overwhelmed with the task of bringing back funding, teachers and students.  But as a non-Arabic speaking American, there are limits to his work.

      Things have changed at Zohour Al Amal.  The bumpy road has been blacktopped. From the 4th floor dorm-style rooms, a visitor can see the newest structures built by the Jewish colony of Efrat on the hills several kilometers away, on land recently seized from Palestinians, either with or without compensation.  As Efratís resources expand, those of the Hope Flowers School are shrinking.  Compared to the Israelis, the capacity of the Palestinians to organize and fund projects is pitiful, especially for something outside the political and social mainstream.  This is unlikely to change in the immediate future.
 I had dreamed of my own two boys learning in the same classroom with the Palestinian kids if and when I go back again to teach there.  They had visited the school with me one summer, when only Hussein was there, and an old woman served us tea.  He and I sat inside his cool office and shut our eyes, while the boys snooped around the cement square and were then disappointed not to find a soccer ball to kick around under the white hot sun.

      Now after the recent intense violence, including fighting not so far from the school, I doubt I could safely bring my boys there again.  If Ghada Issa gets her way, however, peace education does stand a chance.

      This summer, I put her in touch with Sheva Friedman at Meretz International, but she needs a lot of help and many new friends to keep peace education alive.

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Brett Kline is an American radio and print journalist based in Paris.  Visit the Hope Flowers website at http://www.mideastweb.org/HopeFlowers/. Contact .

The Levantine Project is a new syndication service of articles, essays, art and photography available through Ivri-NASAWI. 


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