School's a Blast in Middle East

Kids of all religions learning a lot about rocketry.

Tom Spender/IRIN
Civics 101: One of the Qassam rockets that didn't explode is displayed in the town hall of Sderot, along with photos of residents killed by Qassams that did explode. Does it really matter if I tell you whether it's a Jewish or Arab town?

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that the Israeli-Palestinian death dance marathon staged by adults is more than annoying to children on both sides.

In schools themselves, the ones that are open, it's like the science fair from hell: The kids are learning immediate lessons in rocket-building and rocket avoidance. After school, the favorite music is rock — the pop of the ones being thrown by Palestinian kids, the house rock of walls inside Gaza homes being pummeled into rubble by Israeli soldiers.

classrooms-240.jpgIt's a little different in Iraq's schools, where recess is going on and on — millions of people have fled their homes, and those who haven't find it too risky to venture outdoors. Want good grades? Forget the apple. Threaten to kill your teacher or kidnap his son.

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Take a break from all the stories about nutcase Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia. Protest against him — that's your right — but who the hell cares? That's a circus. But the freaky sideshows are in the Middle East, where the age of rock is going to cause permanent damage to kids for generations to come, creating anger and fear on all sides that will be easily stirred up into religious fear. In effect, chapters of Future Terrorists of Arabia are popping up all over.

Here in Springfield, Mrs. Lovejoy would say, "Ohhh, won't somebody please think of the children!" (Listen to her here.)

She's right, and these are a few of the stories — underreported in the U.S. or not reported at all — that explain why:

Shell shock: Seven Qassams, crude but effective Palestinian-made rockets, blast the Israeli town of Sderot in early September:

On 3 September, the second day of the school year, a projectile fired from the Gaza Strip landed near a day care centre for toddlers in the Israeli town of Sderot. Parents in the town promptly met and decided to take their children out of all schools in the town from 5 September. …

Several children with mental disorders were in a school bus along with 12 toddlers from the day care centre when the rocket landed nearby. They were taken to hospital suffering from shock, medical officials said.

Altogether, seven rockets, dubbed locally Qassams after the version made famous by the Hamas movement's military wing, landed in Sderot on 3 September.

The Islamic Jihad took responsibility, saying they were a "gift" for the new school year. …

Sima Ohaiyon, a resident of Sderot and mother of three, walked her four-year-old daughter Osher, which means "happiness" in Hebrew, to her new school on 4 September, a day after a rocket fired from Gaza landed outside a day care centre for toddlers.

"It's not an easy time in Sderot. There are too many rockets falling.

Human shields: Israeli soldiers storm a West Bank refugee camp, blasting through the interior walls of homes and reportedly using Palestinians as shields:

Residents of the Ein Beit Alma refugee camp began to pick up the pieces after an intense Israeli military incursion last week left dozens homeless, and many very frightened, especially children. …

[A tactic] known as "through walls" was used. Soldiers go through neighbours' homes, destroying joint walls, to reach targets without being exposed in the narrow streets. …

Several people said the soldiers used three locals as human shields, a practice deemed illegal by Israel's High Court. The Israeli military said it was "not aware of any such incident". …

"The effects of these military operations at such close quarters have an incalculable impact on the well-being of the young," said Christopher Gunness from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

The agency runs psycho-social programmes and has counsellors at its two camp schools.

"The children are not studying now, they are frightened. They go to school and draw, colour and read stories," said Samia Abu Salah, whose children attend UNRWA schools and are taking part in a programme which tries to help the children express their feelings.

"Fighting Israel is Islamic duty": Palestinian kids are being taught that fighting Israel is a holy task, and Israeli kids are being taught that there is no West Bank, that Israel has dominion over all of ancient Israel. Palestinian maps and schoolbooks are nuts, and those in Israel border on the insane:

A map depicting Israeli and Palestinian territories as "Palestine," is found in a new Palestinian school book, according to Palestinian Media Watch, [which adds,] "Maps of the region likewise teach children to visualise a world without Israel, as Israel does not exist on any map and its area is marked as 'Palestine.'" …

Israeli schoolbooks have also proved controversial. … A map depicting Palestinian and Israeli territories as "Israel" as found in Israeli school book Welcome to Israel. … Last year, Israeli education minister Yuli Tamir revealed that maps in some Israeli textbooks showed land Israel conquered in the 1967 war — the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights — as part of Israel even though they are deemed occupied territory under international law.

Much of the world believes the Green Line — the pre-1967 ceasefire line between Israel and Jordan, which controlled the West Bank — should be the basis for an international border between Israel and the West Bank section of a future Palestinian state.

New Palestinian 12th grade textbooks published last December deny Israel's existence and teach 11-year-olds that the Palestinian struggle is part of an overall war between Muslims and their enemies, according to a Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) report entitled "From nationalist battle to religious conflict". …

"The books don't allow for a Palestinian child to accept Israel as a neighbour. When you define the conflict as a religious war you are no longer fighting for your own national identity or territory but for Islamic destiny. You have to accept either Islam or Israel," said Itamar Marcus, PMW's director.

"I would be happy if the books talked about a national struggle to get as many rights as possible. But to package it as an everlasting war is to generate years of conflict. It's child abuse against their own kids," he said.

Some 926 Palestinian children and 118 Israeli children have been killed in violence since 2000, according to NGO Remember These Children, which monitors the number of minors killed on both sides.

Hostile entities: After years of Arab countries continually refusing to call Israel anything other than "the Zionist entity," Israel is now labeling Gaza a "hostile entity" and is further strangling its residents:

An Israeli cabinet decision on 19 September, which declared the Gaza Strip a "hostile entity" and which would allow the state to cut fuel and electricity supplies to the enclave, has been immediately condemned by aid and human rights organisations. …

Currently, only food and medical supplies are generally allowed in and all exports are banned. Construction materials are blocked, while it took several weeks and international pressure to allow paper for printing school books to arrive.

Movement of civilians is also already severely limited, and Gaza's Rafah Crossing to Egypt, has been closed since June. Further restrictions would likely ban even limited access to Israel.

Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said the decision is in line with international law and "it's not going to affect the humanitarian needs of the population in the Gaza Strip."

However, Oxfam International disagreed.

"Reducing the fuel supplies to a bare minimum [will] only increase the suffering of one and a half million people in Gaza, and constitutes collective punishment," said Jeremy Hobbs, the group's executive director, adding it would be "immoral and contrary to the Geneva Conventions".

Cutting power, legal experts said, would not distinguish between civilians and militants.

Israel maintains it has very limited responsibility for the Gaza Strip since its 2005 redeployment of troops and settlers from the territory. Amnesty International, however, believes the Jewish state, is "ultimately responsible for ensuring the welfare of the … Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip", since it "retains effective control" over the area.

The Israeli human rights group Gisha said the decision was "dangerous, because operating rooms, emergency services, sewage pumps and water wells cannot run without electricity".

Recess in Iraq: Iraqi parents are running on empty. School attendance is sharply down because of an outbreak of ditching — that's residents flinging themselves into ditches to avoid be killed by explosions or soldiers:

"We are trying to encourage families to take their children to school as there has been a continuous decrease in attendance in the past four years and this has seriously affected pupils' performance," Leila Abdallah, a senior official at the Ministry of Education, said.

"We have enhanced policing at the school gates of most schools but families are still scared to send their children to school. This might seriously affect their future," she added. "I don't blame them for trying to protect their children but we have to start changing the actual situation of violence by teaching pupils how to build a better Iraq."

Parents have also been irked by poor examinations results in the past academic year.

According to Leila, there has been a 54 percent increase in exam failure rates compared to previous years. She said many students had not sat the last exams as they had been forced by violence to flee their homes for safer areas.

Also, few schools have offered extra preparatory classes to students who have to repeat their exams because teachers are too afraid to leave their homes.

"Either you give us good marks or you will die": If Iraqi kids do somehow manage to reach college, they're practically assured of high grades because professors are scared to death:

Hassan Khalid Hayderi, 54, is a professor of mathematics at Basra University, 550 km south of the capital, Baghdad. He and his family are leaving Iraq as soon as his brother finds him a job in Jordan because he has received death threats from students demanding easy exams and better marks.

"After 20 years as professor of mathematics in Basra and Baghdad, I have decided to leave my job and the country. Teachers in Iraq have been targeted since the US-led invasion in 2003, but from February last year our situation has worsened because of threats from inside our classrooms.

"Students started demanding easier exams and if they don’t pass the year, it might mean your death. Either you give good marks or you are going to be killed.

"When I leave my home every morning to go to the university, I fear a bullet is going to rip through my head or chest. I constantly find notes with demands of good marks or sometimes shorter lessons from students on my desk.

"Lessons that used to last for one hour are given nowadays in half-an-hour to meet such requests.

"Two of my colleagues have been killed in the past months for refusing to cater to such requests. Sometimes even fathers come after you asking for good marks for their sons. Once I refused to listen to one of them and the result was the kidnapping of my 23-year-old son, Abdel-Kader. He was released after I let a student — who scored very badly in exams — pass the year."


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