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History textbooks try to foster harmony in a traumatised town

WEST BANK

By early morning in the bullet-scarred town of Ramallah on the West Bank, pupils are on the move, faces scrubbed and shiny, heading for classrooms with books in hand.

The scene's normality masks the trauma of conflict. Here, pupils are in a permanent state of mourning. On their desks are photographs of siblings, parents and schoolmates who have died in the 31-month Palestinian uprising.

With the publication of the recent "road map" to peace both sides now have a glimmer of a hope. This has led education officials to consider a sensitive question: how should the history and politics of this divided region be explained to the next generation in a way that promotes peace?

Israel has persistently complained that Palestinian classrooms are incubators for hatred. A well-publicised photo of a tiny tot strapped in a mocked-up suicide bombing belt is often cited as proof that children here are being indoctrinated.

In Ramallah, however, seat of the Palestinian government, officials responsible for reforming books and the curriculum insist a new era has begun. Over the past six years they have phased out anti-Israeli material imported from neighbouring Arab states, and substituted less inflammatory work.

"We are doing our very best to bring our school materials into the 21st century, and away from the difficulties of the past," says Dr Omar Abu-Humos, deputy head of the Palestinian curriculum development centre.

"But the problem is that children live in the real world. They see death, they feel fear, and they become angry. Our job is to lower the level of the emotions by teaching facts, not exaggerations. It's the only way to peace."

Such work by the Palestinian leadership, will be part of its effort to show it is "willing and able to build a practising democracy based on tolerance and liberty", something that, under the road map, it must do if the goal of a Palestinian state is to be realised by 2005.

But such moves will involve confronting Palestinian militants - responsible for the deaths of more than 700 Israeli citizens during the intifada - and their supporters. For them there is only one fact: Israeli occupation.

The militants point to more than 2,000 Palestinians who have lost their lives in encounters with Israeli forces during the intifada. Those who downplay the need for armed struggle are labelled traitors.

But Dr Abu-Humos soldiers on, with the help of 30 underpaid experts, who produce thousands of new textbooks each year. Some are spread out in front of him: brightly coloured with Disney-like illustrations of birds and butterflies.

They have won the approval of some international educators, though not the Israeli parliament, which still sees them as biased. In a statement last February, it said that the new books "do not educate towards peace and reconciliation with Israel, and instead foster many-sided rejection of its very existence".

But some independent experts disagree. An American analyst, Professor Nathan Brown of George Washington University, vetted the new texts and pronounced them "devoid of racism and anti-Semitism". But he implied there were limits to what could be achieved in a time of conflict. "A real peace curriculum will follow, not precede, a comprehensive peace," he said.

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