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US funds democracy lessons

Sue Surkes reports on the way American cash is being spent to prepare young Palestinians for the forthcoming general election. Thousands of Palestinian pupils have been taking part in democracy workshops organised by the independent, Jerusalem-based, Palestinian Centre for Peace and Democracy (PCPD), in the run-up to the first Palestinian general elections, due to take place in November.

More than 8,000 13 to 18-year-olds, and nearly 450 teachers, have taken part in 152 workshops in 133 schools throughout Jerusalem and the West Bank. The project is funded by the American government's USAID, via the US-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

Responses to questionnaires distributed at the start of each workshop reveal quite a high level of awareness about concepts such as secret ballots and democratic leadership.

But a random analysis of 445 replies shows that while more than half correctly defined majority rule (answer (c) to Question 1 right), nearly a quarter opted for (b), while 13 per cent thought majority rule meant a younger person must follow the dictates of his or her elders.

The analysis also suggests confusion about minority rights (Question 2). Only 27 per cent chose the correct answer (b). Nearly 40 per cent thought minority rights were there to protect members of small political factions from persecution by larger ones, and more than 20 per cent thought their function was to protect people who live in small towns and villages.

In November 1988, before Israel and the Palestinians signed the Declaration of Principles for peace, the Palestine National Council issued a Declaration of Independence promising "a parliamentary democratic system of governance. . . based on freedom of expression and the freedom to form parties".

Palestinian children living in the West Bank and Gaza, however, have grown up in a confusing atmosphere, far from these ideals.

While television has brought them the boisterous political debates that take place on the other side of the Green Line (within Israel's pre-1967 borders), they have grown up under Israeli military occupation (on land Israel occupied in 1967), in an atmosphere often bordering on war.

Now they are witnessing a transition phase following the establishment of a Palestinian Authority, under Yasir Arafat, to run internal Palestinian affairs in most of Gaza and the West Bank (nine Jerusalem and Jewish settlements excluded).

Arafat, used to running a top-down military machine, is known for making most of the decisions himself and has yet to satisfy some critics of his democratic credentials.

Also confusing is the tension between the Palestinian tradition of respect for elders, and the catapulting of children into position of leadership during the Intifada (Palestinian uprising). During the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was children who largely set the pace, striking from school, and taking to the streets to throw stones at Israeli soldiers and demonstrate against military rule.

Social norms were turned upside down, and a certain anarchy took root, as young firebrands used power tactics and intimidation to dictate how teachers and parents should behave.

"Some pupils associate authority with soldiers, power, weapons, and killing, and think you implement change with sticks, stones, and bombs,'' said Naseef Mu'allem, a teacher, and executive director of the PCPD. "And some understand freedom as something without limitations, so we have to explain that in a democracy, there are restrictions."

The PCPD has already organised workshops in most high schools run by private organisations, the Muslim Properties Trust (Wakf), and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

So far, however, the Palestinian Authority has barred it from entering the public schools over which it has control (nearly 80 per cent of all Jerusalem and West Bank schools catering for 13 to 18-year-olds).

The authority says students lost so much during the Intifada that they have to catch up on their regular studies first.

The PCPD hopes it will gain access to these schools next academic year.


1. Majority rule means that: a. a younger person must follow the instructions or requests of an older person.

b. the party with the most elected representatives can tell the other parties what to do.

c. the politicians elected can govern, but they must consider the rights of everyone, not just their supporters.

2. Minority rights protect: a. people who live in small towns and villages b. people who may be of a different race or religion to the majority c. members of small political factions from persecution by larger ones.

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