Saturday, 16 April 2005

Hope dims for school pushing Mideast peace

Both sides hassle Palestinian project that bridges conflict

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Saturday, April 16, 2005

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

El-Khadr, West Bank -- Amid stirrings of hope that Israelis and Palestinians can negotiate a peaceful settlement to their decades-long conflict, a school that has battled to promote peace and coexistence among children in the area faces extinction.

The Hope Flowers School, near Bethlehem, has survived threats from Palestinian bureaucrats and shells from Israeli tanks since its founding. Its programs promoting dialogue and contact between Israeli and Palestinian students have attracted worldwide attention and a visit in 1998 from then- first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But Hope Flowers now faces a demolition order from the Israeli government, and its education license has been frozen by the Palestinian Authority.

Perched in a valley between the village of El-Khadr south of Bethlehem and the sprawling Israeli settlement of Efrat, Hope Flowers has tried for years to bridge the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians through classroom projects and encounters between its Palestinian students and children from the other side.

"The idea of the school is to create a new generation of Palestinians and Israelis who believe in peace and coexistence," said school Principal Ibrahim Issa, 31, whose father, Hussein, was its founder. "We believe that by bringing many children together from both sides, we can create a new generation who will find a peaceful resolution to our conflict."

However, Israeli roadblocks erected after the Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000 have prevented students from reaching the campus. Armed attacks by Hamas militants against Israeli soldiers and settlers in March 2002 triggered such heavy exchanges of fire that the campus had to be evacuated with the assistance of the Red Cross and the U.S. Consulate.

Fewer students

The violence has taken its toll. Enrollment fell from a high of 500 students in 1998 to just 120 last year. Since the uprising, or intifada, Hope Flowers has been forced to close its high school and now offers classes only for students age 12 and younger. This year, enrollment has grown to 180, and Issa is determined to keep it rising.

Now that Palestinian and Israeli schoolchildren in the area are unable to visit each other, however, Hope Flowers is carrying on its outreach through a program sponsored by Building Bridges, an Israeli-German-Palestinian program.

The school's philosophy of nonviolence and neighborliness has attracted support from donors in the United States and Europe. The largest single donor to the meager annual budget of $275,000 is the Orange County Middle East Peace Fund, which donates $35,000 to $55,000 in funds from individual donors each year.

The U.S. consul general intervened to save Hope Flowers when Israeli officials issued a demolition order in 1999, saying the school was constructed without the required permit, as many of the buildings in the area are. Issa says his father, who died in 2000, hoped the area would be transferred to Palestinian control before the Israeli order could be implemented, but then the intifada broke out, and the peace process ground to a halt.

Now, the demolition order has been renewed. Issa believes that the Israelis want to demolish the cafeteria and claim the land to build a section of the West Bank security barrier dividing Israel from Palestinian-controlled areas. He says plans for the barrier show it would cut to within 130 yards of the school cafeteria, well within the 164-yard no-man's-land required on either side of the wall. Maps issued by the Israeli government are not precise enough to show whether the fence will cut through the campus, as Issa fears.

A spokesman for the Israeli Civil Administration, which issued the demolition orders, said the order "has no connection whatsoever to the building of the security fence."

He added that officials were not aware that any of the buildings scheduled for destruction were part of a school. "If it is part of a school, it's possible that the Civil Administration will reconsider the demolition order," he said.

However, demolishing even the school cafeteria also would mean destroying the school's water system, which lies beneath it. Replacing the system would cost about $120,000 -- well beyond the school's means, Issa said.

The water is used in the school's greenhouses, whose crops help fund scholarships for poor students. Hope Flowers needs the money because the Palestinian Ministry of Education provides no financial support to the school. The ministry froze the school's license in September, saying a retaining wall above the schoolyard needed repair.

'They don't toe the line'

"They know we haven't got the $70,000 needed to repair the wall," he said. "It is just a pretext."

Palestinian officials declined to answer questions about the school.

Ruth Shapin, secretary of the Orange County Middle East Peace Fund, says the Palestinian Authority withholds support from the school "because they don't toe the line. They teach peace and democracy, including cooperation with people of goodwill on the Israeli side."

"It behooves the international community to protect this little school," she added.

But four years of pressure from all sides have taken their toll, even on erstwhile supporters.

An example to live by

Benjamin Waxman, a marketing consultant from Delaware who now lives in the neighboring settlement of Efrat and helped the school build a computer laboratory, was a longtime supporter.

"They were the genuine item, not faking it,'' said Waxman. "I'm convinced that whether we have one state or two states, we have to learn to live together."

Christina Cody, 25, of Ashland, Ore., volunteers at Hope Flowers, helping to organize trauma training sessions for teachers and counselors at nearby schools.

She witnessed the school's work during a Building Bridges session with German exchange students.

"There came a point when it was clear the Palestinian students had pro- Nazi feelings against Jews," she said. "The German students got involved and helped them to take a deeper look at those feelings by drawing on their own experiences in Germany. Even though they were only teenagers, they were able to help the Palestinian students understand where such anti-Jewish feelings could lead."

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