Amid violence, young scholars excel and dream
High achievement a long tradition in West Bank city

By Charles A. Radin, Globe Staff, 8/29/2002

TULKAREM, West Bank - Undercover Israeli troops infiltrated this West Bank city Aug. 7 and engaged in a roaring gun battle with Palestinian militants, killing at least three - but the story did not dominate the news on any of the three local television stations.

Results of the Tawjihi, the Palestinian high school matriculation exam, were being released, and it would have taken more than a small battle to displace news for which all Tulkarem was holding its breath. Year after year this city of 95,800 people, almost on top of the so-called Green Line between the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel, produces many top finishers on the exam. This year was no different.

Only about 4 percent of the 51,000 Palestinian students who took the exam were from Tulkarem, but about 30 percent of the top finishers, and half the top finishers in sciences, were from here. Theories abound as to why: Some say the loss of agricultural land to Israel in the Jewish state's war for independence forced youth with ambition to farm to seek other occupations. Others say that, Israel or no Israel, agriculture has long been a dead-end job here. Still others say interest in the sciences has been a self-perpetuating part of the culture here for so long that no one really knows how or why the tradition got started.

What they know is that no war is going to change such a proud part of the local heritage, although this year, says Jamal Tarif, director of the education department, ''taking the exam was like going to war.'' Helped by residents calling down information from the windows of their homes, students organized groups to monitor Israeli troop movements and let other students know what passages to the examination sites were safe to use.

Tarif lined up three auditoriums to be used as alternative sites for administering the exam, in case Israeli-imposed curfews made holding the exam in a central location impossible. When he decided to use the alternative sites, the decision was conveyed to students by word of mouth.

''If I put it on radio and TV, the Israelis might have seen it as a challenge and acted against us for violating the curfew,'' Tarif said.

In other Palestinian cities affected by Israeli-imposed curfews, it took around 40 days to complete the exams. In Tulkarem, everything was finished within the four days Tarif designated. Still, the grading and rankings could not be announced until marking was completed throughout the territories.

Then the big day: The names of all who passed were read over and over on local radio and TV. Parents whose children did not pass, or who passed with lower marks than expected, beat a path to Tarif's door. One such parent was Abbas Abu Ghazaleh, whose daughter scored a very good 83.3, but whose class grades in school this year were all over 90.

''I think there must be some mistake,'' Ghazaleh said, acknowledging he was worried that his daughter's test score likely would significantly reduce her chances for scholarships.

Tarif shrugged his shoulders. ''It is like a wedding, or a funeral,'' when the results come out. ''If they succeed, they laugh. If they fail, they cry.''

Just how literal he was being became illustrated by the collapse of a girl whose score was read out as 62.5 - a passing, but entirely undistinguished, mark.

''She had to go to the hospital, and she stayed there several hours,'' said Othman Hamshari, director of the local television station Salam. ''She stayed until we corrected it on the air and people reassured her it had been corrected.'' The girl actually scored 92.5, a mark that put her among the best students, though still well short of the top 10 rankings that are the dream of the cream.

Like their parents in the Palestinian middle class, the top students say they would not participate in terrorism or violent political activity, but they do not condemn the suicide bombers, many of whom also are young. There are many ways to struggle, the top students say, but they feel the bombers are trying to do something for their fellow Palestinians.

''I feel they die for us,'' said Hathayfa Afif Atili, who lives in a Tulkarem district village and placed second among all Palestinians on the science exam, with a score of 98.8.

Atili, who aspires to be a doctor, said he is not interested in politics in the same way as his brothers, three of whom were imprisoned by the Israelis for associating with the Islamic extremist group Hamas, an organization dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state and listed as a terrorist group by the United States and Israel.

''The struggle has many faces,'' he said. ''I feel when I educate myself, I am part of the struggle. ... Science is the road to liberation. ... The Tawjihi is the gate to the future.''

Iman Wasfi Mahmoud Othman, who finished seventh, said she and her schoolmates felt they should be doubly determined to do well this year because ''the dream of the occupation is to destroy the people, their lives, and their minds. We don't want them to have their dream and destroy us. It was difficult to study under curfew,'' she said, ''but it is necessary to defy them. Maybe I can do something if I am educated.''

Four people were killed in the gun battle in downtown Tulkarem on the day the examination results were announced, including Ziad Mahmoud Mahmad Da'as, local leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, and two members of his organization. The fourth fatality was Maher Jizmawi, 18. His father, Muhammad Sadeq Jizmawi, said his son was on his way to the Ihsan Samarra School to get his exam results and was shot down from behind by Israeli special forces who had infiltrated in pursuit of Da'as.

A spokesman for the Israeli army said Jizmawi was inside the building to which its forces tracked Da'as throughout the gun battle, and attempted to escape after the other people in the building were killed or wounded. The army said Jizmawi disregarded warning shots fired in the air and an order to halt before he was fired upon and killed.

Last weekend, men who identified themselves to news agencies as members of the Brigades abducted a local youth who, under torture, implicated his mother in the Israeli attack on Da'as. They then dragged the 35-year-old mother of seven from her home, filmed her confessing that she passed information on Da'as to Israeli security, shot her multiple times, and dumped her body in the middle of the city.

In this climate of violence, the students were sweating out the remaining days until college acceptances were announced. Akram Saif el-Din Kharbat, who finished 10th on the science exam with a score of 98.4, said he was determined to persevere, ''because this is our dignity, to concentrate on our study. When I become something important, I will serve the Palestinians.''