How to map the Middle East

International | With Oslo in shreds, maybe sixth graders can draw the lines

Issue: "Lyons thrown to Baptists," Sept. 20, 1997

In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, sixth-graders are studying for the first time from Palestinian textbooks. An ambitious project growing out of the 1993 Oslo accords between Israelis and Palestinians, the new curriculum teaches Palestinian history and culture in ways that were banned under the Israeli government and ignored by Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks used in the past.

When it comes to geography, however, the civics textbook leaves a little too much to the imagination. There is an empty rectangle where a map should be.

"Draw a map of Palestine," the book tells students, "showing the districts and most important cities and villages." A nearby text lists cities and districts in the contested West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in Jerusalem, but it's left to the young scholars to draw Palestinian borders.

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Muwaffa Yassin, who oversaw publication of the new textbooks for the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Education, is defensive about the blank spaces. "How can I show a map that doesn't exist?" he wondered.

Mapmaking as outlined under the incremental terms of the Oslo accords seems a relic of history after the recent weeks of violence between Palestinian-backed guerrillas and Israelis. A triple suicide bomb in Jerusalem Sept. 4 killed four Israelis. Together with an earlier attack on a Jerusalem street market-the work of Hamas-this attack brings the death toll of Israelis in recent weeks to 20. Islamic militants vowed more attacks on the heart of Jerusalem, even as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright prepared for her first trip to the Middle East last week.

U.S. officials were touting the promise of her mission. That it coincided with a similar effort one year ago this month, when President Clinton summoned Middle East leaders to Washington to again get the gnarled peace process going, again, seemed to go unnoticed.

Adherence to the 1993 Oslo agreement-returning land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace with Israel-has been in a steady decline since the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to expand certain Jewish settlements in the occupied territories prompted new waves of terrorism that stalled further efforts to reach a Palestinian-Israeli agreement. Rather than supporting Mr. Netanyahu when he proposed a new map in the Oslo process-which offered up half of the disputed West Bank territory and eased opposition to a Palestinian state-Western leaders and pundits virtually ignored the plan. They acknowledged only Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's opposition to the boundary lines.

Mr. Arafat's world image sank to a new low after the two recent Jerusalem bombings. Just prior to the attacks, Mr. Arafat was pictured embracing the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who claimed responsibility for the bombings. Mr. Netanyahu announced Israel would not hand over more land, as called for in the agreement, and Mr. Arafat issued a deadline of Sept. 7 for compliance. The downward spiral leaves Middle East diplomats talking instead of a post-Oslo era.

Meanwhile, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who live in a patchwork of self-rule zones set up thus far under the agreement, are literally mapless. Said Assaf, who supervised the committee of educators that produced the civics textbooks, said writing them and deciding what to do about maps was like "tiptoeing through a minefield."

Christians, similarly, must thread a minefield through this politically confusing time. Under both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government they face uncertainty. In Israel, ministries like the Loaves and Fishes Cafe just over the Old Wall in Jerusalem are able to prosper with staffing by mostly young American missionaries. Some members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, are trying to do away with them, however (see story, page 19). Orthodox Jewish parties who are part of Mr. Netanyahu's coalition government are lobbying for legislation that would outlaw that sort of activity. Called "anti-freedom legislation" by Christian opponents, the bill would criminalize many types of evangelism activities. It is not expected to pass, but the ruling coalition government has not thrown it out, either.

In areas held by the Palestinian Authority, Christians face other challenges. Six years after Muhammed Bak'r, a Muslim, converted to Christianity, he was arrested on spying charges by Palestinian police and remains jailed. He was reportedly involved in handing out Bible literature. Supporters say that besides being held on false charges, Mr. Bak'r should not have been arrested because the village of Kiri, where he lives with his wife and nine children in a two-room home, is actually under Israeli jurisdiction.


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