Israel's Ultimatum to a Revered Palestinian Principal and Agent of Change

How a principal of a Nablus school that's regarded as a model of academic excellence became an illegal alien after three decades in the West Bank

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Lana Khalaf. Since April 11, she has been an offender, 'illegally present' in her family, in her home, in her country and in her school.
Lana Khalaf. Since April 11, she has been an offender, 'illegally present' in her family, in her home, in her country and in her school.Credit: Moti Milrod
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

NABLUS - When the now-grown children of Manal Cohen, a member of the Samaritan community of Nablus, were in high school, she joined them in studying the assigned material. She would wake them early in the morning to study and repeated the process in the afternoon, until she was certain that they’d understood everything. “Now,” she relates, “with the little ones – Ward and Izz – there’s nothing like that. They come home from school and they say they understand everything.”

The reason for the difference that Cohen cites resides not in the children but in the school. The older ones attended a government institution with a short school day. “How much can you learn in four hours, anyway?” Cohen says. But her younger daughter and son go to Pioneers Baccalaureate School, which began operating in the West Bank city in 2007, and, as Cohen says in fluent Hebrew, “They’re in love with it.”

Nevertheless, there’s one big problem, about which she came to speak with the principal, Lana Khalaf, one day toward the end of March. The final exams always take place on Saturday, meaning that the Samaritan children, who observe the Jewish Sabbath, have to take the tests on a different date, usually on a Sunday. This year, the second sitting for the science exam was set for May 6, which was the second day of the Samaritan Passover. The third option will be this summer, and it saddens Cohen to know that all of Izz’s friends in the 11th grade will be on holiday at the time, and he’ll have to cram for the exam alone. Because of the exam schedule, Cohen says, some of the parents of the seven other Samaritan children in Pioneers are thinking of transferring them to a different school – “even though my children don’t want to even hear about switching.” And for the same reason, other Samaritan parents aren’t registering their children for the school.

Parents and teachers alike agree that “without Principal Khalaf, the school wouldn’t be what it is,” but the test dates are not within her purview. The school prepares its students for the standardized American SAT test, whose dates are set in the United States.

It is a fine thing when students are in love with their school, but the parents at Pioneers wanted that emotion to be translated into concrete international recognition – and they got what they wanted. Last year, all 20 students of the school’s first graduating class of the young school passed successfully, and received an American high-school diploma, and so did the 25 students of the second graduating class, whose triumphant graduation ceremony was held on May 10, in a hall at Al-Najah National University. About half of the 45 graduates received full or partial scholarships to study abroad, while others were admitted to West Bank universities in subjects that demand top marks, such as medicine.

Akram Saleh, who grew up in Saudi Arabia. A teacher at Pioneers, he says, won’t move on, 'until he’s convinced everyone has understood.' Credit: Moti Milrod

At Pioneers, a class won’t have more than 23 pupils, and there’s no intention of deviating from this. Accordingly, up through the seventh grade, there are three classes per grade – and next year, that will extend until the eighth grade. There are dropouts in the higher grades – the demanding curriculum isn’t suitable for everyone. Still, the waiting list for the three first-grade classes grows longer by the year, furnishing additional proof of the 11-year-old institution’s attractiveness. It started out with 90 students; this year there were 590, next year there will be 670. “We were the guinea pigs for the school, and it grew with us,” say graduates and students in the higher grades, whom Khalaf quotes with characteristic frankness.

“Here a teacher can devote a week to one subject alone, until he’s convinced that everyone has understood,” says Akram Saleh, from a local family that lived for some years in Saudi Arabia – where he was born and where he attended an American school – and who returned to Nablus with his family two years ago. He’s seconded by his classmate Omar Abed el Haq, who was born in Russia and entered the second grade knowing only Russian. “In other schools the students don’t learn, the teachers just give lessons,” he says.

Taima Hajj, from Balata refugee camp. Her teachers integrate games and other activities into classes, she says – 'and that’s fun.' Credit: Moti Milrod

Taima Hajj, from Balata, the vast refugee camp adjacent to Nablus, notes that the teachers integrate games and various activities into their classes – “and that’s fun.” According to Ward Cohen, who’s convinced that coed classes strengthen the individual’s personality and forge a human bond, “Our teachers care about the students more than teachers in other schools do.” The four students, who are in the 10th and 11th grades, also indicate the source of the difference: Their teachers are able to invest in explanations, because the classes are smaller than in the Palestinian government schools and the school day is longer.

The school also invests in its teachers. Every summer, special courses are held in which the staff, together with the school’s academic advisers, develop teaching methods that are more accessible and more attractive to the students. The effort made on each aspect of the school has proved itself: About half the students who graduated last year were once considered academically weak, Khalaf says.

Kids love the school, but work hard. “We already miss the school,” Rawiya Abu Rabia, a member of last year’s graduating class, said at the ceremony then. “We’d be happy to redo the last year, only this time without the studies,” she joked. The seven American exams, most of them in the sciences and each about an hour long, are spread out across the 10th, 11th and 12th grades. The seventh exam is the SAT I, which lasts four hours, and is the admission test for U.S. colleges. On top of this a final grade is given in all the subjects taught in the school, which also include the social sciences, Arabic, religion, history and literature. To grant the school a permit, the Palestinian Education Ministry declared that students would have to sit for the Palestinian matriculation certificate, the Tawjihi, or for six SAT subject exams, whereas even prestigious universities in the United States make do with two such exams.

The Pioneers Baccalaureate School in Zawata, west of Nablus.Credit: Moti Milrod

Despite the load, the choice fell on the SAT option. The Tawjihi is considered a collective Palestinian nightmare, one that repeats itself every year despite the extensive criticism. Exams are administered nearly every day during two packed weeks, with students having to memorize reams of material which they forget a minute after the exam ends. The curriculum is based on rote learning and memorization, with barely any room for independent thought – whereas the material taught at the Pioneers school is meant to do the exact opposite. In a society that’s accustomed to authoritarian educational institutions and to principals, leaders and cabinet ministers who aren’t used to delegating authority, the Pioneers school has developed into a community in which each voice is listened to: staff, students and parents. The teachers, who feel they possess the independence to develop initiatives within an already flexible framework, put forward ideas, lessons from mistakes are learned quickly and the necessary changes are implemented immediately.

‘Request denied’

Nevertheless, the Israeli Civil Administration, which is part of the military government in the occupied Palestinian territory, has decreed that Lana Khalaf must resign as the school’s principal if she wants to remain in the West Bank. Khalaf is a U.S. citizen who was born 43 years ago in New Mexico to parents from El Bireh, near Ramallah, who were in the United States for work purposes. Israel revoked her parents’ residency status, as it did before 1994 to a quarter of a million Palestinians living abroad. Later, that status was reinstated as part of a family unification process, but because she above the age of 18, Lana was not included in it.

Khalaf has been married for 22 years to a Nablus resident, and has two sons who have Palestinian IDs. She met her future partner when she was studying business administration at Bir Zeit University. She had spent some years in primary and high school in Ramallah, her parents having sent her to the West Bank to ensure that she would retain the Arabic language and Palestinian culture. Her ties with her close family in El Bireh were never severed. In total she has lived in the West Bank for around 29 years, but only with tourist visas and visa extensions.

In total Khalaf has lived in the West Bank for around 29 years, but only with tourist visas and visa extensions.

Like many other spouses and mothers of people who are listed in the Palestinian population registry (it’s Israel that decides who and what is entered in the registry), Khalaf believed that the fact that her husband and sons are registered West Bank Palestinian residents was sufficient basis for Israel to let her stay. But over the past 18 months, Israel has toughened the conditions by which people like Khalaf – that is, spouses of West Bank residents – are granted visas. Going abroad or returning via Ben-Gurion airport, in Israel proper, is classified as a violation of the visa terms and cause for its non-extension; visas are now valid for only a few weeks or months instead of a year, necessitating additional fees and coerced trips abroad; the fact that the Palestinian partner had gone abroad for studies or work is also sufficient cause for not extending the visa. And so is employment, whether paid or as a volunteer.

In the past, the Israeli authorities issued long-term tourist visas to the partners of Palestinians, fully aware that they worked in the area of the Palestinian Authority. (The Israeli bureaucracy has not yet invented work visas for spouses of Palestinians.) But now, as far as the Civil Administration and the Israeli Interior Ministry are concerned, work has become a casus belli against the partners of Palestinians. Khalaf was given an ultimatum: Either stop working, or you visa will not be renewed.

In December 2017, Khalaf’s visa was extended by four months, but she was told that she must resign from her job and attach the letter of resignation to the next request for an extension. On March 4, she submitted, through the Palestinian Interior Ministry, a detailed request for a multiple-entry visa to the West Bank and Israel, via her Jerusalem-based lawyer, Leora Bechor. The addressee was Diana Ben-Haim, the head of the Registry and Passports Department at Civil Administration headquarters in Beit El. In the application Bechor stated that Khalaf cannot resign; the demand that she do so, the lawyer wrote, “ignores the humanitarian need for the continuation of her employment, and moreover, is contrary to Israeli and international law, and in particular to the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement.”

Two days later, on March 6, Khalaf received a short reply, handwritten in Hebrew on a Civil Administration form: “Illegal work in the region. Non-declaration of work in the region since 2007. Request denied.” A renewed application drew the following reply, dated April 8: “New documents that were attached untranslated. No proof of work stoppage in the region attached. Request denied.”

Constant dread

Life in the West Bank without an Israeli permit to stay is tantamount to a type of quarantine. Every Israeli soldier or policeman at a random or permanent checkpoint who examines one’s papers is entitled to order their immediate expulsion. Accordingly, people – especially women – in Khalaf’s situation rarely leave the boundaries of the district or even the city in which they live. They live in constant dread of something happening to a parent or sibling abroad, because if they travel there to be with them, they will not be permitted to return to their family in the West Bank.

The caravan complex that has housed the school for the past four years in Zawata, west of Nablus.Credit: Moti Milrod

Khalaf’s small office borders the schoolyard of the higher grades. At the end of March, a group of long-legged youths were playing basketball. Girls and boys together, a few of the girls bareheaded, others wearing a scarf. The noise made by the bouncing ball seemed to be coming from inside the room itself. The school premises consist of a group of trailers that have been placed patchwork-style at the bottom of a hill in the heart of an olive grove and below a few homes in the village of Zawata, west of Nablus. In the absence of space for teachers’ rooms, staff members prepare for classes in the relatively broad corridors.

The door of Khalaf’s office is open all the time, and someone is always coming in to clarify something: student, parent, teacher, maintenance person. Or Khalaf comes charging out of the office to speak to one of the administrative staff, along the way stopping to explain to a child who’s been reprimanded why he’s been reprimanded, to straighten a crooked wall poster, to ask a teacher if the student who was sick is back at school yet.

The students wander through the corridors and the yards with the relaxed air of people who own the place. Occasionally a classroom door opens, to reveal a scene of congenial chaos. Tables are set up in a U shape or in rows that are always slightly off-kilter. There are papers and books on every table, a pithy conversation underway between teacher and students, and walls covered with paintings, photographs and quotations in Arabic and English relating to the subjects on the curriculum.

A seventh-grade English class in mid-January was discussing slavery in the United States. At the end of March, after the children in a second-grade class had been engaged in reading and conversations (a few minutes for each task, so their attentiveness would remain high), the teacher asked them what they were most afraid of. Of the dark, the majority said. The teacher spoke in literary Arabic, the children replied in mixed style: spoken Arabic with a hesitant foray into the literary. A trainee teacher from the Education Ministry observed the lesson. Back in her office after watching the excited tykes, Khalaf said, “I can’t leave the school just to get a visa.” Thus, since April 11, Lana Khalaf has been an offender, “illegally present” in her family, her home, her country and her school.

Life in the West Bank without an Israeli permit to stay is tantamount to a type of quarantine.

Realizing the dream

The mish-mash of trailers is the school’s third home in the past 11 years. The first of them was from the outset meant to be temporary: the building of the Zafer Masri Foundation, established by a prominent Nablus family. The spacious structure was consistent with the social profile of the school’s founders – a group of businessmen and practitioners of the liberal professions who are proud of Nablus and who describe themselves as being neither party-affiliated nor political. They were appalled by the deteriorating situation of the education system in their city.

For almost seven years, during the second intifada, which began in late 2000, Nablus was subject to a strict Israeli “segregation” policy. Entry to and exit from this city of more than 125,000 people was allowed only with special permits, according to different age groups. Army raids of long duration, marked by multiple fatal casualties and large-scale destruction, a permanent presence of tanks, repeated curfews, frequent shooting, pervasive fear, roadblocks that prevented teachers and students from getting to school on time; the recruitment of young people to armed organizations, to the use of firearms and the perpetration of suicide attacks, repeated mourning strikes that paralyzed schooling and business; a threatening macho culture that developed among the students in the schools; the abandonment of the city by residents because of the long siege, and the simmering tension between Fatah and Hamas – all these were behind the decline in education and teaching.

According to Nasser Kamal, an engineer and building contractor who is a proud graduate of the mid-1970s government education system, the deterioration began during the first intifada – in the late 1980s and early 1990s – and became aggravated in the second intifada. Unfortunately, the situation did not improve under the Palestinian Authority, following 1995, Kamal says. “The quality of the teachers and the culture of the students were adversely affected by the chaos generated by the occupation. The teachers’ salaries are low, too. The level of the people who went into education fell. An atmosphere was created in which education was geared to a political party. We saw a downward slide in morality and values.”

To address the situation, he and a number of acquaintances founded the Future Pioneers Society, whose first step would be to establish a model school with five goals: academic excellence, education for values, strengthening the feeling of national belonging (in contrast with the party-factional identity), understanding of religion and respect for law and proper procedures. Haytham al-Zoabi, a lawyer and another of the society’s founders, is also a legal adviser to PADICO (Palestine Development and Investment Ltd.). It was in that context that he met Lana Khalaf, who was an office manager in the corporation. He suggested that she come to work as the new school’s administrator.

With her two sons in mind, Khalaf agreed at once. Inferior schooling was the one and only reason that she was considering moving back to the United States. She wanted her children to have high-quality education and a better learning experience than they could look forward to in the existing local schools. Now she was being told about a place “possessing atmosphere and character, that isn’t based on rote learning, where the teaching method is interactive and the level of English is good,” as she described it last March. Her reaction was “Wow! It’s a dream come true.”

The Pioneers Baccalaureate School in Zawata, west of Nablus.Credit: Moti Milrod

The Future Pioneers Society opened a preschool (based on the Montessori method) and started to register children for the first and second grades in the 2007-2008 school year. “But my older boy was going to be in the third grade,” Khalaf relates. “I asked the designated principal, Salwa Barghouthi, about the possibility of opening a third grade, too. She told me, ‘Get the students and we’ll do it.’ I said, ‘Alright.’” Khalaf proceeded to put her skills of persuasion and organization to good use. She visited families and sang the praises of the (still nonexistent) school. She found more candidates for the third grade, and it was they who would become the members of the first graduating class, last year.

Since Khalaf wasn’t satisfied with the level of the English that was being taught in the three lower grades, she began teaching it herself, while at the same time looking for teachers who were native English speakers. “I said that we had to bring teachers from abroad. Salwa said that there was a siege, a closure, that it would be difficult. I asked for permission to try, and she, with the full backing of the society, approved the move and gave me her support.”

Another of Khalaf’s skills – the ability to improvise – now came into play. “I placed a notice on a website that we were looking for volunteer teachers. The notice cost me $75. The next morning, I got up and found 65 applications. This was at the end of the second intifada [2007]. I wasn’t political, I had returned from the United States after giving birth to my second child there. I didn’t know that Nablus was then a magnet for people who were interested in the region. By phone I interviewed Sean Canavan, from the United States. He’s a lawyer who thinks that education holds the key to bringing people closer together, to progress and improvement. I told him I couldn’t buy him a plane ticket. ‘No problem,’ he said. I told him I could only pay $120 a month for expenses. ‘No problem,’ he said. I told him, ‘We need you within a week.’ ‘Fine,’ he said.” She didn’t believe he would show up, but he did.

“We were still in the very elegant first building then, and Sean walks in with a backpack and is flabbergasted. He thought that he was coming to work in a Bedouin tent, not in Beverly Hills. So I realized that I would always have to prepare the teachers in advance: You’re not coming to the desert or a refugee camp and the children are not from poor families. I learned how to tell people abroad not to come to this for romantic reasons. I didn’t want anyone who was coming to live the conflict or who was in love with the Palestinian cause. I wanted teachers who would educate the students.”

Back in her office after watching the excited tykes, Khalaf said, 'I can’t leave the school just to get a visa.'

The presence of Canavan, the first foreign teacher, was very important, says Khalaf. He gave his all to the students. “Comes a young man of 30, and after a few years with us he looks older than his age,” Khalaf observes. He was simultaneously creative and tough. Some say too tough. She was amazed at the speed with which the children learned how to speak English from him at the mother-tongue level, and at the depth of the discussions he conducted in the higher grades. But those discussions also whipped up storms in Nablus. On one occasion he talked to them about the death of Yasser Arafat and the different versions of the event that had been published in the media. In another discussion, about the massacre perpetrated by Jewish troops in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, in 1948, the Palestinian testimonies were studied, but so too were the Israeli accounts. A few people in Nablus and in the Palestinian Education Ministry took that as “teaching a foreign agenda.”

When asked by his pupils if he believed in God, Canavan responded that he was an atheist. Irate parents protested. That taught Khalaf that in her initial conversations with potential volunteer teachers from abroad, she should give them a list of no’s, so they would learn to respect the local customs and sensitivities. Every year a new “no” was added to the list, she adds with a smile and a wink. Facebook, for example: She asked teachers to block their old accounts. “I don’t need the children to be fishing around and find some old photo of a teacher on the beach,” she explains.

In short order, Khalaf became the vice principal, and in 2009 the principal, always knowing how to surround herself with academic advisers for each grade and, together with them, to gauge every advance and difficulty and to decide on changes where necessary. She did not view the flaws in the general education as a decree of fate. The school’s founding board expressed its full trust in her and gave her freedom of action. The power she received, as a principal who had not studied education, allowed her to realize dreams and to take part in designing student-friendly teaching methods. In a persistent process of trial and error, for example, she and her team found the way to strike a balance between strengthening the study of English – including the teaching of sciences in English starting in middle school – and cultivating Arabic language and literature, history and religious studies.

From a very early stage it became mandatory in the school to read six books a year in Arabic and six in English. Each book would then be discussed in class. The place that these books occupy in the children’s experience cannot be overstated. All the students and teachers I spoke with talked about them as passionately as one talks about real people, not as a burden with grades to achieve. At the end of the school day, at 2:30 P.M., a wide variety of extracurricular activities are offered. These include drama – “We’re particularly strong in that and every year we produce a play,” Khalaf notes – along with chess, sports, ballet and exercises for girls. The older students also teach English twice a week in the community center of the Balata refugee camp.

In 2011, four years after the founding, as the teaching methods were coming together, and the school was developing a reputation, Pioneers had to leave its temporary building, which had previously been promised for a different purpose. The move to its second home was a saga that occupied all of Nablus for a few months and split the city and the school into two camps.

Several years earlier, the founding society had purchased a plot of land west of Nablus, on which it was erecting a building. By the summer of 2011, it was almost ready – but an aluminum factory had been built next to it. To this day there are different accounts of the planning snafu and its origins, and it’s apparent from Khalaf’s deep sigh when the subject is raised that she hasn’t completely overcome the trauma. At the demand of some parents, the Education Ministry prohibited the move to the new building for reasons of safety and health.

Lana Khalaf.Credit: \ Moti Milrod

The school could not resume its operations. About 20 students from the higher grades switched to other schools; the number of students registered for that coming autumn fell from 274 to 251. Students and parents demonstrated on the streets of Nablus, demanding a solution.

The mayor of Nablus, Adly Yaish, found a solution in the form of a community center in Gamal Abdel Nasser Park, in the city’s center. Khalaf sighs again as she tells the story: subterranean classrooms, walls that don’t reach the ceiling, shared bathrooms for visitors. The founding society rallied to the cause; Nasser Kamal, with his experience as a developer, was able to make a number of renovations and improvements to the community center. The parents donated air conditioners. But this site, too, was temporary, for just two years, which to Khalaf felt like an eternity. While looking for another property that would be suitable for a permanent school building, the society leased a small plot of land in Zawata and installed a group of trailers there. This is the school’s third home, where we are now. “In the summer we will move to the fourth and permanent home, inshallah,” Khalaf says, knocking on the wood desk in her office.

Dreams of expansion

One of the compliments the school received, and evidence of its high level, is the fact that Dr. Saida Affouneh, an academic educator, chose it for her three children. The school’s existence made it possible for her and her family to move from Ramallah to Nablus, where she is now the dean of the education faculty of An-Najah National University. Affouneh was a member of the higher committee for the examination of teaching and the education system in the areas of the Palestinian Authority, which submitted its recommendations to the Palestinian government at the beginning of 2015. (Another member of the committee, Dr. Sabri Saidam, is now the PA’s education minister.) The report found flaws and multiple problems in the education system, and proposed fixes, including the abolition of the matriculation exams, the Tawjihi. “The current situation of teaching in Palestine does not meet the accepted standards of quality,” the report concluded.

'The quality of the teachers and the culture of the students were adversely affected by the chaos generated by the occupation.'

In an interview with the independent news website Wattan in 2011, Affouneh said, “The children are not happy in the schools, and the teaching method is not creating the Palestinian child we want.” But even if public and governmental awareness of the problems exists, a reform of the vast and cumbersome education system, and in a situation of Israeli military rule and a chronic financial crunch because of the restrictions imposed by that rule, cannot be implemented quickly. Concerned parents are not willing to wait for a reform.

The aspiration, says Kamal, who chairs the board of directors of the Future Pioneers Society, is to found schools along the same lines throughout the West Bank, after the present school becomes firmly established. “The success of our model could have a beneficial effect on other schools by projecting positively on the surroundings,” he says.

Both Kamal and Khalaf are aware of the claims that only the well-to-do can afford to send their children to Pioneers. Fully 95 percent of the institution’s budget is based on tuition fees: 7,000 shekels a year for primary school, 9,000 shekels for high school ($1,960 and $2,520, respectively). Even with extra fees, that’s less than other private schools, in such places as Ramallah, that prepare students to take international matriculation exams, but it’s a very large sum in a society where a veteran teacher, for example, makes about 3,000 shekels a month.

Some of the school’s students pay reduced tuition – all the children of the teachers, for example, and also siblings of older children. Scholarships are available for children from refugee camps and from villages. The problem is that the scholarship fund is not stable and is not guaranteed each year. Donors, Kamal says, prefer to give to large governmental institutions. He and his four friends who founded the society donated funds to cover the school’s incipient stages and then took out bank loans to erect the school building.

According to Khalaf, the salaries of the school’s 35 Palestinian teachers are as low as the unimpressive salaries in the governmental education system, and don’t even include health insurance or contributions to a pension plan. In the course of the school’s 11 years of existence, three teachers switched to the government school system. Khalaf does not try to prettify the situation. She believes that if positions were available in the government-run schools, other teachers would leave, too, if only because of the tenure they offer. Still, the teachers I spoke to said they were happy to be part of the school and enjoy the freedom it grants them.

The foreign teachers, who currently number 20 (in addition to two veteran teachers who returned to the United States and are in charge of locating suitable new teaching candidates), come on a volunteer basis and receive only housing and basic living expenses. All of them have at least an undergraduate degree, with preference for a master’s or a teaching certificate, with proven teaching experience. All receive intensive training ahead of the school year.

The building where the Pioneers Baccalaureate School is slated to move next year, in the village of Beit Iba.Credit: Moti Milrod

Until 2014, the system worked well. As volunteers, the young, enthusiastic teachers, most of them Americans, don’t come to make money but for a new experience. They fit in well with the ambitious goal of Khalaf and her staff: to make the students love the school and their studies. They arrived on tourist visas and received a letter from the school stating that they were volunteers. The Civil Administration recognized the school, allowed the teachers’ entry and extended their visas until the end of the school year.

The change began in the summer of 2014, when the Israeli Interior Ministry began to make it difficult for them to enter and remain. Shortly before the start of the school year, the entry of 10 teachers was not approved. Afterward, applicants for visas had to deposit 20,000 shekels each with the Israeli authorities. The school was able to raise the necessary funds for only five of them, and also paid for the enforced stay of the others in Amman while they waited for an entry permit.

Jerusalem attorneys Leora Bechor and Yotam Ben-Hillel, who represent the school in the matter of the entry visas, have a thick file of correspondence with the authorities regarding their efforts to ensure the orderly arrival of teachers. The teachers started to receive visas that were valid only until the summer, and were required to leave immediately at the end of the school year. Moreover, their visas were for the “Judea and Samaria region only,” precluding travel outside the West Bank. And the visas were issued on a one-time basis, so that anyone who had to leave temporarily for an unexpected reason had to go through the entire application process from the start before they could return.

“No one in the teacher’s family is allowed to die,” Khalaf notes with her dry sarcasm. A year ago, in fact, the grandmother of one of the [foreign] teachers died. In order to ensure that he would be able to return after the funeral and the mourning period, attorney Bechor had to send the Civil Administration copies of the grandmother’s death certificate, the teacher’s mother’s birth certificate, which stated that the deceased was in fact her mother; the teacher’s parents’ marriage certificate and the teacher’s birth certificate, bearing his mother’s name and noting her premarital surname – all to prove the teacher’s connection to the deceased.

Last year, the school was forced to cancel the summer semester of enrichment and remedial studies, because none of the foreign teachers received responses to their applications for an entry visa, and the visas of those already in Nablus were not extended. New teachers for the current school year, 2017-2018, received entry visas only in the wake of various legal moves by Bechor. The substantial additional costs – including legal fees and the cancellation of the summer program – generated by the problem of the visas come at the expense of laboratory equipment, computers and books that could have been bought.

So, the regular challenges confronting the school are now compounded by the additional constant tension, which persists until the very last minute, over whether the foreign teachers will receive visas, and whether the visas they do get will be saddled with new and unexpected restrictions. That’s Lana Khalaf’s day-to-day existence, to which has been added her situation as perforce an “illegally present” person.

Still, if there’s something that makes all the tension and difficulties worthwhile, it was contained in the remarks of the graduate Rawiya Abu Rabia at last year’s graduation ceremony. “No one could wish for a more pleasant, caring and genuine principal than you,” she said, directing her words at Khalaf. “More than anyone else, you believed in us on the best days and the worst days. You made the school what it is, and we will be eternally grateful. This evening is not only a celebration of the end of our studies, it’s also a celebration of you.”

‘Exceptional case’

Asked for comment, the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities made the following statement to Haaretz: “The application of the tourist Lana Khalaf was denied in the wake of her not meeting the terms of her previous visas and for not submitting the application according to the required criteria. In light of the exceptional case, her application is being reexamined by the professional officials in the Civil Administration. Parallel to the extension of the visa, the above-named was referred to the Palestinian Authority, for it to submit a request to regularize her status. We emphasize that granting visas to foreigners for the purpose of residency in the region is carried out in accordance with the procedure for the entry of foreigners, which is published on COGAT’s web site.”

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