Back to School on the West Bank

After a years-long Israeli-ordered shutdown, Palestinian universities are reopening

THERE was a strong smell of fresh paint in the air at An-Najah University last month and the echoing corridors were full of workmen scurrying about, readying the campus for the new semester. Two weeks ago, for the first time in nearly four years, the Israeli authorities allowed the university here to open its doors.In an office the cleaners had not yet reached, dust shrouded the bookshelves, where a desk diary lay open at Dec. 14, 1987, six days after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifadah (uprising) against Israeli occupation. On a bulletin board, curled and yellowing announcements proclaimed the final exam results for 1987; no one has taken any exams here since. Forty miles south, on a hilltop overlooking a barren, Biblical landscape, the wind whistles emptily around the handsome modern buildings, designed with an Islamic flavor, that make up the campus of the West Bank's most famous university, Bir Zeit. Forty-four months after all six universities in the occupied territories were shut by military decree, Bir Zeit remains out of bounds to its 2,600 students. The bustling activity at An-Najah and the silence that hangs over Bir Zeit are the two contrasting faces of an Israeli policy that appears to be drawing to a close. Over the past year, Palestinian universities in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Bethlehem have been allowed to open their doors. An-Najah is back in operation, and in the Gaza strip, the Islamic University has been authorized to reopen its doors. Only Bir Zeit, whose closure order was reissued for another three months on Aug. 31, is still entirely shut down. "Our policy is to open all the universities because now it is very quiet," explains Hanam Rubin, spokesman for the Israeli coordinator of the occupied territories. At the start of the intifadah, he says, they were closed because "most universities were centers of violence and demonstrations. They used to get all the students out to burn tires and build barricades, to use them for violence." The Palestinians who have had to suffer the policy, both faculty and students, see it differently. "We have said all the time that we are being punished for being a real university, not for being a hotbed," argues Albert Aghazarian, lecturer in Middle Eastern history at Bir Zeit and the university's spokesman. "And because we screamed the loudest here, we have been hit the hardest," he complains. Mr. Rubin is careful to point out that the Israeli authorities are allowing the universities to reopen only on the condition that "the university be a university for studying, not for violence. The first time there is violence, then it will be closed." That condition poses problems, points out Adib Khatib, an assistant professor of geography at An-Najah. "They give themselves the right to say anything is illegal," he worries. "Anything they decide might jeopardize peace, tranquility, security would lead to a closure again." Bahjat Sabrih, An-Najah's vice president, says he sees his role as "organizing and monitoring [student] activities so that the authorities cannot use them as an excuse to close the university again." At the same time, he insists, "it is basic to each student anywhere in the world to have the right to express his feelings. We are in favor of giving every student that right so long as it is suitable within the laws and charter of the university." At Bir Zeit, the authorities are still resisting the Israelis' conditions. "To go [to the defense minister] and say 'please, we will behave ourselves, we will be policemen'... we cannot do that under any circumstances," protests Mr. Aghazarian. "It's totally unacceptable from any angle." Instead, he says, the university is preparing a court case against the Israeli government, demanding that the closure order be rescinded without conditions. At An-Najah University, meanwhile, the mood was upbeat before the opening. "This is really exciting for us, that we are actually going back to doing something scientific, properly," said Maazen Husni, dean of the faculty of engineering. The past four years have not seen a total lack of academic activity, even if the universities' doors have been chained shut by soldiers. When it became clear that the closures were likely to drag out, teachers at An-Najah, Bir Zeit, and other campuses improvised classrooms wherever they could. Courses were taught "everywhere under the sun in the city of Nablus," recalls Dr. Khatib. "I myself have taught in cars, under trees, in private homes." Even in jail, when teachers and students found themselves in the same cells, classes went on. In Ramallah earlier this month, Bir Zeit students were taking their final exams in the rooms of a rented hotel, only 100 yards from the local Israeli military headquarters. This "cell of illegal education," as one unfortunately phrased Israeli communique once described the informal classrooms, is clearly ignored by the military authorities. But these makeshift arrangements are hardly satisfactory. "It's not suitable for studying," complains Abdulrahim al-Hassan, a 23-year-old student of linguistics, standing outside the hotel. "The rooms are not large enough, there are [military] patrols every day, the psychology to study is not OK." Just the week before, he says, army soldiers had burst into the hotel and forced all the students outside, checking their identification in a search for three wanted youths. WHILE students at all facilities have been hit by their lack of access to university libraries, science students, whose courses should involve practical work, have suffered particularly badly from a lack of laboratories. "It has been very, very difficult for us," says Dr. Husni. "We did limited practical work, but it was very risky." Groups of four or five students at a time would sneak into the An-Najah campus to do experiments secretly, "but we were always afraid someone would surprise us. "Before we went in we would have someone watching in both directions, someone at the door all the time. But it was risky, and when you went out you were glad to be gone," he remembers. "We have not been very happy with the level of education," Husni laments. "We've been working at maybe 50 percent efficiency," and research has been all but impossible. "My total academic work is 5 percent of what I would have done at Cardiff," the university in Wales where he taught before coming home. The interruptions, the inconveniences, the lack of facilities have made a university education a long and laborious business for a Palestinian student, and many take as much as eight years to graduate. An-Najah, for example, has graduated only 600 students since it was closed on January 8, 1988, down from an average of 1,200 a year before the intifadah. But even as the universities tentatively reopen, their staff members foresee myriad problems in the wake of their prolonged, enforced clandestine status. Aside from anything else, Khatib points out, even maintenance men were forbidden to enter An-Najah, and the current repair work is expected to cost $2.5 million. At a deeper level, says Husni, "students haven't experienced the discipline of university life. That will be our hardest problem, to get them used to 30 hours work a week, after the fairly relaxed eight hours they have been doing." And though the campuses are still physically standing, the fabric of university life will be hard to weave again, predicts Bir Zeit physics professor Ramzi Rihan, as he preps two of his students for their final exams. "If you starve for three years, with careful attention you might regain your health, but of course you suffer," he says. "It will take us years of recuperation. We've paid the price, and they've paid the price, the students." Abdulrahim al-Hassan has paid the price: After five years of studying he has earned only 43 of the 120 credits he needs to graduate with a degree in linguistics. And for him, even the prospect that Bir Zeit may reopen one day is clouded by the danger that it could be closed again at a moment's notice. "We here as Palestinians do not live normally," he says. "We cannot plan for our future because the situation here determines our future."

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