Top Palestinian University Opens After Israel Lifts Four-Year Ban

AS students milled around the campus plaza here in yesterday's bright spring sunshine, buying notebooks, putting up posters, or drifting into the cafeteria for a felafel sandwich, it looked like a normal first day of semester at Bir Zeit University.

In fact, normality for the past 51 months at Bir Zeit has been a deserted and locked campus, its elegantly modern faculty buildings empty, the university closed by Israeli military order. Oldest university

The flower of Palestinian education, the oldest university in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, opened its doors again yesterday on its rocky hillside terraced with olive groves outside the town of Ramallah. But feelings among faculty and students were mixed.

"I feel like I am free from prison," said Emad Sharif, a lecturer in civil engineering, as he swept the dust off the desk he had not seen for more than four years. "It is hard to describe."

Electrical engineering student Omar Kilani, however, said his happiness was mixed with "some anger over the past. This university is our right; you cannot say that the Israeli government has done good to us by opening the university. They have given us our right after four years."

The Israeli authorities suspended Bir Zeit's closure order last week for the first time since the intifadah (uprising) began in December 1987, but they allowed only engineering and science students to resume their studies. Other faculties will be allowed to open later in the year, officials said, provided there is no trouble on the campus.

The other five universities in the occupied territories have been gradually opened over the past two years. Bir Zeit president Gabi Baramki said he thought his university had been left till last because of its reputation for academic excellence.

It seems more likely that Bir Zeit has remained closed because of its other reputation, as a hotbed of Palestinian nationalism. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens warned the authorities 10 days ago that "they bear responsibility for preventing the university from becoming a focal point of violence."

This did not dissuade students from indulging in standard political activities right away, however. In the student cafeteria, with its plastic chairs in the red, green, black, and white of the Palestinian flag, activists were distributing a leaflet issued by the Fatah youth movement within hours of the university's opening.

In the plaza, a group of students clapped along to a nationalist Palestinian song as others read a poster proclaiming the reopening as evidence that "the occupation policy has failed to impose ignorance on our people."

Many students fear that Bir Zeit could be closed again if any incidents mar the peace. "If the soldiers don't come here," said engineering student Abdullah Muhammad, "nothing will happen. But if every day soldiers are doing something to students, like before, things will be repeated and the university will be closed."

Even as the campus was opening, Israeli soldiers raided the university registration building in Ramallah yesterday morning, searching the waiting crowd of students for wanted men.

Another closure - which would be Bir Zeit's sixteenth since Israeli occupation began in 1967 - would send students and staff back to the mosques, factories, garages, hotels, and living rooms where classes have been held over the past four years, despite an official Israeli ban on what one official statement once called "illegal cells of education." Clandestine classes

Trying to study under those conditions has been "a disaster," with no laboratory work and constant interruptions, says engineering student Mr. Kilani, who spent one semester at Bir Zeit's campus before its closure.

"I began my studies in August 1987, and now we are in April 1992," he says bitterly. "If we were in America, where do you think I would be now? A second year student, as I am, or doing my masters?"

Though classes were due to resume yesterday, timetables still had to be worked out, so students spent the day arranging desks, emptying glass-stoppered bottles in a chemistry lab - their contents unuseable after four years - or simply enjoying being on the campus many had never seen.

"Opening the university is our subject now," said Kilani with a grin.

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