University plays different role

Palestinian universities were hotbeds of militant activism during the first intifada. This time, many students are using pens instead of stones.

Abdullah al Khatib is a reluctant fixture at Bir Zeit University. The full-time student has been working on his bachelor's degree since 1988. All of the hurdles he's faced in completing the degree have come in the form of another institution: prison.

Mr. Khatib has spent a total of seven years behind bars for his activities as a student leader in the 1987-1993 intifada. He won't elaborate on his activities then, but in that first uprising, Palestinian universities were a focal point for political organizing. Khatib's school, Bir Zeit University, was such a strong center of resistance that Israel shut it down for five years.

But things have changed since the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created in 1993 to govern the territories handed over by Israel.

In the latest intifada, students seem more focused on their studies than on stone-throwing. If anything closes school doors, it will be a shortage of funding.

For Khatib, the presence of a government means people are free to choose how they express themselves politically. And among students and university professors, there is a sense that while their role in this intifada may not be as militant, it's equally crucial.

"For a long time, many people thought confrontation is the only role for Palestinians," Khatib says. "But there's this new idea that students can contribute to the intifada by studying and building the economy."

Weapons of a different sort

In the first intifada, students quickly came to the fore of a movement that encompassed all levels of society.

"Everyone was involved," says Bir Zeit student counselor Haifa Sabassi Naser. "They mixed together from the beginning, like soil and water. Now, we have political institutions to fight for us."

That fight is being waged largely by militias associated with the PA. On the streets, it also involves unemployed youths, teenagers, and even children.

On campuses, many students say they feel no obligation to join the fray and feel no guilt about that decision.

"Now that there's a Palestinian Authority ... they take care of things," says Jumah Alrefai, a soft-spoken Arabic Studies major, in the college uniform of jeans and a plaid shirt.

Eschewing politics for pen and paper, he adds, is smarter for more than one reason. The youth movement is quieter in this intifada because "it might face some kind of problem from the Palestinian Authority if it's too active."

But hitting the books can also be a political act, says Ms. Naser. "[University] students are realizing that studying fills a national role," she says.

It's a role the PA might not entirely appreciate. The Palestinian leadership has been dogged by accusations of human rights violations, corruption, and hostility toward free speech. But with the current intifada still raging, it is very hard for Palestinians to level criticism at their own society - it's seen as disloyal to the national cause.

Looking beyond the conflict

But in academic and other circles there is concern that the building blocks needed for a democratic society have weakened since the first intifada and are only getting weaker as this one rages on.

Palestinian sociologist Jamil Hilal says women's groups and development organizations that fostered democratic ideas while helping the population have lost ground since the PA assumed responsibility for social services.

University administrators and professors say that by staying open, they hope to send a powerful message about the direction their society can take.

"The goal is to create an example for the rest of Palestinian society to follow," says Albert Aghazarian, an administrator at Bir Zeit. "We offer a model where dissidence is encouraged, where everyone is indispensable, where diversity [is] respected and democracy rules."

Mr. Hilal says universities already set an example in practical terms. "Now [Palestinian] universities definitely set the example when it comes to free elections, freedom of speech, and organization," he says.

But setting an example isn't particularly easy these days.

Students face all sorts of difficulties, from the practical to the intangible. Among those who can make it to school, many say it is hard to concentrate once they get there.

"Before the intifada, I could study with a clear mind," says Mr. Alrefai, the Arabic studies major. "Now, I worry about what is happening at home when I'm not there."

At one point, his commute to school stretched from 15 minutes to 2-1/2 hours, as he went miles out of his way to avoid Israeli checkpoints. But he's lucky to be able to move back and forth between home and school. For students from Gaza studying in the West Bank, the Israeli restrictions on movement mean they cannot return home.

This was particularly difficult in November and December when Muslims celebrated Ramadan, their most important holiday. Fellow students responded by inviting homesick Gazans home for the traditional evening feast. The PA also chipped in by sending each Gaza student at Bir Zeit some $200.

Money is a problem across the board, as the intifada has left thousands of Palestinians jobless. Naser, the Bir Zeit counselor, says the school has been swamped with requests for extra financial aid.

"We held a fundraising drive and give what additional cash we can," Naser says. "Sometimes I've even handed out cans of food. They hesitate, but they ask. They need it."

Schools are also facing a cash crunch. Colleges in the West Bank towns of Nablus and Bethlehem, as well as Bir Zeit, have cut classes. At Birzeit, staff have been told that next month's paycheck may not come.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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