'Life in the West Bank has become almost unbearable'

During the last academic year, I was acting president of Najah National University, the largest of the three universities in the West Bank. From experience, I can say that it is impossible to run a Palestinian university under Israeli occupation. Israel's policies in the occupied territories, especially with regard to schools and universities, have become exceedingly oppressive. Generally, life in the West Bank has become almost unbearable, particularly for the students who are constantly subjected to harassment, including arbitrary search and arrest, imprisonment, beating, and sometimes even severe physical abuse.

At the university, I spent much of my time trying to avoid restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation authorities. We rejected many of these restrictions because they would make the educational process quite meaningless.

For example, they required the universities to submit the names of all students and faculty before school opened, and gave the military authorities the right to exclude students and faculty members whom they deemed undesirable. They prohibited Arabs from Jerusalem, Gaza, and Israel to affiliate with the universities as students or as faculty. Students and faculty who did not carry West Bank identification cards were considered foreign and had to obtain special permission from the Israeli authorities who often did not grant them.

Regulation 854 required these individuals to sign statements that they did not support the PLO. Recently, 12 faculty members at Najah refused to sign the statements, and they were deported to Jordan. (Now Israel reportedly has lifted this specific requirement.)

Most of Najah's so-called foreign students and faculty were actually Palestinian Arabs whose families lived in the West Bank. They were West Bankers without IDs simply because they were not in the area in 1967, and the Israelis refused to recognize them as residents. Some of the individuals in this foreign category were Israeli Arabs. They had come to the West Bank to study or to teach because they had difficulties finding jobs or attending universities in Israel. Last year three of the deans at Najah were Israeli Arabs. In fact, no less than one-third of Najah's faculty were in this category of foreigners.

I was refused a work permit. When my three-month visa expired, I had to leave the West Bank and come back to get another visa. I did this three times in one year. I was determined to keep a low profile and not make an issue of my particular situation. I remembered that three years earlier, when I taught at Birzeit University, I made an issue of a similar problem and was beaten by Israeli soldiers, along with another American, right in front of the military governor's office. The experience taught me that Arab Americans in the West Bank had very little protection. This is why at Najah I tried to work quietly, thinking that my work was essential to the welfare of the university and the people of the West Bank. I kept out of politics as much as possible.

I can attest to the numerous hardships and illegal restrictions imposed or perpetrated by the Israeli authorities. We could purchase no book that was not approved by them. Many periodicals, essential to our library, and many books we needed in courses were denied to us. Even books written by Jews, like Maxime Rodinson, were censored because they were critical of Israel.

In addition, we had to pay taxes on books, building material, and lab equipment. Under international law these taxes were illegal because pre-occupation law (Jordanian) exempted schools from the payment of taxes. Worse yet, Najah's development program was in serious jeopardy because the authorities would not allow us to build an engineering college and prevented us from building on a new campus site which we had purchased earlier.

However, the most pressing problem was a human one. Perhaps over one-third of our student body had been in Israeli jails, which students jokingly referred to as ''The Hilton.'' Some of these students were routinely beaten and had difficulty finishing a semester's work. At the end of the first semester, Israelis prevented students from coming to the university. One faculty member had to give five finals to the same class because only a few students could manage to show up each time.

But the worst that I witnessed occurred in June, after the Lebanese invasion. Scores of Israeli soldiers attacked the university using real bullets. They had come to disperse a student demonstration protesting the invasion. Eight students were injured.

I see no relief for the people of the West Bank until the Israelis are persuaded to get out. As long as they think the area belongs to them, they will not hesitate to make life unbearable for its Arab inhabitants. However, it might be helpful if the United States and other nations strongly protested Israeli policies and actions that are either illegal or cruel. Silence can never prevent human tragedies.

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