A week of unrest has left young Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip feeling fresh resentment against the Israeli occupation. Classes are finally back in session at Bir Zeit University here, but they are being held under the shadow of the fatal incident Dec. 4, when Israeli troops shot and killed two students during a violent protest.
Bir Zeit, one of four Arab universities in the West Bank, is often a barometer of conditions in the Israeli-occupied territories. Life is returning to normal after more than a week of violent protests forcibly put down by Israeli troops, in which two other Palestinian demonstrators were killed and several wounded.
``The situation is still tense though people returned to class [Monday] and went back to talking about papers, homework, and exams,'' says Bir Zeit student Raja Zaidani. ``People are pretty angry and bitter, and things sometimes seem to be on the verge of collapse.''
``Today on campus I could see people constantly looking over their shoulders up at the mountains where the Army has been for the last few days,'' she says. ``In class, I found myself looking out the window when I saw people looking that way. But when I got outside there was nothing.''
Between classes, students sat on building stairways and jammed the cafeteria. The room has had to accommodate a few hundred extra students from the university's old campus, which, after the demonstrations, was closed by the military government until January.
At Bir Zeit, as in the rest of the occupied territories, Palestinians seemed to be taking stock of the past week's demonstrations and speculating on Israel's future policy in the territories.
According to Gabi Baramki, the university's acting president, the maintenance of calm hinges on the attitude of the Israeli Army, which he says brought on the protest by provoking students. A series of military checkpoints set up at entrances to the university in recent weeks had turned back some students, Mr. Baramki says, disrupting classes and heightening students' frustrations. ``The lessons have to be learned by the military occupation [authorities],'' he says.
Israeli military officials have argued that the roadblocks were necessary to prevent planned, anti-Israeli student demonstrations and to block entry of outside agitators to the campus. Nevertheless, military presence at Bir Zeit has been sharply reduced this week.
Despite the Israeli Army's tough response to student demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the mood at Bir Zeit and among youth throughout the occupied territories has remained defiant. At a mostly silent memorial march for the slain students at Bir Zeit last week, supporters of radical ``rejection front'' Palestinian groups insisted on chanting nationalist slogans despite objections of university administrators, who were concerned about a possible Army reaction.
``We shall free Palestine,'' the students chanted. ``Revolution against Zionism.'' A large Palestinian flag, banned by the Israeli military government, was unfurled. At a demonstration concluding the march, the head of the student council read a statement directed at Israeli military officers who, he said, had ``handled demonstrations as if they were on a battlefield.''
``The universities in the occupied territories,'' the student said, ``are nothing but academic nationalist strongholds, which will proclaim the views of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] until our people achieve its goals - freedom and independence.''
Munir Fasheh, dean of students at Bir Zeit, says attitudes of students and Palestinian youth have been molded predominantly by Israel's occupation since 1967. ``Our students have never known anything else but the Israeli Army,'' he says. ``They see Jordan on [TV], but for them it may as well be a distant country.''
``By confronting the military occupation they are living daily the meaning of Palestinian nationalism. The best teacher of Palestinian nationalism to the students is the behavior of the Army,'' Mr. Fasheh adds.
While most Palestinian youth confronted Israeli troops during the week of unrest with stones and barricades of rocks and burning tires, students and faculty at Bir Zeit say their studies are a weapon against the occupation of the West Bank.
``Just as the Hebrew University [in Jerusalem] was founded in the 1920s as a cornerstone of the Jewish faith, so Bir Zeit is a national institution with Palestinian character, and symbolizes something for the future,'' says Azmy Bishara, a lecturer at Bir Zeit. ``Every cultural effort is part of a struggle to discover national identity.''
The weeks of protest that began at Bir Zeit, Raja Zaidani says, showed Israel, Jordan, and the United States that the Palestinians cannot be ignored in any political solution in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. ``As long as there is occupation, more demonstrations can be expected.''
This realization seems to have hit home among top Israeli officials dealing with the West Bank. Brig. Gen. Ephraim Sneh, head of the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank, told legislators touring the area that he believes the chief impetus for the wave of violent protest was not external factors or agitation by the PLO, but rather the frustration and despair of the Palestinians.