West Bank university closure gives Palestinians unwanted break. But students seem used to pattern of protests followed by shutdowns

The student population of this village was packing up and leaving yesterday, the day after the Israeli Army ordered nearby Bir Zeit University closed for the next four months. ``They have closed the campus, and now we must go home and find work,'' said a 21-year-old engineering student who identified himself as Ashraf. Home, he said, is the sprawling Jabaliya Palestinian refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, and he was not looking forward to the next four months.

``It is better here. I like Bir Zeit,'' Ashraf said. ``When I am here in school, I am free. But at home, I cannot do what I want. I am with my family and my father says I cannot do this or that.''

The lengthy closure of Bir Zeit was ordered after a wave of demonstrations swept the West Bank in recent weeks and culminated in a mass student demonstration here Monday, during which one student was killed and at least three others were wounded by Israeli troops.

Students and West Bank residents had taken part in a series of demonstrations and commercial strikes in support of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, who reportedly ended their strike Monday night. On Sunday, the Army arrested some 100 Palestinians suspected of being activists in the outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization. The arrests apparently sparked Monday's demonstration at Bir Zeit.

By Tuesday, the Army had closed Bir Zeit, ordered Fr`eres College closed in Bethlehem, and clamped a curfew on a Gaza Strip town, a spokesman said.

In the nearby West Bank town of Ramallah, merchants closed their shops in a commercial strike protesting both the shooting death of the Bir Zeit student and the order to close the university. Students at the Arab College of Medical Professions blocked the road leading up to the college, burned tires, and hurled stones and taunts at Israeli soldiers. However, according to the military spokesman, the demonstration broke up without any injuries or arrests. Closure of campuses, arrests, and shootings all appear to be part of the ongoing cat-and-mouse game played by the Army and the students.

Thousands of students attending five Palestinian universities in the occupied territories view the universities both as an escape from villages and camps where their parents tightly monitor their lives, and as a focal point for Palestinian nationalist sentiments that are outlawed by the Israelis. The military, in turn, views the campuses as the most important centers of civil disobedience in the territories.

Muhammad, an Israeli Arab from Nazareth, tried to explain why he chose to attend a Palestinian university functioning under occupation.

``Bir Zeit is a commitment,'' Muhammad said. ``It is a style of living, not just an education. We are Palestinians and we belong here.'' Despite his Israeli citizenship, Muhammad said, his identity lies not with Israel, but with Palestinians and the Palestinian struggle to secure an independent state.

The students interviewed Tuesday said they all enter Bir Zeit with the understanding that a four-year degree often will take six years to complete - the extra two years are eaten up in military closures ordered in the wake of, or in anticipation of, student demonstrations.

``I've been here for three years, but I have completed only two years of study,'' said Ashraf. ``It is normal for us.''

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