A generation of Palestinians ready to risk all. Students pose threat to Israel's carrot-and-stick system of control
Ramallah, Israeli-occupied West Bank — Palestinian students are the thorn in the side of Israel's military rule over the territories it has occupied since June 1967. The students now attending the six Palestinian-owned-and-operated universities in the occupied lands are better educated and more politicized than the generation before them. They also seem more willing to directly confront the Israeli Army - the only governing body they have ever known.
``There is a change in attitude in this generation ... Palestinian students now are not intimidated by the Army,'' says Israeli political analyst Meron Benvenisti. ``There is a greater willingness to risk their lives in confrontations. They are ready to defy the authorities.''
The reason for the change, Mr. Benvenisti suggests, is a growing realization among Palestinians in general - and students in particular - that the occupation is a long-term affair, and that their rescue from it will not come from outside.
The students themselves are less abstract in explaining why clashes with Israeli soldiers are now more frequent and more violent than in the past.
``The kids just cannot take it anymore,'' says Samir Rantissi, a student at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University. ``They can't take getting humiliated every day by the military. The soldiers stop people, they spit on them, they beat them sometimes. Today,'' he says, ``you almost have to have been in jail or stood up under interrogation to be considered leadership material by the other students.''
This past academic year was a particularly tense one in the territories. Since September, three students have been shot to death in violent clashes with troops and at least 22 have been wounded. In all the previous years of occupation, only one student had been killed by troops.
At Bir Zeit, an estimated 160 students had been arrested this year before the military shut down the campus in April for four months, the longest closure imposed on a Palestinian university since occupation began. Last month, Israel deported Marwan Barguthi, head of the Bir Zeit Students' Union, to Jordan after accusing him of being a activist in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
``The actions against students are escalating,'' says Albert Aghazarian, a spokesman for Bir Zeit. ``I guess we are celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the Six-Day War.''
About 16,000 students attend Palestinian universities and colleges in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem. Most students come from the Palestinian lower-middle class, but many also are drawn from the refugee camps spawned in 1948 when thousands of Palestinians fled their homes during fighting between Jews and Arabs.
``The middle-class kids are the brains of the activist movement, but the refugee-camp kids are the arm of what is going on,'' Rantissi says. ``The refugee-camp kids have less to lose than the middle-class kids, so they are more willing to be in the frontline at demonstrations.''
The universities are viewed by Jewish settlers and Palestinian activists alike as focal points for inculcating Palestinian nationalism. Jewish settlers on the West Bank regularly demand the universities be permanently closed, a demand the Army so far has ignored.
But military officers acknowledge that the universities pose the greatest threat to Israel's two-pronged system for controlling the territories with a few hundred troops and a huge network of informers.
From the start, Israel has used a classic carrot-and-stick approach. It is that method that seems to be losing its effectiveness with the generation born under occupation.
The carrot is the opportunity for the individual to lead a relatively quiet life as long as he stays away from any activity interpreted as opposition to the occupation. Palestinians are allowed to work in Israel, and some 100,000 cross into Israel every day to their jobs as cooks and busboys in restaurants, garbage collectors, janitors, maids, and farmworkers.
Palestinians also are allowed to maintain an advocacy press, though papers are censored by the military before publication. They have access to jobs in the Arab world via the open bridges to Jordan. It is possible for a Palestinian family to live well materially under occupation - as evidenced by villas that have sprung up in towns and villages in the past 20 years.
But the attractiveness of the carrot has faded as greater and greater numbers of students have graduated from universities to find there is no suitable work for them in the territories, in Israel, or in the Arab states that absorbed thousands of graduates during the oil-boom years. Today, thousands find themselves either unemployed or doing manual labor at low wages in Israel. The penalties for activism
The stick used against Palestinians by the Israelis is applied ruthlessly by the Shin Beth, Israel's internal security organization, which uses its network of informers and collaborators to regularly detect and break up cells of Palestinians planning attacks on Israeli settlers or soldiers in the territories.
The penalties for involvement in terrorist activities are harsh - long prison sentences, the demolition or sealing of family homes, and the punishment most feared by Palestinians - deportation. A student convicted of stone-throwing commonly is sentenced to 18 days in prison, and sentences of two years are not unheard of. Some Jewish settlers agitate for stone-throwers to be deported, arguing that their intent is murder.
For the better educated, younger generation steeped in the political rhetoric of the PLO, the stick has lost some of its force. They dream of being fighters.
``These little kids will jump right in front of a jeep full of soldiers and throw a rock at them,'' Rantissi says. ``We would never have done such a thing when I was a kid.''
The radicalization of their children and grandchildren sometimes seems to concern middle-class Palestinians almost as much as it does the Israeli military administration. Many send their young people abroad to university whenever possible, in hopes of proteting them from direct confrontations with the authorities.
But parents often express sympathy for the growing frustration of a generation that sees no end in sight to Israeli rule.
Parents point out also that it is the example of Israel itself that feeds the frustration the young feel living in an environment where they are powerless to control their own lives.
``We don't deny that Israel is the best democratic state in the Middle East,'' says Najib Nasser, a successful merchant in Bethlehem. ``They are 90 percent democratic for their own people. In Jordan, they don't have democracy, they have a king. It is true that under the Israelis we had more freedom to open universities. Most of the people in the territories prefer Israel's system to any in the Arab world, but they want the democracy of Israel applied to them.''
Most Palestinian students would say they would prefer a democratic system, functioning in their own state in the West Bank and Gaza - an option the vast majority of Israelis reject out of hand as a threat to Israel's existence.
The children now in Palestinian universities grew up as the PLO was maturing and honing its message of Palestinian nationalism. They have witnessed the failure of the Arab states to secure the Palestinian dream of the return of Palestinian lands to Arab control.
``If there is one thing 20 years of occupation has taught us, it is that we can only rely on ourselves,'' a Palestinian leftist in Ramallah remarked dryly.
The feeling that the Arabs and the superpowers have let the Palestinians down leads many young Palestinians to reject the notion, put forward by Israeli leaders such as Shimon Peres, that the only practical solution for the Palestinians is a confederation linking Jordan to the West Bank and Gaza.
``My daughter Dima's generation, they don't know anything moderate,'' says Freda Sakakini, a middle-class Palestinian living in Ramallah. ``They know nothing of living under Jordan. They have grown up under occupation, and the Israelis have far worse to fear from them than they ever did from us.''
Mrs. Sakakini and her husband, Ishak, believe they made a mistake when they sent Dima to Bir Zeit to study two years ago. When she started at the university, Dima says, ``I knew nothing about politics.'' But in the highly politicized campus environment, she found herself drawn to the radical Palestinian left. Now she joins regularly in student demonstrations.
``We curse ourselves 100 times for not sending her to the States,'' Mrs. Sakakini says. ``I am always scared when she is away from the home,'' Mr. Sakakini adds. ``Her mother and I feel bad. On the day of the last demonstration, [we] went together to the university to find her and bring her home.''
``I believe in something,'' Dima said simply. ``I believe in fighting for a Palestinian state. The Jews will never just give the land back to us - that would be crazy from their point of view.''