IN the cold, dark offices at Bir Zeit, the West Bank's largest university, yellowing newspapers dated 1987 still lie on office desks. Stacks of uncataloged books are piled high on library shelves. Cafeteria chairs of green, orange, and black - the colors of the Palestinian flag - are piled neatly atop dining room tables. At Bir Zeit, five other Palestinian universities, and 16 tiny community and vocational colleges in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, time has stood still since December 1987, the month Israeli authorities ordered them closed in an effort to quell the Palestinian uprising.
Twenty-seven months later a combination of international pressure and reassessments by Israel has produced precarious hopes that Israel's long siege of Palestinian higher education may be nearing an end.
Last week, Israel began the phased reopening of the colleges, where 3,000 Palestinians are enrolled.
Israeli authorities say the decision was based on the belief that the colleges will no longer be used as centers for anti-Israeli violence. Palestinians insist that Israel is bowing to international pressure, especially from Europe and the United States.
Israeli occupation authorities have also agreed to consider the almost unanimous recommendation of a Knesset committee to reopen at least one of the universities on a trial basis. They say any final decision will be based on whether order is maintained as the colleges reopen. Public primary and secondary schools in the territories, which were also closed at the start of the uprising, were reopened earlier this year without major incident.
Fourteen thousand students attend the six universities that make up the backbone of the Palestinian higher education system. In a recent report on the effects of the closure, officials at Bir Zeit charged that Israel has ``criminalized'' higher education through arbitrary punishment of students and teachers and by the closure orders, which were extended through May 31st.
Responding to the prolonged closure, the European Community recently urged member states to freeze scientific ties with Israel until the universities are reopened.
An Israeli security source insists that Israel ``has never had a policy to keep educational institutions closed. But we felt we had to because all these places were centers for demonstrations that brought casualties.'' The source adds that the decision to begin reopening the colleges was prompted by the belief that ``step-by-step the atmosphere has changed - not completely but enough to take steps.''
Since the start of the closure, students have been meeting in small groups in ``underground'' classrooms in homes, mosques, and offices around the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. Nearly 40 percent of university students have participated in the classes, enabling about 1,000 to graduate since the ban was imposed.
But the closure has stranded an estimated 40,000 high school graduates who now find the doors to higher education boarded up.
University administrators also fear a high dropout rate among enrolled students, many of whom have been arrested or deported during the uprising. Some have launched into careers or traveled abroad to complete their studies.
The casualty rate is expected to be highest among women students, many of whom have now lost the brief opportunity to gain a college degree before assuming traditional roles as wives and mothers. Before the campuses were closed, women represented nearly 40 percent of the university population in the West Bank, one of the highest percentages in the Arab world.
``The major loss is something that cannot be quantified: two years in the productive life of young people,'' says Gabi Baramki, vice president of Bir Zeit. ``How do you measure it?''
``Most of the students feel that something has gone wrong in their lives,'' says a dispirited English major at Nablus's Al Najah University in the West Bank. ``Our lives have been so disrupted it's as if the Israelis do not want us to be an educated people.''
The losses have also been monetary. Palestinian educators estimate that the closure has cost the six Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza up to $50 million in lost tuition and contributions, and in depreciation of facilities. The figure does not include back taxes to Israel, which for Bir Zeit alone now amount to nearly $3 million.
The Palestinian universities have been kept alive by contributions from Arab governments and private organizations around the world. But outside assistance has covered less than two-thirds of annual operating expenses, which, despite the prolonged closure, remain at 70 percent of normal levels.
Since the start of the Israeli occupation in 1967, relations between the military administration and Palestinian universities have been strained.
Israel has taken pride in the fact that since 1967 six universities have been established in the territories, where none existed before.
Palestinians respond that before the occupation the West Bank was part of Jordan, which did have a major university from which many Palestinians graduated. They add that West Bank and Gaza universities received no moral or financial support from Israel, which levies taxes on buildings and equipment from which Israeli universities are exempt.
``We have paid millions for the privilege of surviving,'' says Dr. Baramki.
Two years of the intifadah have sharpened an old debate within the Palestinian academic community over the role of universities under occupation.
Traditionalists argue that, to remain credible, the universities should continue to emphasize the accepted Western course offerings in the arts and social and natural sciences. But pressure is growing to harness the university system to the tasks of ``nation-building'' by teaching vocational skills needed to build Palestinian institutions and courses related to Palestinian history, agriculture, and economic problems.
``The problem is how to meet social needs without becoming a maverick in the international education world,'' says Albert Aghazarian, a Bir Zeit history professor. ``If you go too far, you cease to be a university.''