Professor, politician, and man of peace

January 25, 2002

Sari Nusseibeh's career straddles politics and academia, an approach he believes is essential in the pursuit of peace between Palestine and Israel. Helena Flusfeder reports.

Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem and the Palestine Liberation Organisation's "man in Jerusalem", enters the university office puffing on a cigarette, wearing a tweed jacket, corduroy trousers and his usual affable smile.

A maverick academic and politician, he has been described as the "pretty face of terrorism" by the right wing in Israel. Yet Nusseibeh, in his Al-Quds role, does not hide his interest in conducting joint projects with Israeli institutions.

"We've had a lot of projects with Israelis. Over 12 years, we have had about 70 different kinds of programme - on health, medicine, natural sciences, agriculture, research and human sciences." Publication stands at the entrance to the small modern university building reflect these joint projects, especially in medicine.

"We do things because we believe they are necessary and useful, not because it is in fashion. It is in our interests to carry out these projects. We're different from other universities in this respect," says Nusseibeh, a member of the unofficial Palestinian aristocracy who has been involved in both politics and academia for many years. Even during the past 15 violence-filled months since the start of the Al-Aksa intifada, Nusseibeh says that 30 or 40 joint projects with Israeli institutions have gone ahead.

Nusseibeh was enthusiastic about cooperation with Israeli universities even before he came to Al-Quds, despite the position of the Palestinian Council for Higher Education - later the Ministry of Higher Education - and the Presidents' Conference, a representation of Palestinian university presidents who were against explicit cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian institutions. But since Al-Quds is an independent institution - actually a non-governmental organisation - it can do as it likes. With annual running costs of about $10 million (£7 million), Nusseibeh says: "We are partly subsidised by the the Palestinian Authority, but primarily our money comes from our students."

He is the son of Anwar Nusseibeh, who held a number of public posts including that of Jordan's defence minister under King Hussein and Jordan's ambassador to England. Nusseibeh was born 53 years ago in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, he is a graduate of Oxford and earned a PhD from Harvard in Islamic philosophy. He was one of the activists involved in the first intifada at the end of 1987, but disappeared from the political arena for a decade to dedicate himself to academia.

"My life has been a mixture of the academic and the politician," he says. Nusseibeh spends seven or eight hours a day at the university and sometimes the same number at political meetings. "Even when I started working in 1978 at Bir Zeit University, it was a combination. It is true of many people. I began in politics and when the time came for the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, I decided to be done with politics because it wasn't something I was into out of design, but out of a sense of duty and out of a sense of necessity. I felt my role in that particular sphere was done and I could go back to my private life and my private interests as an academic."

There were two factors that stimulated Nusseibeh's return to the political arena this year. They were the death of Faisal Husseini, who previously held the position of the PLO's commissioner of political affairs in Jerusalem, which Nusseibeh has taken over, and "because of the mess that was created after last year's Camp David talks. We were thrown back to a situation that existed in the 1970s and 1980s. I felt I needed once again to at least say what I thought and to influence how things were. Not that I felt that I could necessarily make a difference, but I believe it is my duty to try.

"There is a need to construct a relationship between Israel and the Palestinians based on what is clearly a mutual interest in a joint future. It is far better for both sides to do this than to leave themselves at the mercy of events."

Asked how much politics affects university life, he says: "It is part of all our lives. It affects you whether you are a carpenter, a student, a doctor, a mother or a professor. It dictates whether a student can get into a class by a specific time, depending on how many roadblocks there are. Sometimes the campus gets closed; sometimes somebody's mother gets killed. The university is simply one piece of a life lived under occupation."

Despite this situation, Nusseibeh says that Palestinians still believe in peace. "Of course, they do. They are human beings after all, and human beings believe in peace. But the question should maybe be, do the Palestinians believe that Israel believes in peace?" He thinks Palestinians have lost the belief, which they may once have had, that peace is possible. But they still believe it is necessary.

Despite such pessimism, Nusseibeh is able to take a positive stance on last year's failed talks at Camp David and Taba, Egypt. He believes the Taba talks, particularly, offer hope for a future agreement. "People can build on that," he says.

The recent Israeli-Palestinian meeting at the New Imperial Hotel in East Jerusalem, which attracted hundreds of supporters to hear people speak about the need for peace, also fuelled his optimism. But, then, Nusseibeh says he does not give up easily.

It is this trait, coupled with his academic background, that is behind Nusseibeh's rise to the presidency of Al-Quds in 1996. Originally established as four separate colleges in the 1970s, the institution was amalgamated in the 1980s and is the first Palestinian academic institution to have a medical faculty. Its 6,000-strong student body is primarily made up of Palestinians, although international students from Europe and the United States take summer courses at the university.

While Nusseibeh is aware that in many subjects Palestinian undergraduates may be well behind their counterparts at Oxford or Harvard, he says that they excel in computer science and some technical subjects. He adds that the average Palestinian student is more "mature, with better insight into the human condition and more awareness of moral issues, is more politicised and has more determined views concerning life and death".

Nusseibeh's philosophy of education - that it is "part of building a society and a state" - again shows how the political and academic have worked together in his career. To this end, he has established a compulsory undergraduate course in critical thinking at the university in an attempt to "make students move from a mode of study that is based on memory and repetition to analysis in the sense of explanation, to a mode of thinking that has to do with construction, with creating, with group thinking and problem-solving. We give them a little bit of classical logic and ordinary puzzles, like Sherlock Holmes puzzles," he says.

Israeli students, he says, are traditionally groomed to take psychometric tests, required for university entry - although these are now under debate. But Palestinians have not been taught to think critically. "In our society, everything is built on memory," he says.

And while he recognises that the university is politicised, he adds: "We don't go in much for politics. Our students are political, but we have a serious interest in scholarship."

The university even has an Israel studies masters degree programme. "We develop programmes that we feel are needed by society. We can help to prepare people who will eventually be sitting on various desks in the Palestinian government."

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