Ashrawi outlines peace agenda

October 4, 1996

Palestinian academics stayed off the streets while the bloody battles raged between Palestinian police, civilians and Israeli soldiers in West Bank towns last week. Instead, they searched for a peaceful solution by writing newspaper articles and attending meetings, according to higher education minister Hanan Ashrawi.

The unrest started after the Israeli government decided to open a new gate to the Hasmonean Tunnel, close to the Al-Aksa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. The decision was received by much of the Arab world as the last straw, adding to what they considered a virtual stalemate in the peace process.

Professor Ashrawi, a former spokeswoman for the Palestinians in the West Bank, and previously a professor of English literature at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, plays a unique role in the Palestinian and Arab world as a woman, a Christian, an academic and a feminist from a wealthy family, who has campaigned for the rights of the Palestinians for much of her life.

She said of the latest return to violence: "I am horrified. We have to rescue the peace process."

She is optimistic that it can be saved as long as there is a "transformation of attitudes". Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot ignore reality, she said.

"Certain actions have to stop: the tunnel should stay closed, the army should be removed from West Bank towns. We believe that settlement activity should stop, that Israel should begin to implement her agreements," she said.

The will for peace among her people was articulated by academics in the newspapers. "Most of the opinion pages in the Palestinian press are written by academics, with openness, insight and brutal honesty. They are not vying for power.

"There have been political meetings for some time. There is a strong move towards dialogue."

She said that meetings and dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian writers, "even at the political level", started in the 1970s and were particularly prevalent in the late 1980s but had been supplanted by the peace negotiations.

"We are attempting to restore this dialogue to a more intelligent substance of discussion; how to evolve a new language of peace. There is still a majority constituency for peace in Israel, which is being sold short by the government.

"In the most recent unrest, many Palestinian students (who had been throwing stones), were "injured or killed - some were shot from Cobra helicopters," she said.

The Israeli government last March closed three universities for six months as part of its policy of shutting "Islamic institutions". These included Hebron University, Hebron College of Engineering and Technology and the Abu Dis School of Science and Technology (part of Al-Kuds [Jerusalem] University).

"I can't believe that Israel is closing down universities. It's like the days of the Inquisition," she said.

After last week's resurgence of violence and bloodshed, several of the West Bank universities including Bir Zeit were closed for three days of mourning. "The closure (of the territories, employed by the Israeli government as a security measure) has created an unnatural situation. For example, students from Gaza can't reach their universities in the West Bank," said Professor Ashrawi.

She referred to a "tight closure" of all Palestinian towns and "a sense of siege". Sunday's daily Ha'aretz published a map of the West Bank, showing tanks and helicopters around West Bank towns in different incidents.

"Each town is surrounded by tanks: Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, and there is a full curfew on Hebron," she said, despite the fact that the violence had stopped. She claimed there had been no "centralised call to students: it's not our job to tell students how to behave".

However, with the Israeli government decision to re-open the new tunnel gate, the Palestininians are now calling for more than just a "bilateral meeting". Professor Ashrawi said: "Netanyahu used the meetings as a smoke screen, as if there was progress, when there wasn't. We need to have a third party to ensure that no manipulation takes place.

"If we keep our eyes set firmly on peace, we can make it."

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