Bethlehem University struggles amid war

January 31, 2003

Students hurry to their classes across the white stone-faced courtyard of Bethlehem University. After two years of the intifada and two more days of Israeli-imposed curfew, the university's 2,070 students (70 per cent Muslim) and lecturers are striving to make up for lost time.

Hotel management student Rami Hosh, 21, who wants to be a chef and is considering studying in France, said that things were fine before the second intifada. Recently, he said, his uncle's shop was blown up by the Israeli army.

He said: "If the situation remains like this, I will not come back here.

The Israelis damaged (my uncle's) store for no reason. They took our freedom. We don't have work. Every three days, a curfew is imposed. They give us a few hours to buy food and go home."

Bethlehem University was set up in 1973. It is managed by the La Salle order, which has 100 years' experience of running colleges in the Middle East. Until 1999, the Palestinian Authority contributed $1.4 million (£860,000) to the university's $6 million running costs. But the authority's dire economic situation means that that source has dried up.

Tuition fees cover about 35 per cent of total costs, 15 per cent comes from the Vatican, and the rest from private donors.

Manuel Hassassian, the university's executive vice-president, said: "We cannot really have contingency plans because of the unpredictability of the Israelis. They don't follow a pattern."

Professor Hassassian, president of the conference at which the heads of ten Palestinian universities are represented, described the continual disruption of classes as "utter confusion". The semester has been extended because of curfews and closures. "We're trying to conduct academia against all odds and all tides," he said.

Professor Hassassian, who co-teaches a summer course on conflict resolution at the University of Maryland with Edy Kaufman of the Hebrew University's Truman Institute, added: "It is not the way to conduct research - to be held back at checkpoints."

George Sahar, head of development at the university, said: "The whole story is oppressor and oppressed. We have an inalienable right to live in freedom. The university is unique, because it is the only Christian Palestinian institution of higher education. We have been a bridge between cultures."

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