Don's diary

April 7, 2000

Sunday

My first day as part of an official delegation to Palestine organised by the Friends of Birzeit University. Arrive at Ben Gurion airport, official entry point to Palestine, and announce my intention to visit Palestinian universities. This creates an air of suspicion among the Israeli immigration officers.

Eventually arrive at our modern hotel in Ramallah - "The Best Eastern Hotel". It's rather like a Best Western - except the strongest drink served is Fanta.

Monday

Arrive at Birzeit University. Although blessed with an excellent reputation, Birzeit is struggling to survive. Today, on top of all the usual problems, an electrical charger has overheated and set fire to the Food Safety Unit (lovingly established with money from my union's Department for International Development).

Birzeit's students tell us of the problems they face in travelling to the university. Some live just 30 miles away but the journey through Jerusalem is time-consuming. Getting entry passes is difficult, even though the journey is through East Jerusalem, which is under Palestinian control. Tuesday

Today we visit the crowded Deheishe refugee camp in Bethlehem. We are impressed by the spirit to survive and succeed. Nowhere is this more obvious than at a youth club with its own website. The website explains the plight of the refugees, but also gives the children contact with other children throughout the world. One child has been awarded A grades and is beaming with pride. I wonder if he will ever get to university.

Wednesday

Journey to the Gaza Strip. Despite arriving in a consular car it takes 20 minutes to complete the entry at the Erez checkpoint. Palestinians have to walk at least 1,000 metres through an enclosed tunnel to cross the checkpoint.

The United Nations is doing a valiant job with refugee education. It has two schools operating in one building, with 55 students a class. The meaning of refugee hits me when the children refer to the villages their grandparents left 50 years ago as "home". The children demand a lesson and soon we are delving into number patterns. I get the same reaction as I would from bright children in Britain - including the wish for computers.

Thursday

Meet with the teachers' union at Bethlehem and Al Quds university. Staff at the latter have not been paid for three months; funds from the Gulf have dried up since the war in 1991.

Friday

Get a real welcome at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Cannot help but notice the contrast with Birzeit. This university is supported by Jewish people throughout the world including, celebrities such as Barbra Streisand. At the Truman Institute they all express a desire to participate in joint ventures with Palestinian academics but with little real understanding of the situation from a Palestinian viewpoint.

Alan John is president of lecturers' union Natfhe.

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