Palestine wary of unequal dialogue

November 4, 2005

Unesco officials aim to bring Israeli and Palestinian academics to a round-table meeting next year to explore ways to revitalise universities in the Occupied Territories. They are convinced that a degree of collaboration is possible even when the security situation appears to be unimproved despite Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Unesco representatives are not deterred by the reluctance of Palestinian university leaders to see the Unesco initiative separately from steps to end Israel's restrictions on the ability of their institutions to function.

Palestinian universities have been severely affected by Israeli-imposed checks on internal movement. Most are not functioning fully.

Georges Haddad, director of Unesco's higher education division, told The Times Higher that it would be a "disaster" if thousands of young people in Palestine were denied the opportunity to attend university.

The proposed discussions would centre on short-term solutions to Palestinian universities' immediate problems and how to create the capacity in Palestine for the medium to longer term.

A decision on when the round table would take place rests with the Palestinians, but Dr Haddad hoped it would be in February or March 2006.

But Nabeel Kassis, president of Birzeit University, told The Times Higher :

"One must assume this (initiative) is well intentioned, but there is a lack of parity. An Israeli academic can decide to attend, buy a ticket and fly out. For a Palestinian such steps cannot be taken for granted.

"Israeli universities are accessible from the outside world - we are not.

To give the impression everything is fair would be very misleading. I do not think it will work - we do not stand to gain out of this. It is too artificial.

"If I say we refuse this sort of operation we might be accused of being political, but I counter by saying that presenting us with this kind of operation is itself political. We believe peace is possible, but you cannot put the cart before the horse."

Professor Kassis was visiting Britain to develop relations between Birzeit University and British universities. He spoke at the London School of Economics and Sussex and Birmingham universities on "Palestinian universities under Israeli occupation".

One Palestinian university leader who will be instrumental in the round-table discussion is Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, who was heavily criticised for opposing the abortive Association of University Teachers boycott of two Israeli universities.

He said at the time: "We are informed by the principle that we should seek to win Israelis over to our side, not to win against them. We believe it is in our interest to build bridges, not walls, to reach out to the Israeli academic institutions, not to impose another restriction or dialogue block."

Eighteen of Birzeit's students are being held in "administrative detention" by the Israeli authorities. At one time, 20 per cent of students at the West Bank university came from Gaza - now only 12 out of a total student body of 7,000 do.

Professor Kassis said that the Israelis had "deported" four Birzeit students to Gaza because they lacked permits.

Last month, Israeli settlers uprooted 500 grapevines that formed part of a Birzeit project to encourage environmentally responsible farming methods.

Two years ago, the Israeli Defence Force removed 4,000 olive trees in the same area.

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