Scientists heal Red Sea rift

February 7, 1997

A MIDDLE Eastern regional university for Jews and Arabs straddling Aqaba, Eilat and Taba, or based in Jericho, has been proposed at an international conference in Jerusalem.

The idea follows recent peace agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Jordan, which are expected to create new opportunities in the region.

The support of an international organisation such as Unesco could be a vital element in getting the project off the ground, its supporters told participants in a "Science for Peace" conference at the Hebrew University.

The conference attracted top figures in international science, academics and diplomats, who came to discuss how science and scientists can contribute to peace.

Discussion ranged from the scientist's responsibility to harness knowledge to peace, international scientific collaboration (mainly between Israel and Egypt), the prevention of the misuse of science (including disarmament and the threat of chemical warfare), the use of modern technology for regional cooperation in the Middle East, and Unesco's role in supporting regional projects.

However, it was the proposal of the regional "Red Sea Academic University" that caught many participants' imagination.

Reyad Sawafta of North Carolina University and Avivi Yavin of Tel Aviv University thought that it would probably start as a summer school and only gradually be expanded into a fully fledged academic institute or university.

"Suppose we had a big first-class university where people would teach and be able to collaborate: wouldn't it be nice if Jews and Arabs studied Judaism and Islamic culture together?" Professor Yavin said.

The researchers' aim was "to find a solution for the students and researchers of the region, who had few adequate universities and little scientific collaboration and were working in isolated towns or cities. These students often went abroad to get an adequate education and then stayed there, causing a brain-drain."

They predicted that students would come to the new university from Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt and Israel.

Professor Yavin said that the faculty would stem from existing universities. "I expect a lot of first-rate scientists from all over the region."

The institute's studies will include basic sciences, desert studies, Middle East cultures, archaeology, anthropology, languages and religions. But Professor Yavin is not convinced that the region is ready for such a university.

Professor Sawafta added that the regional university would provide a centre for students to do their research in the region. "Ten thousand Palestinian PhDs go to Canada and the United States," he said. It would help the Palestinians to make up for lost time and the lowered standard of education - time they lost during the intifada.

Alex Keynan, former vice president of the Hebrew University, described a different type of partnership. He worked for years on a project to foster scientific ties with Egypt, a task he said was "one of the most difficult partnerships in science I have ever encountered".

Despite the political difficulties, scientists from the two countries eventually cooperated on two projects: in agriculture and tropical medicine. The tropical medicine project led to more than 50 joint publications and went a long way towards affecting the Egyptian government's attitude towards Israel, according to Professor Keynan.

Menachem Ya'ari, president of Israel's Open University, agreed that "scientific ties herald a broader network of relations between countries". He said that the OU's emphasis on distance learning led it to develop new technologies, which are used in distance learning.

In an effort to extend the peace process throughout the Middle East through education, the OU has initiated several new courses.

The Jerusalem conference was organised by Yehiel Becker, director of the Unesco-Hebrew University international school for molecular biology and microbiology. It was sponsored by the Hebrew University, Unesco, and the International Institute for Theoretical and Applied Physics, affiliated with Iowa State University in the United States.

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