The grave predicament of students under siege

November 3, 2000

Palestinian universities want to carry on despite the violence, but they are now desperate, says Chris Doyle

Images of young Palestinians are synonymous with those of stone-throwing men confronting heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Both now and in the first intifada of 1987-1993, Palestinian youths have played a central role. But young Palestinians are not all stone throwers. They have wider aspirations, and seeking a quality education is at the heart of Palestinian society.

This is one of the human elements glossed over as the world focuses on a crumbling peace process and the horrific violence of the past three weeks. The Palestinian educational experience is one of constant disruption, university closures, curfews, economic hardship and the emotional trauma of the Israeli occupation. Students from Gaza often study at West Bank universities under threat of Israeli arrest.

In the current situation, it has become extremely hazardous, even impossible, for Palestinians to travel anywhere. They fear sniper fire and attacks by Jewish settlers. Israel has isolated Palestinian cities, and roadblocks cut off villages from surrounding towns. To travel between Nablus and Ramallah now takes four hours, not the usual 30 minutes. If students do leave, their families are terrified that they may never return.

Who can concentrate on textbooks, chemistry or engineering in such an atmosphere? Young people live through the terror of the violence, the deafening sounds of missiles, bombs and gunfire. The widespread violence has left more than 150 Palestinians dead, several of them children, and thousands injured, affecting nearly every family.

The Palestinian ministry of education initially closed schools for safety reasons, but all eight universities have struggled to keep open. One of these is Birzeit University, the Oxford of the occupied territories. It has produced some of Palestine's best-known intellectuals, such as Hanan Ashrawi. Over the past 33 years, staff and students have suffered consistent human rights violations perpetrated by the Israelis. From 1979 to 1992, Birzeit was closed 60 per cent of the time.

The university is in semi-permanent financial crisis and is heavily dependent on external support. Often, teachers do not even get paid - in stark contrast to Israeli universities, where the government pays 60-70 per cent of all university student fees.

Birzeit has a reputation for promoting political pluralism and freedom of expression. Here the fragile roots of Palestinian civil society are being planted: keenly contested student elections include all the main Palestinian factions, even the Islamist groups, demonstrating a desire for greater political participation. Women, who comprise just under half of the 4,900 students, play a full part in university life.

The university is in emergency mode, and most of the staff and students cannot reach it. Local events affect the university community heavily - in nearby Ramallah, 12 Palestinians have been killed and more than 450 wounded. Classes were held in the first stages of the conflict, but funerals in Ramallah meant that few students turned up. About 2,000 students were trapped at Birzeit during Israel's October 19 bombing of Ramallah, which followed the lynching of two Israeli soldiers. The university organised an emergency evacuation, and some students spent the night at the abbey in Birzeit village. The administration has stated that there can be no classes until stability returns.

The university believes that - so far - none of its students has been killed, but there have been serious injuries. One student was shot in the mouth with a rubber bullet on the first day of clashes. Another student at a demonstration was shot in the spleen and needed four operations. The university's institute of community health is gathering details about the injuries and monitoring stress in students. Birzeit is also setting up a centre for mental care to help students and others in the community deal with the trauma of recent events.

Nobody knows how long the clashes will last. Already students have lost a month of classes, but the administration is unable to make emergency plans. Students fear that the semester will be cancelled. This would create difficulties for students anxious to make up lost classes and bigger problems for those about to graduate.

Palestinians at Birzeit persistently speak of isolation from the outside world. Our group, Friends of Birzeit University, provides an avenue for outside contact through international and university links, exchange visits and forms of financial assistance. It needs international support and solidarity more than ever -Jmore than half of all Palestinians are children, and their futures, their dreams and their attitudes will shape the Palestine of tomorrow.

Chris Doyle is honorary secretary of the Friends of Birzeit University.

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