Transit problem in the West Bank

January 26, 1996

When Palestinians went to the polls last week an estimated 12 per cent of the candidates in the West Bank were academics, including a special "academics" slate in the West Bank town of Ram Allah.

The twists and turns of Palestinian history mean that politics and academia have always been closely entwined, especially in the West Bank where there are now six universities and a tradition of liberal higher education dating from early this century.

Unlike state schools which until 18 months ago were run directly by an Israeli military administration, the privately financed higher education sector has worked hard to maintain relative autonomy, developing its own curricula, teaching materials and qualifications from a hotch-potch of American, Arab and home-grown systems.

Hanan Ashrawi typifies the Palestinian cross-over between political and academic life. She shot to international prominence as spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation in the early stages of the peace negotiations but was already well-known at home as dean of arts at Birzeit University.

She says: "The universities have traditionally trained the future political leadership as well as the professionals. The campus has been one of the few places where a cross-section of Palestinian society has been able to come together to debate and explore new ideas."

Unlike the many Palestinians who had never voted before last Friday's first national elections, undergraduates are familiar with the democratic process thanks to student elections in which blocs aligned to nationalist factions and policies compete for support. But participation in campus politics has carried high risks, with entire student councils rounded up and popular student leaders and university presidents deported.

The Israeli army has viewed the universities as hotbeds of "terrorism", periodically closing them despite a distinct lack of evidence of arms on campus. Birzeit has been closed 11 times under Israeli rule, once for four consecutive years during the intifada.

Access to campus remains difficult following the signing of the Oslo peace accords and the division of the West Bank into three zones with Palestinians running the main towns with the exception of Hebron, (Zone A); joint Israeli-Palestinian jurisdiction in the villages and on the roads (Zone B) and the remaining territory, including Israeli settlements, still firmly in Israeli army hands (Zone C). Israel remains responsible for overall security in all three zones.

Nigel Parry, a British volunteer working at Birzeit, says: "It's like trying to island hop in the Caribbean except that once you're in transit between one island and the next there's nothing to stop you being arrested in mid-journey. "We've got one sociology student who comes from a refugee camp just down the road but after being arrested and missing the last semester he now doesn't dare come back because that would mean stepping into the grey area of Zone B where he fears he may be picked up by Israeli security again."

Another student living in the north of the West Bank now has to travel through six checkpoints to reach lectures less than a hour's drive away.

Since the peace agreement Gazan students enrolled in West Bank institutions have faced repeated problems in continuing their studies with applications for travel permits routinely turned down. More than 50 Gazan students attending Birzeit are still on the "banned" list although the majority have no "security" records, and the Israeli army has been redeployed in the West Bank.

As a result fewer Gazan school leavers are applying for places in West Bank higher education colleges, adding to existing pressures on the two overcrowded and under-resourced universities in the Strip.

Despite ongoing disruption, Bethlehem University has developed new degrees and diplomas in business management, tourism, early childhood education, social work, nursing. With the help of Britain's Save the Children Fund, it has opened a physiotherapy department offering qualifications from doctorates to teaching certificates in rehabilitation of the intifada injured and disabled.

Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem is planning to build the first Palestinian medical school.

At Birzeit the new law centre is expected to strengthen the judiciary and assist in the establishment of the rule of law after almost three decades of Israeli military orders mixed with old Jordanian, Egyptian, British and Ottoman decrees.

But academic development costs money and the Palestinian universities have been caught in a funding crisis since Arab donations dried up following PLO support for Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. European Union money has since kept the universities afloat.

But while the universities do not wish to rely on foreign aid indefinitely, some Palestinians fear that financial dependency on the new Palestinian government could invite political interference.

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