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Against all odds.

Birzeit University is regarded as a thorn in the side of the Israeli authorities. In an attempt to control its Palestinian students, harsh restrictions have been imposed. However, the university has survived and has gained the admiration of many people around the world. Abdel-Qader Yassine reports.

The Palestinian struggle for academic freedom in the Occupied Territories has long been a target of Israeli governments. Savage attacks on Palestinian university students have provoked criticism from liberal-minded Westerners and some Israeli academics have even voiced complaints.

Birzeit University, named after a village 15 miles north of Jerusalem, is one of the two main centres of higher education for Palestinians. The other is the American University in Beirut. Birzeit has about 2,500 students and 250 staf, about a quarter of whom are Westerners.

In 1924 a wealthy Palestinian woman founded a small school to serve Birzeit village. By 1935 the school had developed into a high school and later a college. The place survived all the upheavals of the Palestinian struggle for autonomy and by the 1950s started running degree courses in the arts and science. By the 1970s the college had developed into a fully fledged university, producing graduates. The university has always been regarded as a centre of Palestinian nationalism, this role was highlighted when in 1974 its president, Dr Hanna Nasser, was deported -- blindfolded and handcuffed -- to Jordan, because of his links with the PLO.

The main cause of trouble at Birzeit University is the students' fierce resistance to Israeli attempts to control the university. However, despite all their efforts Birzeit is still compelled to operate under conditions, imposed by the Israelis, which are unrealistically harsh.

Birzeit requires a yearly permit to operate even though all students are enrolled at the university on degree courses which last for four years. The Israeli army frequently sets up roadblocks around the campus to check the identity cards of those Palestinian students who are not from the West Bank -- a substantial number come from outside the Occupied Territories. The "Civil Administration" regularly interferes with the curriculum, the employment of teachers, registration of students and finance.

Like other Palestinian institutions, Birzeit University bears a heavy burden of Israeli taxes and financial imposts. The university has to provide a deposit of 30%-40% of the value of all new educational materials with the Israeli government for six months. In 1988 Birzeit paid out US$4480,000 in taxes on materials costing just $154,000.

Despite all these problems, and a regular flow of Berzeit students in and out of Israeli jails, foreign professors are impressed by the capacity of the Palestinian students to work. Courses are often planned years in advance to minimise the disruptive effects of constant closure of the university by the Israeli authorities.

The fighting spirit of Birzeit is only a reflection of the feelings and aspirations of the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. Birzeit students are intimately involved in the life of their community, participating in agricultural production as well as literacy campaigns. No one could accuse Birzeit students of living in an ivory tower.

This participation in the economic life of the Occupied Territories is particularly significant when put in the context of the acute shortage in manpower there. A report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) shows that the livelihood of the workforce in the West Bank is ow almost completely dependent on Israel; increasingly undermining the economic viability of any independent Palestinian state there. Moreover, Israeli settlements occupy areas with the best land and water.

Under these circumstances, the local Palestinian community is highly dependent on the university. Each student at Birzeit completes 120 hours of community work in the four years before graduation, helping farmers and setting up health and literacy centres. One of the first achievements of the Birzeit literacy programme was to find replacements for the children's books that were until then used for adult classes.

The content of these courses is now directly related to problems of the rural sector. Today about 8,000 people are involved in the literacy courses. The health programme covering 25 villages in the Ramallah area treated more than 9,600 people in 1990.

Birzeit University has solved the dilemma of survival and opposition to the Israeli occupation by making its survival dependent on active struggle against occupation.
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Title Annotation:Birzeit University as a hotbed of Palestinian dissent in Israel
Author:Yassine, Abdel-Qader
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Crimes of honour.
Next Article:Lifting the veil.

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