Since September 2000, the Israeli army has killed 3,000 Palestinians including nearly 500 children – a rate of nearly three a day. The “wall’ now under construction divides Palestinians from their land, water and essential services. Checkpoints, Israeli settlements and their bypass roads have split the West Bank into 64 separate enclaves. Under the closure policy originally introduced by Israel in 1991 to restrict freedom of movement, all Palestinians need permits from the Israeli military for travel between towns. The economy is stagnant, largely dependent on external aid. This condensed catalogue is the ever-present context of occupation. But despite this, solutions to conditions emerge and new initiatives take off.
The 65-kilometre journey by road to the new Arab American University just south of Jenin (in the north of the West Bank) and through the Jordan valley on the eastern “border’ of the West Bank takes more than three and half hours. The intensively farmed, fertile Jordan valley is dotted with Israeli settlements and agricultural businesses, established on land expropriated from the Palestinians by Israel after 1967. There are over 150 illegal Israeli settlements with more than 400,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and their expansion is accelerating. In 2003 the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics recorded a 35 per cent increase in new settlement building. Water rights are a major issue. In 2002 the 5,000 Israelis in settlements in the Jordan valley consumed as much water as 75 per cent of the entire Palestinian West Bank population of 2 million.
The Arab American University, the first non-government funded university in Palestine, stands on a hill overlooking a panoramic landscape. Waleed Deeb, the president of the university has been developing this project for over seven years. He has a clear vision: “My priority is education, to encourage critical thinking, research and self-learning. I want my students to be able to compete not only locally but internationally.’ His staff praise his participative management style and his students admire his open-door policy.
Now in its third year and with 2,500 of an eventual 4,500 students, the university offers a number of unique degrees in Palestine including dentistry, information technology, biotechnology and physical and occupational therapy. The continuing education department is an important local resource. Its programme for adults targets both general public education needs as well as future employability with courses in nutrition, immunisation, water, agriculture, the environment, computer and secretarial skills and stress management. Given the ongoing deficit in services, the university plays an important role by providing surrounding communities with free dental and health check ups and treatment by students under supervision.
The quality of the university’s buildings, landscaping and student facilities is impressive. Although the students chatting in groups between classes could have been from anywhere, the occupation is always a factor.
Lena from a village near Jerusalem is one of the first group of graduating students. Inspired by Waleed, whom she met at a young scientists club he established in Palestine in 1996, she abandoned her ambition to be a pilot. Now completing her first degree in biotechnology she plans to go on to a postgraduate degree abroad. She says: “I have visited other Palestinian universities but the AAU is special. The teachers know us all and encourage us to question, not only listen. When I wake up I see trees, not settlements. The teachers really want us to do our best.’
Rami, another “top’ graduating student, is finishing a degree in information technology. As the only student from Gaza, from a refugee camp, he cannot travel and is largely confined to the campus. His experience was more difficult:
“The hardest thing was learning to depend on myself. These past two years were devastating, especially being away from my family and knowing that they face daily incursions by the Israeli army. During the invasion of Jenin when there were no phone lines, we lost contact for six weeks. They thought I had been killed.’
After the second Intifada, both Rami’s parents lost their jobs and had to use the money they were saving to buy some land and move out of the camp. “I can’t think of postgraduate study now. I need to give them [my parents] something back. I feel very burdened. You can see my vitiligo (loss of skin pigmentation). The doctor says it is from stress.’
The logistics of creating any new university are complex but especially so here where there is an increasing gap between aspirations and what is achievable.
Waleed wanted to attract Palestinian students from outside Palestine and to recruit foreign faculty who would bring different perspectives. This is increasingly difficult to achieve. Study is often disrupted. Students and staff alike face the daily delays and humiliation at checkpoints or sudden city closures.
The economic impact of the occupation on family incomes is reflected in the 15 per cent dropout rate. Although over 60 per cent of students get grants or loans, many like Rami have to chose between studying or dropping out in order to help support their families.
But the most difficult issue for Waleed is morale: “The students feel hopeless so often. It is hard to keep hope alive when everything around you indicates otherwise.’
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