MAXWELL: Some Palestinian students find political act in studying rather than fighting

3/4/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The horrific photographs flashed around the world _ the wrecked bus, the Palestinian driver, the bodies of Israeli Jews covered with blankets.

Just another day of carnage in the Holy Land, this time in Azur, a small town between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The Palestinian bus driver, Khalil Abu Elba, killed eight Israeli Jews, seven of them soldiers, when he plowed into them. Several other Jews were injured. Israeli officials and Abu Elba’s relatives and friends say the killings were intentional _ in retaliation for border osures that have made life hell for residents of Gaza and the West Bank.

A Palestinian acquaintance in Miami telephoned me saying he fears the killings will ignite a new wave of anti-Arab sentiment around the world, especially in the United States.

He said also that many Palestinians, himself included, condemn not just these killings but all of the violence surrounding the current intifada.

I stay in touch with six university students I met in Gaza and the West Bank during my last visit to the war-torn region. None has participated in the new violence that erupted six months ago after Ariel Sharon, Israel’s newly elected prime minister, went to the Temple Mount with a large contingent of security forces and declared that the “sacred” turf belongs to Jews _ and Jews alone.

These students are not alone in avoiding the skirmishes. Given their great numbers, few university students, in fact, have been involved in the 2000-2001 intifada.

Such was not the case during the 1987-1993 uprising, when thousands of students from all levels of Palestinian society led and planned attacks on Israeli Jews. Then, throwing stones, rather than reading books and conducting scientific experiments, was the badge of honor and the ultimate show of commitment to “the cause.”

Now, most students _ even many older ones who fought in the old intifada _ believe that they are doing more for their people by learning how to implement, say, a national health care system.

Why the drastic change?

The main reason is the Palestinian Authority, or the PA, which was created with Israel’s support in 1993, to oversee life in the territories. The Jewish state thought that it was giving up land for peace. In short, an official Arab government, along with the militias affiliated with it, now runs things.

This move decreased the need for individuals, especially college students, to put their careers on the line and their bodies in harm’s way.

After all, Yasser Arafat now could go to Washington and talk with the American president, and his lieutenants could hold high-level meetings with officials in world capitals.

Ismael, my guide when I visited Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, said, during a telephone interview, that he and his classmates no longer believe that confrontation is the sole way to build a new Palestinian society, especially a vibrant economy that creates jobs for a generation that has known only poverty.

With a population of more than 1-million, the Gaza Strip, still called the “Soweto of Israel,” is not a state nor has it been annexed into Israel. Much of the crowding and squalor are directly attributable to Israel’s economic and military stranglehold over Gaza, a region fenced in from the Erez Crossing in the north to the Rafah Crossing at the Egyptian border in the south. Closing the borders is Israel’s main way of protecting its citizens.

The strip is 25 miles long and less than 4 miles wide in some areas. It is trapped between the Negev Desert and the Mediterranean Sea.

“I believe the best thing I can do for the cause is to study,” Ismael said. “My older brother threw rocks in the old intifada. I’m not doing that. I want to be a journalist so I can help build a new Palestine and tell the world about it. I don’t want an Israeli soldier to shoot me. I don’t want to rot in an Israeli jail. My friend Ami wants to teach hydrology. He’s not throwing rocks, either. We’re being very political. We’re studying and becoming professionals. Becoming a professional is a political act, too.”

Ismael and his schoolmates, driven by practicality, have lost some of their faith in Arafat’s leadership. The chairman’s failure to reach accord with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on several basic issues that would have bolstered the Palestinian economy has left many budding intellectuals disenchanted with the war of attrition with the Jews.

If attitudes do not change on the Palestinian side, these budding scholars see economic suicide.

Because of the violence, Israel has suffocated the Palestinian economy by closing borders and keeping out workers, halting trucking and other transport and withholding value-added tax and customs revenues.

A recent report by Terje Rod-Larsen, special United Nations special envoy to the Middle East, affirms the students’ fears of economic implosion.

“In our opinion, there is a situation developing where there is first a fiscal collapse, then an institutional collapse of the Palestinian Authority,” wrote Rod-Larsen, adding that it could create a “situation which might get completely out of control.”

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is seeking funds from other nations to keep Arafat’s government afloat.

The economic crisis has hit the universities hard, some having to drastically cut classes, shut down departments and withhold professors’ salaries.

“We are being set back 20 years,” Ismael said. “Rocks and guns can’t keep the universities open. Without the universities, we can’t have a new Palestine. To have a new Palestine, we must find a way to make peace with Israel. That’s just the way it is.”

A new Palestine may be more unreachable than ever because of the violence. As of this writing, the Israeli government is considering retaking land ceded to Arafat. During a speech last week, Israel’s Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon said of the violent conflict: “The situation, as it is, is unbearable. Within a few weeks or months, we will have to decide what to do with it. There is a consensus on that.”

Ismael has many friends who study in the West Bank. After the borders were closed, they have been unable to return to Gaza. Ismael said another serious problem is that because of the violence and the uncertainty, many students no longer can concentrate on their studies.

“I don’t know if my family will be alive or dead when I get home from classes each day,” Ismael said. “Who can study? One of these days, the Israeli Air Force may blow up Al-Azhar University and kill everybody on campus. I don’t know. Who knows?”