Deconstructing for security reasons: Israel’s Closure of Birzeit University”

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There is a sense that it wouldn’t be a proper Intifada if Israel was not targeting the universities. Sure enough, on the morning of March 7th, the Israeli occupation army remembered its old friend, Birzeit University.

At 1 a.m. on March 7th, Israeli occupation troops imposed a total siege of Palestinian villages within the occupied Palestinian territories. A two meter-deep trench was dug along 150 meters of the Ramallah-Birzeit road and a blockade imposed from Surda village near Ramallah up past the university to the town of Bir Zeit. This total siege prevents any access to or out of the areas by vehicle.

25 Palestinian villages, and their over 70,000 residents, have been affected by this closure, in particular El Mizra’a el Qiblia, Abu Qash, Kobar, and Abu Shkheidim, all surrounding Birzeit. The Israeli army, in the course of digging up the trenches and installing the blockade, destroyed water pipes and telephone cables leading to these villages, and to the university, leaving residents without any water or access to the outside world.

Students at Birzeit were scheduled to start their new semester on March 17th, 2001. However, the 5,000 students attending the university will be unable to gain access as all access roads and routes to the university from surrounding population areas are now sealed.

Athough people tend to assume the first Intifada was the time of the greatest human rights violations, as Israel clamped down on the Palestinian uprising, the reality is that Israel’s targeting of the Birzeit community began in the early-1970s and peaked in the mid-1980s, well before the first Intifada began.

In 1973, just as Birzeit’s development into a full-fledged university was nearing completion, Israel closed the campus by military order for two weeks. In 1974, Israel deported the university president, Hanna Nasir, who remained in exile for 19 years. Between 1979 and 1992, the university was closed by Israeli military order 60 percent of the time. Indirect closures via checkpoint and curfew, such as the current one, are not included in this figure. By 1993, eighty percent of male students at Birzeit had been through a prison and torture experience.

Locked into an Israeli mindset of “response” as justification, the chicken and the egg is always an area of dispute in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The current Intifada is no different, with the Israeli Foreign Ministry citing the ‘start’ of the current violence as September 27th, 2000, when an Israeli soldier was fatally wounded in a bombing near Netzarim in the Gaza Strip; the Palestinians citing the harsh Israeli response that left five demonstrators dead after Arial Sharon’s entry with 1,000 armed police to the Al-Haram Al-Sharif compound on September 28th, 2000.

In the same way as the standard Israeli justification of “security reasons” or “response” for every additional act of repression was hollow in the first Intifada — which saw even kindergartens closed — it is even more patently hollow now – the Ramallah-Birzeit road boasts a chicken farm, a home for mentally retarded children, and a one-horse town called Abu Qash.

Albert Aghazarian, director of the Public Relations office at Birzeit noted that, “There have been no recent clashes or demonstrations in the area. Furthermore, there have been no shootings reported from any of the 25 villages at Israeli soldiers or settlers. There are no genuine security or military reasons for taking these measures. The total siege is being imposed by the Israeli government as a repressive form of collective punishment, which is prohibited by international humanitarian law.”

Collective punishment of the Birzeit community and surrounding towns and villages has been a regular feature of the post-Oslo landscape. On February 12th, 1996, just over one month after the redeployment from Ramallah and Birzeit, the first closure of the benign connecting road took place. Following a series of four suicide attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in February/March 1996, the road was closed again, and again, and again.

Birzeit was forced to reschedule one-and-a-half months of its academic calendar in 1996 as the result of these punitive closures, despite the fact that the suicide attacks were not committed by Palestinian residents of the area. Israeli President Weizmann put it bluntly at the time, “Sometimes, when you are searching for a needle in a haystack, you have to burn the haystack.”

On March 28th, 1996, Israel arrested 280 Birzeit students, one-tenth of the student body at the time and the largest arrest campaign in the university’s blighted history. Israeli military sources at the time claimed these were “people deeply involved in terrorist attacks, financing and supporting people from Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the military wing of the Popular Front.”

In fact, over half of those arrested were from Arafat’s Fatah faction and therefore “deeply involved” in supporting the peace process and negotiations with Israel. All but a tiny handful of these 280 students were released within several hours.

Despite this Israeli media-friendly show of determination in dealing with local “terrorists” (reports of which, incidentally, left the releases part of the story out) and the following month’s “Operation Grapes of Wrath” in Lebanon that was supposed to wipe out foreign “terrorists” but instead prominently featured the shelling of a UN base, Shimon Peres lost the subsequent election for Prime Minister.

It was also in the period, immediately after the end-1995 redeployments, that Israel first used concrete blocks to seal-off secondary roads in and out of the main Palestinian population areas, something that has been implemented everywhere during this, the Second Intifada.

All this history is important background to how we got to this point, where it is “normal” to see wire service photographs of Palestinian children throwing stones at Israel tanks and depicting Israel using Apache attack helicopters and tanks to shell towns if a Palestinian gunman should fire at a settlement. Post-Oslo, many human rights indicators took a serious nose-dive, which is the clear and obvious reason that we are seeing a Second Intifada, something that still appears to elude much of the media.

Every time Israel has had an opportunity to break with its abusive patterns of the past and choose to work with the Palestinians to build a genuinely new reality, it chose instead to fall back on the old models of repression and collective punishment.

The biggest Israeli “concession” cited in the post Oslo period has been the “handing over” (note, not “back”) of Palestinian towns and cities. Yet when you consider that Israel only gave back 5 percent of the land housing 95 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, and following this “concession”, regularly began sealing off these areas if an individual Palestinian attacked Israelis in Israeli-controlled areas, it would seem rather to have been a hand over of crowd control problems.

Not one media organisation during this period that saw closures become a regular part of the landscape pointed out the irony present in Israel asking a nascent Palestinian government to try to achieve what it could not achieve — with little or no sense of restraint — in its 28 years as an occupying power.

Although Palestinians had greeted the redeployments with flags, the harshness of post-Oslo reality on the ground had always meant that these would eventually be replaced by stones.

Was there ever even really a “peace process”, in any sense of the phrase? Forget the closures. After Oslo, Israel doubled the number of settlers from 109,000 to nearly 200,000 in 1999, and following Oslo, until March 1998, Israel demolished 629 Palestinian homes in the West Bank including East Jerusalem.

It’s doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why any sense of goodwill from the ‘Peace Process’ evaporated quickly, as the occupation seemingly rolled on uninterrupted past an obsequiously peace process-obsessed international media that was looking the wrong way. Instead of blowing the whistle, the media by and large failed to report on any of the repression in any depth, until the September 1996 Clashes woke up the world to serious Palestinian discontent with Oslo.

Writing as someone who visited the empty campuses of Birzeit and other Palestinian universities and schools during the first Intifada, and who lived in Ramallah during these various post-Oslo closures and other manifestations of collective punishment, it was clear that the effect of these shotgun methods achieves anything but the intimidation of the Palestinian population.

The bitterness and pressure that these sieges impose on Palestinians creates a climate which guarantees a rapid escalation of tension and — as if by magic — a convenient range of newly fortified Israeli positions nearby on which to vent that frustration.

Judging by the extent of change to the physical landscape to implement this particular sealing of Birzeit, Israel intends this as a long-term measure. This too, is nothing new, and the Palestinians have shown before that where there is a will, there is a way to get around new measures imposed by the Israeli military occupation.

The longest closure of Birzeit University lasted for 51 months, from January 8th, 1988, until April 29th,1992. During this period, Birzeit continued to operate as an underground university with small study groups in makeshift arrangements outside the campus, in homes, mosques, churches, and sometimes cars and fields. Ultimately, even these small study groups were also targeted by Israel. Some students persevered, some could not afford to and, in the end, many students enrolled at the time subsequently took as long as 10 years to complete their four-year degree courses, without any break in their studies.

That Israel never relinquished the occupation after the handshake on the White House lawn in 1993, and that it continues to invent new ways of implementing its failed cross-party strategy of “peace through security” (read: intimidation and repression), makes this yet another critical moment in which the international community can finally step in and effect positive change.

Let Birzeit University, a chicken farm, a home for mentally retarded children, and a one-horse town deconstruct the phrase “security reasons” in as plain and unambiguous a manner as is possible.

The solution is also plain: the occupation must end now.

Mr. Nigel Parry worked at Birzeit University between 1994 and 1998. His journal from the time, A Personal Diary of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, is available at http://nigelparry.com/diary/ documented the post-Oslo experience of Palestinians in the Ramallah area. He is also one of the founders of ElectronicIntifada.net.

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