Little to lose but everything to gain

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The Campus of Birzeit University looks deceivingly normal. Students with books in their hands enter and leave the faculty buildings or the cafeteria, gather for a chat outside the administration complex, or play basketball on the court next to the engineering department. It takes a closer look to see that in fact nothing here is quite normal.

“The student council announces the interruption of all classes for a period of two hours starting from 11:00 a.m. to honor yesterday’s martyrs,” reads a big poster put up next to the little two-room building that facilitates the university’s student council.

“Look how empty the campus is,” says Diya Hamayel, the student council’s acting president, pointing out another detail that would easily escape a casual observer’s eye. “Every day, at least a fifth of the students don’t make it to their classes because of the Israeli checkpoints in Surda.”

Birzeit University has around 5,000 students, half of whom live in Ramallah. All of them who are on campus have a story to tell. The trip to school that would, in normal times, take them 20 minutes, now averages one and a half hours.

“The soldiers at the checkpoint also have lists with names of students they want to arrest,” adds Riyad 24, from Gaza, a student of Media and Communications.

Birzeit is but one of the nine universities in the West Bank and Gaza. No matter how different they are from one another – whether they are situated in Area A (under full Palestinian control) like Al Najah University in Nablus or in Area B (partial Palestinian control) like Al Quds University in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis, or whether they are a private institution like Jenin’s American University or religious like the Islamic University of Gaza, whether they are big, like Gaza’s Al Azhar University, with a student population of 15,000 or small like Hebron University, with 3,000 students – academic life in each one of them has been severely interrupted since the start of Al Aqsa Intifada in September of last year.

“I have difficulty studying,” admits Riyad. “How am I supposed to concentrate while they are shelling my neighborhood? How can I learn when 10 people around me die in one day?” he asks. “At the beginning of this Intifada, I was very enthusiastic and I would go to throw stones in Al Bireh. Now I am very tired and sad. We must not forget that we are part of a necessary revolt against occupation and that it’s worth to sacrifice some of our time and devote it to the Intifada,” he says. “But,” he adds, “it’s not easy.”

Palestinian students are a highly politicized sector of Palestinian society. “We as students learn to analyze current events, and then draw conclusions,” says Imad Zakarneh, a 25-year-old student of economics. “We are the link between high politics and the general population.”

“It is here that the Al Aqsa Intifada really started,” adds Bashar Mohammed, 23, who headed the student council during those crucial first months of unrest. “It was Birzeit students who organized the first demonstrations against [then-Likud leader] Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram Al Sharif.”

There is no doubt that Palestinian students contribute to the Intifada. They also pay their prices. Al Najah University alone mourns the deaths of eight of its students. Last week, the university’s Tulkarm campus was hit by Israeli shells, causing the destruction of the agricultural department’s animal farm. In Gaza, four students driving in a car were killed by a helicopter gunship attack late last year.

On the other hand, students aren’t really certain what their contribution is supposed to look like. “The years following Oslo have driven young people away from politics,” says Abdel Kareem Bargouti, dean of student affairs at Birzeit. “They are still looking for methods to express their views.”

So far, Palestinians students have reached one conclusion already – they tend to put more stock into non-violent actions. “It is crucial that we keep organizing and attending peaceful demonstrations like the ones against the checkpoint in Surda,” believes Areej Al Yousef, an English Literature major from Ramallah. “Even though I support stone-throwing as an expression of our will and determination, I think as students, we should put an emphasis on showing the outside world what’s going on here.”

Although scared, she sometimes takes part in marches and protests, but prefers those that have been organized by students.

“We are preparing for jobs that will bring us in contact with internationals,” says Raif Abu Mahmoud, a student of psychology and sociology. He supports Areej’s position. “I spend four to five hours every day on the Internet trying to convince people in America and Europe that our fight is legitimate. Those who listen often change their perspective,” he says proudly.

The student council also stands for a non-violent line of action. “We don’t want students to join demonstrations in order to get killed,” says Diya Hamayel.

“We need to find the right balance between partaking in the Intifada and continuing our studies,” Hamayel contemplates, alluding to the frequent strikes decided upon by the council. While it is now the student’s choice whether to attend classes or not – in contrast with the first Intifada when the Israeli military physically closed the campus for four years, some find this practice jeopardizes academic continuity.

“We sometimes convince the students not to strike, but we can only give advice since they are independent, says student affairs dean, Abdel Kareem Barghouti. In this aspect, Birzeit University is unique. “It is the only really democratic and liberal institution in Palestine,” he assesses. “Tolerance is nowhere greater than at Birzeit.”

Muddar Kassis, professor in the philosophy and cultural studies department sees that the student movement may even have a chance of changing the character of the Intifada. “Nobody expects students to run around with Kalashnikovs. If they took part in greater numbers, the Intifada would become both more popular and at the same time even more non-violent.”

Nonetheless, taking part in the resistance against Israeli occupation and brutality is one thing while trying to survive and lead a life as normal as possible under the current circumstances is just as difficult a task.

University students suffer from the current economic and social hardship just as much as other sectors of Palestinian society. Most universities are trying to help their students by allowing them to pay their fees later. In Birzeit, as in other universities as well, direct aid to students threatened by poverty due to the loss of their own parent’s jobs, has been a focus of student council action. At Birzeit alone, the council raised an approximate NIS300,000 from foreign and domestic charitable organizations. An estimated 900 students have so far benefited from these funds. Riyad was one of those who received food stuffs like sugar, flour, oil and rice to ease his situation.

Other aspects of the conflict have also taken a toll on student life. “Since the outbreak of the Intifada, it has been impossible for me to see my family in Gaza,” Hamayel says, pointing to another saddening problem.

“I am sad to observe that virtually all personal and private relations are changed by the circumstances,” says accounting student Manal Odeh, 25. “Nobody dares dream about the future and we are all depressed at times.”

What is interesting, however, is that even though the student council’s factions are organized along actual political party lines, there seems to be no competition but unity between the major factions. “Party politics are not an issue in these times,” says Diya Hamayel. “Whether somebody is Hamas-affiliated or a Fateh supporter doesn’t make a difference in student politics.”

Most students and staff at Birzeit conceive the university as being special, mainly for its powerful and demonstrative actions of non-violent mass disobedience against the Israeli army during the first Intifada, when they would attend alternative classes in empty buildings and teachers homes in defiance of military orders. Students and professors in Israeli prisons even went so far as to teach classes from inside their cells.

Next to the campus library, a memorial has been created for the 13 martyrs among Birzeit students “Martyrs University,” is one of the names by which the school is known in the Palestinian territories. “Birzeit is a symbol,” says Manal Odeh. “We should stick to what we associate it with, courage and non-violence.”

It is clear that the Palestinian student movement hasn’t assumed quite the role it had during the first Intifada, when students at times seemed to be the driving force of the uprising, organizing huge demonstrations and defying Israeli orders. Many students and staff trace this back to two main reasons. On the one hand, conditions are very different and special for each of the nine Palestinian universities. The institutions in Gaza suffer much more from checkpoints than Birzeit, while Al Najah enjoys more freedom than both since it is located in Area A. Hebron University on the other hand, even though situated in an autonomous Palestinian area, is occasionally subjected to Israeli settler attacks, which in one instance led to the death of three students in 1993. Coordination between the different universities’ student councils does take place, but it is limited in a number of ways.

“There’s hardly anything we can do other than call other student representatives,” says Hamayel. “We cannot travel there. We have reached the conclusion that it is not necessary that we all act in the same way all the time. When they have a strike at Al Najah, it doesn’t mean we have to have one as well,” he says. “To organize a national and homogenous students’ movement under these circumstances is quite impossible.”

The second reason is probably even more decisive. The student movement faces difficulty in finding its position in this Intifada that has in part assumed the qualities of open warfare. “Don’t forget that every university, and Birzeit in particular, is a microcosm of Palestinian society in one way or the other,” says Kassis. “This Intifada is not as much a popular movement as the first one. If less people take part in general, than it is to be expected that also less students will participate,” he concludes.

“Our biggest asset as students,” concludes Diya Hamayel, “is that we know how to arouse attention, analyze events and organize action. We have to work on that. But we certainly have a role to play as students. After all, we have little to lose but everything to gain.”

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