Israelis allow Palestinians' 'Berkeley' to reopen after 4 years

April 30, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

BIR ZEIT, Israeli-Occupied Territories -- He smuggled the grade of his last student for the year out from behind the walls of prison: a B-plus in English communications.

By then, 1989, Professor Izzat Ghazzawi's classes had been closed down for a year. He was in prison, starting a 27-month term for political activities. And Bir Zeit University was taking its instruction underground.

The Palestinian university 15 miles north of Jerusalem reopened yesterday morning for the first time since it was closed by Israeli military authorities Jan. 8, 1988.

It was the last to reopen of six universities closed down during the Palestinian "intifada," or uprising. It was the last because authorities described it as a center for the plotters of revolt.

This was true, Mr. Ghazzawi says, remembering the 1980s, when the students were infused with the zeal of political indignation, and each week brought clashes with the Israeli army.

"Bir Zeit was a great place then. Although everything was done under the feeling of harassment, students were proud of expressing their political views, of writing their own opinions, of saying their own speeches," recalls the 42-year-old English instructor.

Bir Zeit was the Berkeley of Palestine: a place of free speech, free love (at least, by the strict moral standards of Palestinian society), and political idealism.

"Bir Zeit students and faculty came from all over the country," Mr. Ghazzawi said. "They thought they were responsible for ending the occupation and responsible for getting freedom for their people.

"Students in Bir Zeit knew how many prisoners there were in Israeli prisons. They knew how much in taxes Israel got from the occupied territories. They knew about Al-Haq, the human rights organization. They knew about the Geneva convention," Mr. Ghazzawi said. "The Israelis were afraid of the information."

When there was an incident elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza, the first reaction was often at Bir Zeit. Students poured off the campus to demonstrate. They often made roadblocks of rocks and burning tires in the village of Bir Zeit or nearby Ramallah, and waited for the Army to arrive.

The resulting conflicts were often violent. Many students were -- arrested; at least three students were killed. The students often retreated to the dormitories and conducted negotiations with the surrounding army. The authorities closed the university more than 15 times in the 1980s.

But after a traffic accident in Gaza Dec. 8, 1987, sparked the violence and mass demonstrations that became the intifada, authorities put locks on the university's gates. At all the Palestinian universities, 14,500 students were shut out.

"It never came to my mind that this [closure] would continue for almost five years," said Mr. Ghazzawi, who holds a master's degree in English literature from South Dakota State University.

But Bir Zeit had enmeshed him in politics, too. He published a selection of short stories -- the first of three books -- called "The Woman Prisoner." The Israeli authorities found his writings politically inciting. Shortly after the university's closure, an Israeli court sentenced the father of six to 27 months in prison.

Other professors were arrested. The president of the university, Hanna Nasser, had been deported from the country in 1974 for his activities.

"You couldn't be anything but political," explained Fahmi al-Aboudi, chairman of the department of English. "The occupation was on top of your head every day, every day."

Bir Zeit was producing a new generation of Palestinian leaders. Thirteen of the 46-member Palestinian delegation to the current peace talks come from Bir Zeit. People like Hanan Ashrawi, a Bir Zeit lecturer in English literature and now spokeswoman for the Palestinian peace talks delegation, are presenting an articulate, shrewd new look to the Palestinian cause long represented by the rough image of Yasser Arafat.

After the university was closed, faculty members invited graduating seniors to their homes to finish their academic work. The informal lessons grew, and soon underground classes were meeting in church basements, empty offices and old hotels in Ramallah and Jerusalem.

It was dangerous and difficult. Raids by Israeli soldiers often interrupted the classes, according to Mr. Ghazzawi and others. Students carried books hidden in plastic shopping bags to avoid detection at Israeli roadblocks. The haphazard schedule of class meetings was frequently foiled by curfews and strikes.

"Often I couldn't reach the classes. I couldn't tell the soldiers [at roadblocks] that I was a student, so I couldn't get through," said Atif Shubite, 29, who attended classes in an Anglican church in Jerusalem to complete the last semester for his economics degree.

Gradually, authorities looked the other way, and the classes became more routine.

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