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Sunday, October 17, 1999

The University of Hard Knocks

By Gideon Levy

This morning, 165,000 Israeli students will attend their first day of studies in the new academic year at the country's universities. Can we take a moment to throw a bit of a damper on their festive day by reminding them about what their counterparts are enduring just an hour's drive from their campuses?.A case in point is the student Yasser Thalahma. He will not be coming to the campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva this morning, as he dreamed and planned. Three years ago Thalahma, 27, earned a B.A. in economics from Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. His final grade was 76. For the next three years he worked in construction for a Jewish contractor in Be'er Sheva. He made NIS 120 a day. His plan was to save money so he could continue his studies and get an M.A. He wanted a good university and he was accepted by BGU. "We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted for M.A. studies in the 1999-2000 academic year in the Department of Economics," the letter he received from the university stated. The envelope also contained a list of courses he would have to make up: "linear models," "introduction to econometrics," "the Israeli economy." Fine. But for a Palestinian student, getting accepted to a university is only the start of the road to the institution. Thalahma also needs an entry permit to Israel.

The trip from his village, Al Bourj, near Dura, in the Hebron area, to Be'er Sheva takes about 20 minutes and involves passing through an Israeli army checkpoint. A Palestinian needs a permit to get through the checkpoint. Thalahma applied to the Civil Administration and received an entry permit valid for three months. The three-month period ended a month ago. He applied again and received a new response: barred for security reasons. Thalahma has never been arrested and has never even been detained for questioning. He has no criminal background and no security background. He is only one of 13 children in a family whose father is a construction worker and all he wants to do is broaden his horizons and improve his prospects in life.

Having no other alternative, he took a lawyer from Hebron, who sent a letter to the legal adviser of the Civil Administration in Beit El. Whenever the lawyer called to ask about the request for an entry permit, he was told that the subject was under examination. Of course no one bothered to explain to his client why he is barred from entering Israel. The High Court of Justice is a possibility, but in the meantime Thalahma has no money to pay for an Israeli lawyer, having already made a first payment of NIS 2,700 to BGU.

So today, Thalahma will be at his home in the village or on the scaffolding in Be'er Sheva. To get to Be'er Sheva he takes an illegal route - if they catch him, they catch him, he says. But to go to university without a permit is already a different story. He doesn't want to walk around the campus like an outlaw, he told me over the weekend in his village, and he is afraid that if a closure is suddenly imposed, or if he is caught, he will lose the entire academic year. If that happens, he will also lose the prospect of being able to break the circle of poverty in which he is caught: His dream is to work as an economist for the Palestinian Authority.

A different Israel would be pleased that the young man from the village has dreams of getting ahead, and might even encourage them. After all, an economist in the PA is better than a terrorist in the town square. But instead, Israel, which in the past opened its gates to thousands of students from Africa and Asia, is closing them to nearly all the Palestinian students from the areas it occupies. All we are willing to give the Palestinians in the way of know-how is information on how to conduct interrogations with the use of torture and how to implement "administrative detention" (arrest without trial), and of course how to wage what is known as the war against terrorism. Economics and other subjects taught in universities are not part of this curriculum.

To the tens of thousands of Israeli students who are beginning a new year of higher education today, all this is a foreign experience. The most serious plight most of them know is finding a parking space. Do they know that hundreds of students are stuck in Gaza and are not permitted to attend the universities in the West Bank that they enrolled in - an hour from their homes - because Israel does not let them move from one Palestinian-controlled area to another? Do they know that some of them actually traveled through Egypt and Jordan in order to get from Gaza to the West Bank and pursue their studies? Or that others smuggled themselves into the West Bank by all manner of bizarre routes, where they attend university and live in fear? Do they know that every Palestinian student is liable to be arrested at any given moment, on the way to or from the university, for interrogation, or in an attempt to recruit them as informers for the Shin Bet security service, or to be placed in administrative detention, as has happened to hundreds of them?

Two months ago, Khader Kados, from Kalkilya in the West Bank, a business administration student, was placed under arrest without trial; his colleague Mahmoud Shabana, a humanities student, who recently completed a prison term of five-and-a-half years and had hoped to be able to resume his studies, was instead placed in administrative detention and will not be studying this year; the physicist Jihad Shehadeh was once arrested on the way to his wedding; and a professor of architecture, Jamal Imro, was severely tortured for 25 days before being released. They, together with thousands of their colleagues in the universities, are exposed to a brutal reality and their freedom is extremely restricted, mainly by Israel, but more recently also by the Palestinian Authority, which sends its secret service agents to the campuses, as described in a report issued by the Palestinian Group for Upholding Human Rights.

Their basic rights are limited, their possibilities of studying are sabotaged, their lives are hard. On the day a new academic year is beginning, is it too much to expect Israeli university staff and students to take a little more interest in them

(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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