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Mary Geday , This Week in Palestine, 3 December 2006
Today, Wednesday, November 8, Israel killed 20 Palestinians in Beit Hanoun, Gaza, 7 of whom were little children from a single family. Yesterday evening, the occupying State of Israel declared the completion of its operation in Gaza.
Today, Birzeit University students suspended classes from 9:30 a.m. until the close of the academic day, and the University administration followed, as it often does, by sending mixed signals about its support or lack thereof for the strike. Faculty, as a natural result, formed camps of support, lack of support, indecision, and lethargy or apathy, the latter camp comprising the majority of the student population as well. Today is a repetition of most days in the academic calendar at Birzeit University and, more likely than not, at most Palestinian universities.
Today, approximately 200 students decided that the best immediate response to the massacre in Gaza is to show outrage, resistance, and defiance with stones at the Atara bridge checkpoint just outside the village of Birzeit. And so, 200 of the 7,500 Birzeit students formed a procession towards the checkpoint, infamous to students and faculty, particularly those coming from the northern West Bank and those trying to bypass Qalandia from the south. The students threw stones, the soldiers shot back, and three students were seriously injured. Tomorrow, many of these students, those neither arrested nor shot, will have to pass through the same checkpoint and undergo interrogation by the same soldiers to get to class. Some will be recognised for their activities the day before and will be detained; others will get to class half an hour late because they decided to stop for Msabaha at the village cafÃ©. And so the academic year rolls on. Prayers roll on through the loudspeakers between the Science and the Women’s Studies buildings. Chants and songs play outside the Engineering building and dozens, maybe even hundreds, sit on the pebbled steps of the Administration building as the campus guards in blue look on. Changes in polarity of molecules during respiration and Weberian concepts of Capitalism are taught side by side with the calling of dead people’s names; and news might circulate through the hallways that the main cafeteria has actually added cheese to the ‘toast’ sandwiches so that the crowd at the cash register becomes indistinguishable from the crowd watching Al Jazeera on the suspended television above the napkins and plastic cutlery.
Meantime, classroom discussions about Fatah and Hamas are furiously discouraged, as are discussions about the role of religion in society and resistance, as are discussions about the presentation of Islam and Christianity in Palestinian society and politics, as are discussions on the legitimacy of the Oslo Accords, and as are discussions on the class-politics of martyrdom in our society.
Meantime, the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority as a body of rule over and representation of the Palestinian people is a given, as is the legitimacy of the maps of Palestine cascading the hallways of the Engineering building demarcating the new and improved Palestine of 1967, as is the legitimacy of the golden plaque in the basement of the main cafeteria marking the Ford Foundation’s monetary making of the University’s photography lab and centre, as is the legitimacy of the unabashed advertising of monitoring visits by the World Bank and every other international funds globalising organisation on the University’s website, as is the legitimacy of ANERA’s funding of the University’s IT Center of Excellence, as is the legitimacy of the marketing of the US Information Service’s AMIDEAST and Fulbright scholarships to the student body and faculty. Meanwhile the University’s Right-to-Education Campaign motivates the University cafeterias to substitute Israeli soft-drinks with Palestinian ones.
One often wonders what it is that we Palestinian university faculty and administrators are aiming to teach our students. One often wonders what it is we aim to expect from the forthcoming Palestinian generation. One often wonders, or does not wonder, why it is that our students are either throwing stones at the khaki Jeeps and Hummers at the base of the campus hill or sitting under an olive tree in the hidden trenches of the mountain landscape making love with words and glances as the library chairs are bare. Why should the stone throwing be motivated by a clear and nationally upheld strategy and policy when it can simply be motivated by lapsing passion and affecting pretense? Why should education be taken seriously as a mechanism of social and political upheaval and change when the institutions of education are not only vacant symbols but symbols of the void of reliable, responsible, and truthful mechanisms of social and political upheaval and change?
Why shouldn’t our students opt for a job at an NGO where their salaries will not only be guaranteed and uninhibited by international scrutiny, but will also exponentially exceed most paycheques in the private sector and public education or public institutions? Why shouldn’t our students opt for a job at an NGO or a job funded by an NGO or GO, organisations that are ultimately always subordinates of one government or another or an alliance of governments-governments that had once funded some element of the students’ university education? Why shouldn’t our students opt for an NGO job, when they have been fed since the birth of the UNRWA conglomerate and most emphatically for nearly two decades now on the ideology that it is the NGO, GO, and donor nation-states system that has kept the Palestinian people alive, although just barely, but alive nonetheless, and educated, and cultured, and globalised, and civilised, and advertised as a struggling and rightful people to the world? But most prominently, why shouldn’t our students opt for such a job when they could be riding around in an NGO/GO/UN car in the passenger seat, preferably, and at worst in the driver’s seat? In any case, with the right education and the right extracurricular activities, preferably in conflict resolution, community building, children’s education, and women’s empowerment, a seat is guaranteed.
And so, one day our students are burning the British Council walls and computers, and the next day, as in the case of the Atara checkpoint, they are back in order to receive an education, a book, a video, a Chevening Scholarship, or maybe a job. One day the students are beaten by the PA police as they demonstrate against the visit of Condoleezza Rice while US- and Israeli-made bombs are falling on Lebanon, and the next day they are paying the AMIDEAST office hundreds of US dollars to take an English-language course, TOEFL, or GRE using money accumulated from the selling of their land in Dura, Khalil. One day our students are demonstrating against the US Congress’ approval of George W. Bush’s Military Commission Act, or US governmental approval of quick trials and torture of terror suspects, and the next day they are participating in a democracy and conflict resolution workshop sponsored by USAID so that they might be able to qualify for a teaching position at Bridge Academy across the street from the annihilated Al-Ram market, dissolved by the Wall, whose new landscape, namely the paving of a new street, is funded by USAID.
One day top universities around the world, and more likely than not the elite institutes and think tanks of strategic policy, Middle Eastern and international affairs, will elicit, sponsor, and selectively disseminate research on what might become known as the feudal system of the new millennium, the donor-states system. One day, when our students are chambermaids and butlers to the squires of a revived system of landownership, an oligarchy of donor states supporting an oligarchy of institutions supporting a select population of employees, our students will not be privy to the history of their condition, to the make-up of those 2 years that spanned the distance between the naming of a Palestinian street in Ramallah ‘Tokyo Street’ as the Japanese military invades Iraq, and the naming of a nearby street ‘Bint Ijbeil’ to commemorate a moment of solidarity with a fellow Arab nation under the assault of the occupying State of Israel and its silent allies. That day, Palestinian universities will have to answer for themselves. They, like the smaller and larger institutions of Palestinian governance and leadership, have taught their students, whose desperation for a single, reliable, responsible, and conscionable act of national pride has met an empty chasm at every turn, to do the same.