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Friday, 9 March, 2001, 16:10 GMT
Birzeit: Revolutionary campus
French PM Lionel Jospin pelted with stones at Birzeit, February 2000
French PM Lionel Jospin learnt about Birzeit radicalism
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

Birzeit University's website proudly proclaims its position as "the first institution of higher education to be established in Palestine", but it has also become a symbol of the Palestinian struggle.

There has therefore been outrage, if not a great deal of surprise, that the campus appears to have become the latest target in the Israeli army's efforts to tighten its stranglehold on the Palestinian territories.

Oldest and best known Palestinian university
Closed for most of the 1987-92 Intifada
5,447 students
276 academic staff
At about midnight on Wednesday, Israeli bulldozers dug two trenches on the road that is Birzeit's lifeline to the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

In addition to the trenches, the university reports that water pipes have been broken and telephone lines cut.

This is not the first time the institution has been the target of harsh measures.

Like many universities around the world Birzeit, which began life as an elementary school in 1924, is a hotbed of political activism.

Trench cutting the road to Birzeit
Cut off: A trench separating Birzeit from Ramallah
Following the Israeli occupation of the territory on which it stands in 1967, Birzeit was closed 15 times by the military authorities over the next 25 years.

Students often had to attend underground study classes, many of them taking 10 years to complete four-year degrees.

The longest closure began in January 1988, at the height of the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising), ending 51 months later in 1992.

Even during the heyday of Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking after the Oslo accords - which were treated with scepticism by many Birzeit students and staff - life was difficult.

The campus has been kept in Area B, under Israeli security control, outside the self-rule area of nearby Ramallah.

That means Israeli checkpoints on the road and occasional intrusions by the army on to campus. For much of the time students from Gaza have been unable attend classes.

Cradle of civil society

For many of its admirers, Birzeit University has become an ideal vision of Palestine that has become lost in the downtrodden self-rule areas or the plush offices of Yasser Arafat's self-rule authority.

The prominent Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, writing in a 1998 article, said the campus boasted a free exchange of ideas "that simply doesn't exist anywhere else in the Arab world".

Birzeit campus building (Photo: Kurt Gramoll)
The campus was built with donations from rich Palestinians
He believed the institution to be "uniquely placed" to foster Palestinian efforts to establish a civil society and "safeguard against the fate of turning Palestinians into Red Indians (which is) being prepared for us by the US and Israel".

But this is a role that has not been bought cheaply; according to university figures 15 Birzeit students have been killed in anti-occupation demonstrations, and scores more have been detained without trial and even illegally deported by the Israelis.

They have also been on the receiving end of harsh treatment by Mr Arafat's security forces.

About 100 were arrested in February 2000 when they pelted the visiting French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, some of them only released when colleagues when on hunger strike.

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See also:

06 Mar 01 | Middle East
26 Feb 00 | Middle East
30 Nov 99 | Middle East
09 Mar 01 | Middle East
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