In Bethlehem, students are warehoused behind the wall

My following article recently appeared on Mondoweiss:

Antony Loewenstein writes from East Jerusalem:

Signs of Hope Emerge in the West Bank” was a headline in the New York Times on 16 July. On the same day, the London Guardian headlined a similar story, “Allure of normal life triumphs in West Bank ‘ghost town‘”. Both pieces featured the same photo, a new cinema in Nablus.

The message was clear. Reduced checkpoints, major cities encouraging business and greater freedom of movement have lifted the spirits of the Palestinians. Nader Elawy, manager of the Nablus Cinema City, told the Times: “We now have law and order. You can really feel the change.” At least the Guardian included some skepticism. “Israel is always trying to make it look as though the occupation has ended, rather than actually ending it”, said Nablus resident Farouq al-Masri.

My time in Bethlehem confirms that such concerns are justified.

Traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is a relatively short distance but booming checkpoints increase the travel-time. The separation wall suddenly appears on the horizon and although it no longer intimidates many of the Palestinians with whom I converse, it’s humiliating to have to present an ID card and hand to be scanned every time you want to return to your hometown. Internationals are of course regarded as irrelevant, being waved through after a brief glance at the passport.

Much has been written about the checkpoints, their dehumanising effect, the metallic glow of metal walkways, the cold stares of the bored Israeli soldiers and the blank looks of the disheveled Arab workers and women coming and going in their daily lives. The checkpoint’s permanence, its warehouse effect, does not indicate a structure being dismantled any time soon.

Emerging on the Palestinian side is revelatory. Watermelon sellers, piled garbage, putrid smells and colourful graffiti splashed across the wall hit you immediately. A number of prized Banksy… images are located near the checkpoint and places across Bethlehem. The taxi driver pointed them out to me as we rode into town at warp speed.

Bethlehem University is striking institution in the heart of the city; cobbled stones and striking views of the surrounding area. It’s Catholic and co-educational and during my visit I saw countless women dressed in traditional Muslim garb alongside girls in tight jeans and t-shirts. Two thirds of the student population are female. It was founded in 1973 as the first university on the West Bank and has been closed twelve times during its history by the Israeli military. As their website says:

“The curfews, travel restrictions, military checkpoint harassment, and the negative impact of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, are factors faced by the University’s enrollment of 2,936 students, most of whom are full time, and 10,816 graduates, most of whom are serving the Palestinian society in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in various professions and leadership positions.”

I met with the Vice Chancellor, New Zealand Brother Peter Bray, senior staff members and a number of Palestinian students. The unemployment rate is 17 percent, the highest in the territories. I heard stories of student homes being demolished by the IDF on the day before exams. One woman’s brother had been shot dead by the Israelis. Others had to daily negotiate the checkpoints (some telling me that occasionally upon return from another town or Israel, the IDF would show them pictures of relatives and family members.) Seeing the security wall every day, they all said, made them feel angry, especially when it was late at night. Missiles even hit the campus during one of the Israeli incursions. “A mistake”, they were later told by the Israelis. “The problem is not with the Jews”, one said. “It’s with Israel.”

Bray said that the main reasons for the institution were teaching, research and community outreach. Tuition was kept to $3,600 each year to allow as diverse a student population as possible. The Vatican, Palestinian Authority and private donations contribute to the running of the university. Building deep and long-lasting relationships between Christians and Muslims was a key theme of the day.

One student, Stephanie Nasser, a 22 year-old IT graduate, remains unable to find work. She can’t apply for jobs in Jerusalem because she doesn’t have the necessary Israeli work permit. “I won’t apply for Jewish jobs”, she said. Later she told me that her family, as Christians, were pressuring her to only look for work in Christian firms, not in the Muslim community.

It is virtually impossible for Muslims under 45 years of age to get a Jerusalem ID card. Furthermore, as the Palestinian group explained to me, receiving permission of entry into Israel does not mean automatic permission to enter. Often they would arrive at the checkpoint, show their papers and be told that the documents were invalid. This was code for obfuscation, as often such papers took months to secure. The disdain for the Israeli “matrix of control” in the West Bank was painful to hear.

As I listened to the articulate, nearly perfect English of the various Palestinian students, I wondered how representative they were. Stephanie wore tight jeans and a tight top and spoke with an American accent. Her friend, Dimak, eloquently explained her desire to stay in Bethlehem and contribute productively to society. It’s easy to forget in the West, with the constant stories about terrorism in the Middle East, the extremely high level of education amongst the Palestinian population. It’s currently going largely to waste.

When I asked the Palestinians about the famed “economic development” touted by the New York Times and Guardian, they laughed simultaneously. “The Palestinian economy is directly related to Israel”, one said. “Products in a Bethlehem super-market are often Israeli because, for example, Palestinian ice-cream can’t get through a checkpoint from Nablus. Everything imported must come via Israel and receive Israeli permission. There is no economic development without justice, fairness and political negotiation.”

The group was moderately hopeful that Hamas and Fatah would stop bickering – a view reinforced by a recent editorial in The National – and reconcile their differences. “The Israelis want a way to distract us from occupation”, one woman said. “But the Palestinians should be united. We need freedom, human rights, children’s rights and women’s rights.”

Although they were all happy with Barack Obama’s election win, they weren’t optimistic anything would change on the ground. “His Cairo speech talked about Iraq and Afghanistan and the violence of Palestinians, but nothing about the violence of Israelis”, a woman said. “Where’s the responsibility for US actions?”

Everybody agreed that the Western image of Palestinians was in dire need of improvement. They praised writer Naomi Klein’s recent pronouncements in Ramallah and her call to loudly explain the justness of the Palestinian cause. Bray acknowledged the effectiveness of the Israeli narrative but “when the US puts seven to eight million dollars into Israel every day, trying to reduce that is the only thing that could make a difference. The two-state solution is really not viable anymore. The university is contributing to building a society for a state that is yet to be established.” Bray was convinced that Israel could not continue surviving in its current form, “casting itself as the eternal victim.” He quoted the recent Breaking the Silence report and Avraham Burg as signs of moral collapse and hope.

The Pope’s May visit to Bethlehem was praised by the whole group. Bray said that the organisers had wanted to build an amphitheater with the security wall behind it but the Israelis refused permission. “The Pope gave us [Christians] hope”, Stephanie said, not least because he talked about the wall, Palestinian suffering and self-determination. She didn’t like the fact that the city had been partly renovated to impress the foreign visitor, because “we don’t normally have flowers and nice roads; we have occupation.”

Highlighting the Christian minority in Palestine, an issue that rarely gets traction in the West, was an additional benefit of the Pope’s visit. One Palestinian said he had recently visited the US and heard a Jewish, American talking about the Muslim oppression of Christians in Bethlehem and even named individuals who were involved. The man had never been to the city and had his facts completely wrong. I was told that the IDF often oppress Muslims more than Christians and attempt to cause trouble between the religious groups. “We are worried that Christian holy places will become museums”, one lamented.

Bray and the others took me to the highest point of the university, an amphitheatre overlooking the entire city (photo left). The Muslim call to prayer could be heard and the separation barrier in the distance. It was early Friday afternoon and the streets were relatively empty. The sun glistened on the concrete pavement, momentarily blinding us all.

Bethlehem was a thriving town, desperate for Jesus tourists and alternative types looking for life in the West Bank under occupation. The university was an oasis. I must admit my bias. I expected a scruffy campus with few facilities. In fact, despite the onerous difficulties, the institution sees its role as thriving in extraordinarily tough circumstances. They’re always on the lookout for more funds, but the students told me they found the place calming. Unemployment was rife in the city but education was still seen as essential to development. It’s unsurprising that PhDs and Masters degrees are increasingly popular; anything to postpone the unemployment queue.

As we walked around the city, Stephanie said to me: “We Palestinians are known globally as trouble-makers and we’re proud of that.”

I suspected she wanted her people to be recognised for many other achievements.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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