Life under occupation in the holy city of Bethlehem

I regularly feature the writings of Father Peter Bray, a New Zealander who heads Bethlehem University. He offers first-hand accounts of the realities of occupation:

7 July 2010

Greetings from this holy place!

Last week we finally celebrated the graduation of 656 students and so brought to an end the academic year which was the first time Bethlehem University had more than 3000 students. Those graduates pushed our total number of graduates to over 12,000, many of whom are making a significant contribution to building Palestine into a workable nation. The graduation was a wonderful occasion and I found I was enthralled watching these wonderful young people so joyful and satisfied that they had reached this goal. Seeing them with their families and friends celebrating here on campus made up for some of the challenges we faced during the course of this academic year. There are some wonderful young people here who show such resilience and courage. Some of them have had to put up with so much just getting to Bethlehem University that it was such an achievement to actually graduate.

That ceremony brought to a close my first full academic year. It was one in which I learned a great deal and was faced with challenges both internally and externally. The politics within and outside Bethlehem University are a constant factor and fortunately I managed to weave my way through some rather intriguing situations to get to the end of the year. It was a year in which I was on a great learning curve but also one with much satisfaction. I have never worked in a place where it is so obvious that what we are doing here at Bethlehem University is worthwhile and enriching for students who come here. To engage with these young people and see how they are benefitting from being here makes up for many of the challenges.

Over the past three years, the Spanish government has provided our Education Faculty with a 300,000 Euro grant that enabled us to work with teachers in some 40 primary and secondary schools around Bethlehem to improve the quality of learning and teaching. When the Spanish government carried out a review of that project towards the end of last year they were so pleased with what they found that they have provided a 3.5 million-Euro grant for a four-year project to work with close to 150 schools. In all we estimate that almost 30,000 individuals (teachers, students, administrators, parents etc.) will benefit from our involvement. This project is a wonderful opportunity for us to have a significant impact on improving the quality of education available to students in primary and secondary schools across Palestine. It is yet another example of the way Bethlehem University fulfils its mission to serve and strengthen the capacity of the people of the Holy Land.

I have mentioned in previous notes that the finances here at Bethlehem University are very fragile. With over 60% of our operating budget coming from fundraising I think one of the miracles is that we have managed to survive through some very difficult times under occupation. Since I arrived we have been talking about the need to do something about this and have now launched an international campaign to raise US$25 million in the next four years. One of the things we want to do is enlarge our endowment so that there is an increase in the predictable income from that. There are other things we want to do, like a new Education building, which we are starting next week, as well as the expansion of programmes to respond to the needs of the Palestinian people. What this has meant is that I have been meeting people in the USA and Europe in an attempt to entice them to part with some of their money! I have never asked individual people for several million dollars before, so it is a new learning experience for me as well!

We have many wonderful supporters around the world and one is Fr Tom Rosica who was responsible for organizing the Toronto World Youth Day and then started up Salt and Light TV, a national Catholic television station in Toronto. Early in the year he sent three of his staff to Bethlehem for a month to make a documentary about what is happening here. This will be a documentary of something around forty five minutes. The week before last at our Board of Regents meeting in Rome he gave the first viewing of a fourteen minute promotional DVD taken from that material. It was well received and is available on our webpage here.

Feel free to pass it on to anyone you think might be interested.

The DVD focuses on one of our students, Berlanty Azzam and the experience she had. We worked from October 2009, when she was detained, blindfolded, handcuffed and dumped back in Gaza, to get her back to Bethlehem University to complete her degree, but we were not successful. However, we did manage to have her teachers work with her to complete the requirements and graduate. What we have been doing since then is trying to get her out of Gaza to the USA to tell her story and possibly continue her study. It has been an uphill battle but we have been very fortunate to have Gisha, an Israeli human rights group, working with us. They have been outstanding. We first tried to get Berlanty to Jerusalem for an interview at the American Consulate in order to get a visa to the USA. However, the Israelis would not allow her to pass through Israel to Jerusalem even though the United States Consul said he would arrange an escort for her to come to Jerusalem and then he guaranteed she would be returned. In the end we were able to get her out into Egypt last week and I found out last night that she now has a visa to get to the USA. I do not know the nature of the visa or the length of time she is able to be in the USA. However, it is a wonderful opportunity for her to tell her story and alert others to what is happening here.

Berlanty came from Gaza to Bethlehem University back in 2005. We have enrolled other students from Gaza who, if they were in Bethlehem, would be attending Bethlehem University. However, they can not get a permit to travel. While we explore every avenue possible to enable them to get out of Gaza and attend, we have hired a teacher in Gaza and offered courses to students who are enrolled in Bethlehem University. We are again grateful to Gisha, the Israeli human rights group, for working with us in seeking to get these students out. We are keeping the pressure on the Israeli military and have procedures in place already to enrol other students in Gaza for the coming semester so we can keep applying for permits for them to travel.

When I was down in Gaza in January with the Nuncio to present Berlanty with her certificate of completion, I met the students who are currently enrolled and was so impressed with their determination to come to Bethlehem University. It is sad that they are restricted in this way and can not choose the education they want.

We have continued to plan new programs and activities to respond more to the needs of the Palestinian people. However, these have placed a heavy demand on our facilities, faculties and infrastructure. There have been no new facilities added since 2001, and as a result there is a real and immediate need for classrooms and laboratory space.

With the expansion of undergraduate programmes, the addition of graduate studies, and the larger student population, we have had to think creatively about how to better utilize our existing space. One outcome is that we have decided to extend the teaching day by one hour. This will give us the equivalent of 40 additional classrooms and 20+ multiple-use labs per day. This is not going to be enough so we have begun building a new Education building which we hope will be ready for the academic year beginning in August 2011. It will provide a minimum of eight classrooms, a theatre, and shared office space for up to 16 faculty members, as well as a Dean’s suite and a resource centre.

It has been encouraging to see the number of people from Australia and New Zealand who have come to visit Bethlehem University. I have had the opportunity to welcome individuals and groups here. We have a group of Australian politicians and union leaders coming this month as a result of a contact I made last time I was in Australia. I am also looking forward to having two groups from New Zealand come later in the year, one including Bishop Denis Browne from Hamilton. To have such people come and visit the campus shows the students here they are not forgotten and I emphasise the importance for the faculty, staff and students to know there are people around the world standing in solidarity with them.

I mentioned above that I attended our International Board of Regents meeting in Rome the week before last. On the way to that meeting I took the opportunity to visit Leeds in England. That gave me the opportunity to attend the 50th jubilee celebration of Fr Daniel O’Leary’s ordination. It was a wonderful occasion and certainly a memorable evening for him. He orchestrated the evening and there were stories, songs, poems and dancing. He certainly knows how to celebrate! He still has fond memories of his visit to New Zealand back in 2004 when he enriched the lives of so many people so asked to be remembered to the many people he met there.

Early in the past semester the union at Bethlehem University became embroiled in a series of strikes which were organized across all Palestinian Universities. As a result we lost twelve days of classes. To make up these days we had to extend the semester and the graduation that was supposed to be on 11th June was pushed back until 1 July. This meant my planned trip back to New Zealand was not really feasible. I’m disappointed about that because it would have been good to spend time with family and catch up with other people. However, there is a possibility of getting back in late December / early January.

In the time I have been here I am very aware that the restrictions imposed by the Israelis are increasing. In recent months it is more difficult to get through the checkpoint and some of the checkpoints have been closed to Palestinians and foreigners – these are now only available to the settlers who are on confiscated Palestinian land. Up until a few months ago here at the Bethlehem checkpoint all we had to do was hold up our passports, show them to the soldier and then drive on through. However, now everyone has to stop some twenty meters from the checkpoint, the drivers have to get out of their cars and show their passport or ID at the checkpoint window, return to their cars and drive through. This has slowed the passage through the checkpoint considerably and delays can be up to an hour just to get up to the checkpoint. About six weeks ago the Israelis decided that only the driver could go through the vehicle checkpoint. Passengers have to get out and walk through the pedestrian checkpoint which again takes considerable time. When this was first introduced a couple of the brothers were going into Jerusalem and spent twenty minutes arguing with the soldiers about what they thought was the right both of them had to go through in the car. In the end a senior officer came down, laughed at them in a scornful way and told them they could either do what they were told or go back to Bethlehem! Unfortunately, the soldiers have the guns so Br Robert walked through the pedestrian checkpoint!

It is also getting more difficult for students to get permits to go to places of pilgrimage or interest in Israel. We have tried to take some of our students to Jaffa, Nazareth and the Galilee but they could not get permits. Many of them have never visited these places even though they have grown up here in Bethlehem. In the short time I have been here I have seen more of this country than some of the students who have lived here their whole lives.

When I see the students, faculty and staff coping with these and many more restrictions, I am amazed at the attitude they take and the resilience they show in getting on with life. It is surprising for some of our visitors to hear so much laughter on campus. These visitors become aware of the restrictions and can’t believe the way the Palestinians just get on with life and cope. I have been greatly inspired by listening to the stories some of the Palestinians tell about their experiences in being restricted, humiliated and verbally abused and how they deal with all that. One student told me recently that he has begun his degree over again because he had started and was then taken in the middle of the night and put in prison for eighteen months. He was never charged, never tried or convicted of anything and still has not been given any reason for why he was detained. In spite of that he has come back to Bethlehem University determined to make the most of the opportunity here and is very positive about life.

It is difficult to see where things are really heading. The flotilla disaster is being trumpeted in Israel as a victory for Israel and something the Prime Minister says he will not apologise for because it is Israel’s right to defend itself. The so-called ”˜peace process’ is far from achieving what it says. In some ways, however, it is almost as if Israel is imploding. Yet in the midst of all this uncertainty it was very supportive when we were in Rome to hear education in schools and universities – with our mandates to promote justice and peace – being talked about as “the greatest investment of the Church” in the Middle East. These words resonate in a particular way for us at Bethlehem University where our work is nothing short of education in the service of nation-building.

So, yes, there are many challenges facing Bethlehem University but there is also an amazing amount of good will and an incredible resilience amongst the students, faculty, and staff. When I reflect back over the time I have been at Bethlehem University and see the way the restrictions have been increased, I can not see a way for peace to come. There seem too many obstacles in the way. However, if I was writing some thirty years ago I would have said exactly the same thing about Northern Ireland, about South Africa, about Germany. Somehow, beyond my understanding, peace did come to those places. This is the hope I hold onto now, that somehow, beyond my present understanding of how it can happen, peace will come. When it does come what we will need are educated, resourceful and creative Palestinians who will build the new Palestine. Bethlehem University is making a huge contribution to create that pool of people who will be responsible for making this new Palestine. I have great faith in God’s Spirit at work in the people in Bethlehem, the place where the Word became flesh and where we continue to seek to live out the Gospel to which Jesus called us. I am very conscious of the need to realise, as Saint John Baptist De La Salle did more than 350 years ago: “Lord, the work is yours.” What is truly the source of our strength is this growing awareness that we are doing God’s work and that we dare to believe God’s spirit is guiding us.

I will close now and ask that you keep us in your prayers as we continue to serve the Palestinian people through our educational efforts. If you are ever in this part of the world please call in!

Best wishes

Br Peter Bray FSC, EdD
Vice Chancellor

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