What is Bethlehem University to its Palestinian students?
Its our lifeline, says a 20-year-old Palestinian in his second year of studying business administration at the university.
He is typical of young Palestinians, who see the opportunity to improve their lives through study at the university.
See how many people from the camps around here study! he says. We have the time. We dont waste our time and money on cinemas, discos, and other things. We dont even watch much TV. We study!
He lives with his parents and nine brothers and sisters in a refugee camp next to Bethlehem. His generation grew up under military occupation. The eldest child, he not only studies but also works in order to contribute to his familys income.
This student has always been a quietly spoken, somewhat withdrawn young man. Recently, though, he speaks more firmly.
For 20 years we have been pushed around, doing what we were told, obeying every petty soldier who accosted us, denied basic liberties and subject to an inflexible military government whose only concern was the needs and priorities of the Israeli people, he explains. Now, he has reason to be more confident. For the first time in my life I have some hope.
Since the uprising, the universities, colleges, and schools on the West Bank have been closed by authorities. More than 350,000 students there cannot go to school as the weeks turn into months.
For students, this indefinite closure is nothing new. At every opportunity the military closes the campuses. Even quiet sitdown demonstrations inside our grounds have prompted closures. Of course it is harmful to our education, but we must be willing to pay the price.
Last October, before the uprising began, the military authorities closed the university for three months following a student demonstration in which an army sharpshooter killed a fourth-year English literature student, Ishaq Abu Srur. The incident seemed to shock students into a new awareness. A third-year hotel management student said, When we realized that the same thing could happen to us, we felt that our entire future is at stake as long as the occupation persists.
The day after the three-month closure ended, military authorities closed the university indefinitely. The formal education of Bethlehem Universitys 1600 students will be on hold while the closure continues.
The business student is eager to continue his studies so that he can use this education for the betterment of the Palestinian community. Look, when I graduate I want to find a job in my profession, he says. Yet he feels that the restrictions of the military government make this impossible.
All I want is to live a life of dignity and be able to get married and have a family and for them to live as Palestinians in freedom, he says. Our roots are in this land, and we will not be driven out.
His generation, brought up to believe there was no hope, now dares to hope for the just resolution of the conflict which has shadowed their lives.
Gerald Ring contributes frequently to this magazine from Jerusalem.