Israel will permit the largest Palestinian university to reopen after a four-year closure spanning the Arab revolt, which has of late sagged significantly.
In making the announcement Monday, Israeli officials and Palestinian spokesmen gave no date for the opening of the campus of Birzeit University, the last of six campuses that had been closed by the Israeli army on the grounds that they were nests of anti-Israeli violence.
The reopenings began more than a year ago, when European governments cut off scientific exchanges with Israel to protest the deprivation of higher education in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The exchanges were restored after the Persian Gulf War. Defense Minister Moshe Arens continued to unlock the campuses as part of his program to encourage a measure of normalcy in the occupied land.
"The decision to reopen Birzeit . . . coincides with our policy to reopen all the education facilities," Arens said in a radio interview.
"I cannot say that I am euphoric," commented university spokesman Albert Aghazerian. "But it is a step forward."
About half of the 2,000 registered students will return to the Birzeit campus near Ramallah by the end of the month, Aghazerian predicted. Only the schools of science and engineering will be open at first.
Arens warned that violence or protests on campus could result in another shutdown. "I don't think there's much to worry about," Aghazerian said. "The students want to study."
The eagerness to return to classes reflects the weariness engendered by the revolt against Israeli rule. The toll taken by armed suppression, along with more and more frequent intra-Palestinian killings, has significantly reduced the pace of street protests and stone-throwings against troops and settlers.
During the period of closure, students from Birzeit and other universities had met for classes in homes, factories, hotels and restaurants. At first, the Israeli army banned the classes, but later it tolerated them rather than face adverse publicity.
The five other campuses in the West Bank and Gaza have been reopened with few incidents. Birzeit was shut down in January, 1988, a month after the revolt began.
The staff of Birzeit, considered the most prestigious of Palestinian universities, includes 13 of the 46 members of the Palestinian negotiating team in the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace talks. Hanan Ashrawi, who became a prominent spokeswoman for the team, taught literature at Birzeit. "It was unfair and unjust to close down the university to begin with," she said Monday.
West Bank settlers denounced the planned reopening as a gift to the Palestine Liberation Organization and its leader, Yasser Arafat. "Instead of giving a (Passover) holiday gift to the nation of Israel, they are going and building another kitchen for Arafat's terrorist public," Benny Katzover, a settler movement leader, told army radio.
The five previously opened universities are Al Quds University in Jerusalem, Islamic University in Gaza, An Najah University in Nablus, Islamic University in Hebron and Bethlehem University.