Profile : Exiled Palestinian Comes In From the Cold : ‘This is where I belong,’ says university President Hanna Nasir, home after 18 years.
Hanna Nasir rubbed his foot gently along the threshold of the family home and marveled at how such tough, hard stone had become so smooth and polished.
“It’s wonderful for me to see how many people have crossed this step,” he said. “It says a lot about our presence--our family’s presence, our Palestinian people’s presence--in Birzeit. I just put my foot on it, and I feel I am in touch with everyone who crossed over it through all the years.”
At 57, Nasir--nuclear physicist, university president, political leader--had finally come home. “This is where I belong. This is my place,” he said. “It is very good to be back. I was away a very long time.”
He caressed the heavy wooden door of the 82-year-old house, ran his hands over a bit of carved stone, felt the rough bark of a venerable pine tree in the garden and, in an upstairs sitting room, pointed out the pictures of his grandfather, an Anglican clergyman, of his grandmother, of his parents.
Nasir, president of Birzeit University, was exiled by Israeli military authorities in November, 1974, after student demonstrations on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He returned last month, one of 30 longtime political exiles allowed back by Israel as a conciliatory gesture in the negotiations with the Palestinians on self-government.
“Israel would like me to say I am grateful to be back. In fact, I am still angry,” Nasir said, sitting with his wife, Tanya. “I am angry over my deportation--the way I was bundled into a jeep, driven through the night in handcuffs and a blindfold, dropped across the border in Lebanon and never charged with a crime or even given an explanation.
“And I am angry that, almost two decades later, the Israelis’ occupation continues, that they still deport people in the same way and that they are not called to account for their actions. If I had a hope, it was that I would return to a free and independent Palestine. Alas, we are still occupied and we are still oppressed. . . .
“But I am proud of what we Palestinians have done despite the 26 years of occupation,” Nasir continued. “Birzeit University, for example, has grown in spite of a 4 1/2-year closure and other Israeli harassment. It is a wonderful institution with a quality of professors, a quality of students, a quality of education we can be proud of. Birzeit is both an achievement and a symbol of our potential as a nation.”
Nasir, a Palestinian Rip Van Winkle back home after 19 years in exile, measuring “then” against “now,” sees many changes as he looks around the West Bank--some that please, others that discourage him.
A day or so after his return, a Jerusalem lawyer telephoned and said that a faxed message had arrived from PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat congratulating Nasir.
“A message from Arafat? For me? By fax?” Nasir said, still incredulous. “I thought it was, at best, a prank, but perhaps it was a provocation. Just before I left, one of our students was jailed, maybe for three years, for drawing a little Palestinian flag with crayons and putting it in the window. We wouldn’t even mention the PLO by its initials.
“Now, we get faxes from Arafat in Tunis, and he gives interviews to Israeli journalists. Amazing, truly amazing!”
What has happened, Nasir argued, is that the steadfast loyalty to the PLO of most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip effectively “unbanned” the organization and made it an essential element in the peace negotiations.
“I am a former member of the PLO’s executive committee, as are two other returnees, and the Israelis know and accept this,” Nasir said. “Many more returnees are present or former members of the Palestine National Council (the Palestinians’ parliament-in-exile) and of its central committee. With us here and in other ways, Israel has moved to de facto recognition of the PLO.
“The Israelis may have finally come to understand that the PLO is not in Tunis (Arafat’s headquarters) but here on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. The PLO has to be dealt with if the Palestinian problem is to be resolved and if there is to be peace.”
Nasir was shocked, however, by what he describes as the increased brutality of the Israeli occupation. “They are dehumanizing themselves as well as us,” he commented.
Coming from Jericho, Nasir said, where the returnees had crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan, he saw Israeli troops halt a car, pull four Palestinian youths from it and start to beat them.
“I had never witnessed something like that here before--an unprovoked beating on the street,” he said.
“What has happened here? What has happened? This everyday, commonplace brutality, degradation and dehumanization. I am struggling to understand this.”
Not all developments among the Palestinians please him either. Nasir grumbles about a building erected by a neighbor next to the family house, about the lack of town planning in Birzeit, about the abandoned cars strewn about the West Bank and about many other things he sees as “despoiling our heritage even before we get our hands on it. . . .”
“This is what comes from occupation and oppression,” Nasir declared. “There is no ‘government of, by and for the people,’ and so some do as they damn well please, never mind the community.”
Perhaps Nasir’s biggest shock came when he arrived at the new hilltop campus of his own university. He was clearly awed by the development of an institution of 2,500 students that has won international recognition for undergraduate education and is now planning a program of graduate studies and research.
For Nasir, it was a moment of true exultation, for he had helped plan the university’s development from exile. Working from “the president’s office” in nearby Amman, Jordan, he had overseen the school’s academic and physical expansion; coordinated projects such as establishment of the library and purchase of computers, and raised funds--about $25 million--for it all.
“I can’t say that it was like being here, but each set of design plans, every major purchase, each key appointment went through my office,” Nasir recounted. " . . . But I was unprepared for the reality of Birzeit.”
When Nasir was exiled, Birzeit had about 250 students, he said, and they were attending classes in the Nasir family house and adjacent buildings in the center of the little village--a university in name but really a small, four-year college, which in turn had grown out of a junior college and a prep school his aunt had run.
“Starting a university was crazy,” Nasir said, recalling the stages of Birzeit’s development. “We had absolutely no resources. We were under Israeli occupation. We did not know where we would find the teachers. . . .
“Twenty-five years later, Birzeit is a success story. It seems so obvious now, and others have followed us. But, when we started, it must have looked like a mad fantasy.”
Despite the deportation of its president and periodic closures by Israeli military authorities, Birzeit’s growth encouraged the establishment of other universities and community colleges in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, until there are now eight four-year and 12 two-year institutions in the occupied territories.
In size, Birzeit has been overtaken by An-Najah National University in Nablus, and Hebron University is attempting to claim the longest lineage. But Birzeit students readily win admission to graduate schools in Western Europe and the United States because of the school’s reputation.
Although they regarded the campuses as hotbeds of Palestinian radicalism, Israeli authorities nevertheless permitted most of these institutions to function much of the time. While there were frequent closures, thousands of Palestinians managed to finish their college education even at the height of the intifada . A former Israeli military governor of the West Bank said there never was an overall policy toward development of Palestinian university education. Decisions were reached on an ad hoc basis.
Then 31, with a new doctorate in nuclear physics from Purdue University, Nasir had returned to teach at Birzeit a few months after the West Bank was captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
“As the occupation intensified, our need for a university on the West Bank grew,” he recalled. “We could not send our young men and women to Jordan or abroad as easily as before. More important, however, was our need for community development--to create our own Palestinian institutions and to train our people to run them. That remains Birzeit’s dual mission.”
Nasir, as Birzeit’s president, found himself in frequent conflict with the military government. “Each incident was complex, but the basic situation was simple--they would say, ‘Control your students,’ and I would reply, ‘End the occupation,’ ” Nasir recalled. “Almost every day, there was something.”
Tanya Nasir recalled how he was summoned to see the military governor at 11 p.m. on Nov. 21, 1974, after a day of student protests, how she worried when he did not return by morning and how she then learned later that day from a radio broadcast that he had been sent into exile.
“Where was he? I was absolutely frantic--people disappeared in Israeli prisons and still do,” she recalled. “And then he was found in southern Lebanon with four others and taken to Beirut.
“I was still here with four small children, the youngest only nine months. . . .
“There is a pathology in exile--often the spirit collapses as hope of return fades,” she continued. “We struggled against this, but it was hard. Twenty years is a very long time to keep hoping.”
Life should be simpler now. Nasir is moving his office from Amman to Birzeit; he is resolved to concentrate on strategic questions, though he finds himself drawn into day-to-day decisions, and he is considering priorities for when Palestinians assume responsibility for education in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But larger questions of politics loom for Nasir, now one of the ranking Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories. “Politically, I am an independent and not a member of any faction within the PLO or any party, and I think I will remain that way,” he said. “I am also inclined to focus on education. But we have a nation to build, we have a nation to build. . . .”
* Name: Hanna Nasir
* Titles: Birzeit University president. Palestine National Council member.
* Age: 57
* Personal: Born to family of Anglican clergymen and educators. Doctorate in nuclear physics. Exiled by Israel in 1974. Married. Four children.
* Quote: “People think the PLO is in Tunis, but it is here in Palestine itself.”