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Israeli Fence Threatens to Slice Through Palestinian University

Times Staff Writer

On the verge of completing a law degree, Amjad Abu Asab is now learning a real-life legal lesson. Every day on the campus of Al Quds University, the college senior exercises his right to lawful protest, planting himself in a shady spot on a patch of brown, parched earth.

Nearby is a basketball court and an open lot used as a soccer field -- the only sports facilities the university owns, serving more than 6,000 students. But if the Israeli government has its way, even that small oasis of recreation will soon vanish, plowed under to make way for a security barrier that will slice the Al Quds campus in two.

Israeli authorities say the fence is designed to keep would-be Palestinian terrorists from entering Jerusalem. But it will bite off more than a quarter of the university’s land, something Abu Asab and a host of activists are determined to stop.

“Sports and recreation are part of the life of the university,” said Abu Asab, 23. “All the land [in Jerusalem] is holy, but the land of the university is holier still.... When Israel attacks the academy, in effect it’s attacking civilization.”

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His answer to the Israeli government’s plans has been to join a quickly organized passive resistance campaign by Al Quds administrators, professors and students, who are attempting to maintain a constant presence on the site to prevent the bulldozers hovering at its perimeter from rumbling in.

Throughout daylight hours, and into part of the night, members of the university conduct sit-ins, play soccer on the field and give class lectures beneath a canopy on the edge of the basketball court. On Fridays some hold prayers. On weekends there are concerts.

The fence that could cut through Al Quds University is part of a larger plan by Israeli authorities to partition the Jewish state from the Palestinian territories. The Bush administration initially criticized the fence as a barrier to its Middle East peace plan but has since softened its stand.

The barrier, which opponents label an “apartheid wall,” has garnered international attention for its impact on the West Bank, especially in the northern section.

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Less notice has been paid to the potential effects of the Jerusalem portion of the project, even though one veteran Israeli commentator has called it the most dramatic physical change to the disputed capital since Israel annexed the eastern part of the city after the 1967 Middle East War.

Snaking along the margin between Jerusalem and the West Bank, the barrier will divide some neighborhoods, with stretches of barbed wire or tall concrete blocks separating relatives and friends accustomed to going back and forth to visit, shop and work. In one community, hundreds of Palestinian residents with identification cards that allow them to live and work in Jerusalem will be stranded outside the fence. Other districts technically belonging to the West Bank, under the administration of the Palestinian Authority, will be caught inside.

The campus of Al Quds University, which takes its name from the Arabic designation for Jerusalem, sits perched on a hillside in the city’s southeast, with a grand view of the surrounding rocky terrain. The neighborhood, Abu Dis, is dotted with trees and homes, including that of Ahmed Korei, the likely new prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

Known for its medical and law schools, the Al Quds campus is tiny by American standards. Its students and faculty are squeezed onto about 50 acres, barely more than the grounds occupied by Los Angeles City College.

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Losing more than a quarter of its property to the security barrier would deal a blow to the university’s expansion plans, including construction of an athletic center to replace the basketball court and makeshift soccer field that are, at present, the only places many students can go to exercise.

Al Quds officials also worry that access to campus will become too onerous for both professors and students, especially the 30% of the student body living in the eastern part of the city that gives the university its name. If the fence is built along its planned path, the school will lie outside the partition, which would put Palestinian students from Jerusalem at the mercy of Israeli border police.

Rachel Naidek-Ashkenazi, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Defense Ministry, which is in charge of building the security barrier, said that access to the university would not be affected.

“Students carrying blue identity cards, residing in East Jerusalem, will have an access through,” Naidek-Ashkenazi said in a prepared statement.

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Sari Nusseibeh, the university’s president, does not think that the effects of the fence will be so benign.

Palestinian institutions of higher learning have suffered major disruptions during the 3-year-old uprising against Israeli occupation. In the West Bank, universities in Hebron and Nablus have been subject to closures because of suspected militant activity on campus. Roadblocks and checkpoints outside of Bir Zeit University in Ramallah have made getting to school an hours-long -- or outright impossible -- ordeal for many students.

With the security barrier, Nusseibeh said, “universities, including ours, will become excessively parochial, accessible only to those who live in the neighborhood,” rather than hubs for the free flow of scholars, students and information.

“People will feel like they’re in prison,” said Eyad Hallaq, an Al Quds psychology professor.

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University officials are negotiating with the Israeli government on alternative routes for the fence and trying to rally international support. But hope is dwindling that the earthmoving equipment already doing grading work at either end of the campus -- under the watchful eye of Israeli police -- will be halted from moving in over the next several days.

That Nusseibeh’s university should be under threat holds some irony, because as president, he has tried to foster ties between his institution and Israeli ones, through joint research projects and academic exchanges. One of the most prominent of Palestinian intellectuals, Nusseibeh has also publicly condemned Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians and advocated nonviolent resistance for the Palestinian cause -- stands that have earned him death threats from extremists.

The sit-in campaign bears the marks of his influence. Abu Asab, the law student, said that he and his fellow student activists have been careful to remain orderly, despite what he described as provocation from Israeli police who have stopped students from entering and leaving the site, confiscated their ID cards and flashed bright lights on them in the evening.

“We started the protest in a peaceful way, and we’ll end it in a peaceful way. We won’t give them any pretext” for using force to suppress the demonstrations, Abu Asab said, as young men in white shirts played soccer close by.

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During the last two weeks, Abu Asab has been coming to the site by 8 a.m. and leaving close to midnight. There’s often not much to do but sit and chat with friends, read, maybe sing a few nationalistic songs. Two weeks ago, hundreds of students and faculty members turned out to join the sit-in on the soccer field, while the university track team trained around them. Israeli police officers who had been told to clear a path for bulldozers pulled back to a nearby hill.

The next weekend, protest organizers brought in dance troupes and bands. Last week, administrators held meetings, professors gave lectures and students played league soccer matches on the site.

Abu Asab skipped class to help maintain the vigil but dismissed the effect that it might have on his grades.

“Grades are something I can work on to improve or change,” he said. “But when the land is taken away, it’s gone forever.”

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