Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Meeting of the Facebook Generation

My Daughter Lauren has been visiting this past week with a group from the University of Michigan. It has been great to see her and spend some time with the group as they explored both the historical and holy side of this land, while making plenty of time to see the “facts on the ground”. You use all of your emotions when you come here and this group is no different. There should be a warning on the airline ticket that says something like, “warning: you will see the world differently after this trip”.

Among many wonderful experiences, the group had the opportunity to meet informally with a group of their piers during a tour of Al Quds University in Abu Dis. I asked them if they all had a Facebook page and they laughed and said, “of course!” College students are the same the world over at the end of the day.

You may recall from my previous posts that Abu Dis, while very close to Jerusalem is outside of the wall. Al Quds is Arabic for Jerusalem so this is “Jerusalem University” or the “University of Jerusalem”. The school has a very good reputation and a very broad offering, including a medical school. One of the professors in the medical school lives here in our guest house. He is a pathologist from San Francisco who happens to be Jewish. He is in his second year teaching at Al Quds. He taught in different medical schools in California before he retired and decided to teach here for a while to give back. He told me last night that his students are the best and brightest he has ever had the pleasure of working with in his entire career.

In additional to the academic challenges of a very competitive learning environment, the students at Al Quds face daily challenges students in any other part of the world have no idea about. The students shared some the challenges they face in trying to get an education with the group from U of M.
As with the rest of the Palestinian population, transportation is a daily misery. The students come from all around Jerusalem, including West Bank towns like Ramallah to the north, and Bethlehem which is to the south. Many come from the area immediately surrounding Jerusalem, on the Israeli side of the wall but in the Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods. While the university is actually very close to Jerusalem, because it is on the West Bank side of the wall, they must travel a very long way to get to school each day. Because of its location, there is a mix of students with West bank ID’s, who cannot go to Jerusalem and those with Jerusalem ID’s who can. There are no dorms on the campus so many students opt to share flats or apartments in Abu Dis or live as borders with local families and they go home on the weekends to minimize the transit problems.

It is interesting to note that international studies have found that the Palestinian people worldwide are the most highly educated population in the world on a per capita basis. This is likely due to the occupation. A good education is something no one can take away from you and a ticket out. The Palestinians know that, and education is very highly valued within the society. The Israeli government does not like the fact that the Palestinians are so high educated and they do whatever they can to disrupt education particularly at the university level. Some of these measures are very systematic. For example, degrees from Al Quds are not formally recognized in Israel even though the university has all the necessary international accreditations. The battle stems from the name of the university. Israel says that there is only one “Jerusalem University” and that is Hebrew University on Mt Scopus adjacent to the property I am staying on. They have said that until the university changes its name Israel will not recognize it, or it graduates. It frankly matters little because employers in Israel do not hire graduates of any of the prestigious Palestinian universities like Bethlehem University or Ber Zeit University north of Ramallah anyway.

Other measures are more confrontational and designed to disrupt and maintain a sense of fear and uncertainty among the students. The students told us that at the beginning of each semester a very large number of armed Israeli Defense Force soldiers enter the campus and go room to room checking ID’s and disrupting classes as much as possible. They do this on the pretext of security and to search for law breakers. Each time they do this they round up several students seemingly at random and take them for very high pressure questioning. The idea is to instill fear and develop a network of informers who they can come back to from time to time to get information on other people in order to build the security files they have on every Palestinian. The idea is that these students, who have a future, likely outside the country, have the most to lose and they are a good source of information on others who have less opportunity. Another measure is to increase delays at the checkpoints during the final exam days. One of the students told us that while she had never been detained before, she was delayed at the checkpoint for four hours on her exam day a few semesters ago. While many professors understand and will allow students to take their exam late, her professor told her he was tired of hearing about the checkpoints. He said that the students needed to “plan for the occupation”. She was not allowed to take the final and got an E.

The IDF also has a higher presence in the community of Abu Dis because of the student population and they regularly create what they call “flying checkpoints” in the streets to target students for ID checks. I passed through one in Abu Dis earlier this week and saw that they had four students with their faces to a wall undergoing a search. This is in addition to the daily checks they must endure to get to the university each day at the fixed checkpoints that are impossible to avoid. They also go house to house in the evenings to “look for subversives and instigators”. One of the girls we met with shared a story that stunned us all.

On the evening of September 20th 2008, this young woman was home with her parents. Her father is very old and mentally incapacitated. Her brother, his wife and their two small children live on the second floor of the home which is what all families do here. Her brother and sister-in-law were not home and they were watching the two small children. The IDF came to the door and asked if any students lived in the home. They told them that they did not board any students. The soldiers demanded to search the house and told the family to go outside while they did that. The family insisted that they needed to get the children who were upstairs sleeping so that they were not frightened by the soldiers. They were told they could not, were forced outside, and told to sit on a wall at gun point. Shortly afterward gunfire began in the home. The young women’s mother got up and started to run toward the house to check on the children. She was abruptly pushed to the ground and hit her head on a rock. She was unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. The student who was telling us this story, while trying to remain composed demanded that the army call an ambulance. They refused. She ran away, expecting to be shot in the back but she felt she needed to find help for her mother. She ran to a nearby house and called an ambulance. The ambulance was refused entry to the area “until the military operation was completed”. During this precious time the girl’s mother, who had never said one bad thing about Israel, died of her wounds on her front step. The army wrapped up their “military operation” and determined that there were no subversives in the home and they simply left, leaving the dead woman with her family.

The cursory army investigation that was demanded by the community did not find fault with the soldiers because they thought they saw something in a dark hallway and reacted by firing their weapons. The incident was determined to be an unfortunate accident….case closed!

60 Minutes - Is Peace Out of Reach?