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West Bank universities bristle under clampdown

In some respects what is happening on Israel's West Bank college campuses resembles what took place on American campuses in the 1960s: students in the streets; government forces responding with tear gas or shots in the air, university shutdowns.

The Israeli aim seems clear: to control the previously independent universities -- and ultimately the West Bank. This strategy was outlined by the military government's civil administrator, Menachem Milson, in a May 1981 article in Commentary magazine.

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Like the West Bank municipalities (where Israeli dismissal of elected officials has set off violent disturbances), the universities are resisting the tightening of Israeli control. Israeli authorities see the universities as potential hotbeds of Palestinian nationalism.

There are four flourishing Palestinian universities here: Bethlehem, Bir Zeit , al Najah, and Sharia. These, as well as elementary and secondary schools throughout the occupied territories, have regularly experienced run-ins between students and soldiers. The two hottest spots now seem to be Bir Zeit and al Najah.

Educators and students argue that Mr. Milson is systematically trying to quash free expression and to so disrupt the academic climate that college-aged Palestinians will have to emigrate to complete their education. Mr. Milson's tool, they say, is Israeli Military Order 854, under which the privately funded universities must receive military government approval for faculty, staff, and courses.

The president of al Najah comments: ''They want to control political ideas.''

No West Bank university has had as fitful a year as Bir Zeit. At this writing , it is in the second month of its second two-month suspension since November.

According to the Israeli military government, Bir Zeit has become at this point ''a center and source of incitement and instigation of the area as an expression of its active resistance to the military governor and the state of Israel.''

Located on a rocky hilltop just outside Ramallah, the university has roots that run back to 1924, when it was founded as an Anglican-run lower school. By 1961, Bir Zeit included a junior college. It is now a four-year arts and sciences university. Some 1,700 students enrolled last year.

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Israeli officials in Jerusalem point out that only after the West Bank was captured from Jordan in 1967 did Bir Zeit and the other universities become bona fide, internationally accredited institutions. Government spokesman Zeev Chafets contends that few other peoples under military occupation anywhere have been allowed as much academic freedom as the Palestinians of the West Bank.

Bir Zeit spokesman Albert Aghazerian syas he sees the schools as a way for Palestinians cut off from the Arab world to perserve their culture -- and as a compensation for the difficulty Palestinians encounter when they try to enter Hebrew universities in Israel.

Most of Bir Zeit's funding comes from the Arab world, via Jordan, and from religious groups in the West.

The university's most recent closure occurred after an alleged assault by students on Mr. Milson's university-liaison officer. The official, Zion Gabbai, reported he was beaten by students at Bir Zeit on Feb. 15. Mr. Gabbai says he now sees these students and the university's acting president, Gabi Baramki, as ''the same as the terrorists.'' And he adds: ''We must not punish, but we must bring order to this university.''

Mr. Aghazerian says Mr. Milson was waiting for almost any incident to justify a clampdown.

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