Campus life and politics: a Palestinian student's two worlds
Ramallah, Israeli-occupied West Bank
`I THINK that we are special people,'' Sana Fahham observes matter-of-factly. ``I don't think any other people in Europe or the United States live like this - we lead a double life.'' Ms. Fahham is a Palestinian from Arab east Jerusalem. She also is a fourth-year linguistics student at Bir Zeit University. A nationalistic, Palestinian-owned-and-operated university, Bir Zeit has grown up on the rocky West Bank hillsides under the suspicious gaze of the Israeli Army.
On Dec. 4, two of Fahham's fellow students were killed and 16 were injured in a clash that occurred when an Israeli Army roadblock prevented cars from reaching the Bir Zeit campus. The killings touched off a wave of unrest on campuses in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and before the Army regained control of the situation, two more Palestinian youths were killed.
The latest battles between the soldiers and the students - battles between young Israelis armed with tear gas and guns and young Palestinians heaving stones - highlight the painfully sharp lines between Fahham's two lives. She leads a double life many young Palestinians say they share and say they are increasingly less able to handle.
``You try to just get along with them [the soldiers],'' says Jeannie Assad, a first-year sociology student from the nearby village of Surda. ``You try to lead a normal life, to avoid problems. But it gets to a point where you really can't take it anymore.''
In one life, Ms. Assad and Fahham are pampered, fashion-conscious young women wrapped in the protective embrace of their wealthy family and a circle of friends who attended the same exclusive girls' preparatory school. More-politicized students at Bir Zeit refer to these young women derisively as ``Kit Kat kids,'' referring to a brand of expensive imported chocolates.
The students labeled as Kit Kat kids are thought to be spoiled and apolitical - more interested in Bir Zeit's social life than in its Palestinian nationalist message. Neither Assad, nor Fahham, nor any of their closest friends were involved in the recent demonstrations.
But even the most dedicated ``Kit Kat'' cannot avoid her other life. In their other lives, Assad, Fahham, and their friends are Palestinian Arabs in a city where the majority of residents are Jews. They are students at a nationalist university regarded by many Israelis as nothing less than an incubator for Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists.
The pressures of their double lives force young Palestinians in east Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank and Gaza constantly to choose between getting along - a path their parents urge on them - and registering protests to the occupation - action that many of their peers demand.
Fahham, Assad, and several other Palestinian students, interviewed at Bir Zeit and a favored hamburger stand in nearby Ramallah, agree that daily friction between the students and the troops has created in almost all students - even those who consider themselves to be apolitical - a deep well of frustration and bitterness.
This long-term buildup of resentment, the students say, is the underlying cause of the latest, and by far bloodiest, confrontations with the Army.
Many of the most militantly nationalist students come from West Bank and Gazan refugee camps. Fahham, Assad, and other ``Kit Kats'' express nothing but sympathy for the refugee camp students. ``You can't blame them,'' Assad says. ``They feel the occupation more than we do. They have brothers, or fathers, or some other relative who has been killed by the Jews. It is carved into their hearts.''
The stories told by Fahham, Assad, and other students are those of a generation that has reached young adulthood knowing only Israeli occupation, which began 19 years ago in 1967. They form the majority of the 750,000 Palestinians on the West Bank - a generation that harbors little hope for a political solution that will end the occupation and grant them control over their lives.
Israelis who criticize the occupation and lack of movement toward a negotiated settlement among Israel, the Palestinians, and Israel's neighbors argue that it is this generation that eventually may form the vanguard of widespread Palestinian resistance.
``I'm sure there are surface reasons for the latest clashes between the Army and the students,'' says one Israeli intelligence source.
``But there also are deep causes and reasons. I think the demonstrations by the students signify a state of despair, a cul-de-sac many Palestinians feel they have entered. The younger generation feels it more acutely, and is not so sensitive to the costs of protesting as are their elders.''
Samir, an articulate business management student who asked that his real name not be used, agrees that the thought of punishment is an ineffective deterrent when students and soldiers meet head on at roadblocks.
At the Dec. 4 demonstration, Samir says, ``I found myself picking up a rock'' - just as he did when he was 15 and threw a stone at a passing Israeli foot patrol in his West Bank village. The rock-throwing in 1976 cost him five days in jail. It worried his parents so much that they sent him to the United States as soon as he was old enough to enter university and he returned only six months ago.
``The main reason for sending me to the States was to get me out, get me away from trouble,'' Samir says. Still trying to readjust to life on the West Bank, he found himself in the middle of the Dec. 4 demonstration after the bus full of students he was riding to Bir Zeit was the first one stopped at the Israeli roadblock. Near the start of the demonstration, he was overcome by tear gas, Samir says. He was not arrested.
``No one throws rocks to kill Israelis,'' Samir maintains.
``When I was 14, maybe I threw rocks because I thought someday we could drive the Jews into the sea. I am more realistic now. Israel is there to stay. Now we throw rocks because we want someone to remember that we want our rights, too. It is desperation, a way to say we cannot accept the occupation.''
``The Israelis thought they had found the magic solution for dealing with students,'' says Bir Zeit spokesman Albert Ahgazarian. ``The area commanders literally have calendars with dates important to Palestinian nationalists marked in red. In addition to that, they have a net of informers on the campuses who tell them when there are demonstrations planned to take place on campus. So the Army would put up roadblocks on those days and keep people out. They would let a few pass - the faculty, the `Kit Kats' or what have you.
``Last year,'' he continues, ``we lost 36 academic days through this. Since October, we lost 12 days. The Dec. 4 clash occurred on the 12th day of the roadblocks.
``What the Israelis were missing,'' Mr. Ahgazarian says, ``was the sense of anger, the sense of frustration and humiliation, that the roadblocks were brewing inside the students.''