Special to the JTA a Different Kind of Commencement

For two-and-a-half hours last Thursday, inside the unfinished parking garage at the Arab university, A-Najah, it seemed as though there was no Israeli occupation here, as if one was attending a national event in an independent Palestinian state.

Cheering Palestinians — an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people — attended the fourth commencement exercises at the university which has often been the scene of violent clashes between Arab students and Israeli soldiers.

They sang nationalist songs, chanted Palestinian slogans and listened to patriotic speeches, against the backdrop of a huge red-white-black Palestinian flag hanging in the rear of the garage — an absolute no-no by the standards of the Israeli authorities. But the army kept away from the university; it did not intervene.

As a rule, political gatherings in the administered territories are forbidden. Any exception must receive prior approval from the military authorities, and this is rarely given. The commencement ceremony at A-Najah gave the Palestinian elite a golden opportunity to hold a political rally disguised as a purely academic event. Nobody who attended had any doubt that this was, indeed, a political rally.

DISTINGUISHED GUESTS AND VISITORS

As the 481 graduating students entered the hall to the strains of the Palestinian national song, Mawtini (My Country) and raising “V” signs with their fingers, the crowd cheered with enthusiasm. Women, whose children studied at the university, yelled traditional expressions of joy.

Among the crowd were many of the national leaders, most of them deposed from their official positions — Bassam Shaka, who was removed as Mayor of Nablus, and Karim Khalaf, deposed Mayor of Ramallah.

Next to them sat a distinguished guest, Wat Clevarius, the American Consul General in East Jerusalem — quite openly an expression of American interest in the quality of life of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz has often expressed interest in the development of Arab universities in the territories.

The participants did not hide the fact that they regarded A-Najah–and seven other universities in the territories — as symbols of national renaissance. The university’s management likes to compare it with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the role it played in the early days of the Yishuv.

A-Najah National University (its official name) is the largest university in the territories. It was founded in 1918 as an educational institution. In 1941 it became a college, and in 1965 it was transformed into a teachers’ training institution. Under Israeli rule, in 1977, it became a university. It grew from several hundred students at the beginning to 3,100 students now.

The driving force behind the university is Hikmat Al-Masri, a former Speaker of the Jordanian Parliament, still known for his close ties with King Hussein and with the Egyptian leadership. Al-Masri is a member of one of the most prominent — and richest — families in the West Bank. He was greeted at the commencement ceremonies like a king. The crowd rose and applauded when he entered the hall. Al-Masri waved at them gratefully. As he stood on the podium he saluted the crowd, like a general reviewing his troops. The honor was well deserved.

It can be said that without the Al-Masri family, the university would not exist. Al-Masri — like the late Meir Weisgal, who travelled around Jewish communities on behalf of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot — often travels around the Arab world, raising funds for the university. He serves as the chairman of the Board of Trustees and is often involved in delicate negotiations with student body, on the one hand, and the Israeli military authorities, on the other.

This is almost a “mission impossible.” The authorities have reportedly made it clear that they will tolerate no political activities inside the universities which they regard as instruments for incitement in a delicate political situation.

POLITICAL ACTIVITY ON CAMPUSES

Political activity on the A-Najah campus, as on most campuses in the territories, dominates the students’ lives. The student body is controlled by Al Fatah supporters, with strong opposition from the Moslem Brotherhood.

Studies at the university were resumed only a month ago after a four-month ban. The sanction was imposed on the students after they held a nationalist exhibition which displayed, according to the authorities, elements of incitement. Such closure orders have become a part of the university routine.

The authorities close the university, then there is a quiet period, followed by another exhibit or a demonstration which triggers a severe reaction on the part of the military. As a rule, though, the military refrains from intervening in most indoor activities as long as it is not considered incitement.

The excessive engagement in political activities and the frequent closures of the university does not enhance the standards of the Arab universities in the territories.

PROBLEM OF JOB OPPORTUNITIES

But the major problem facing the graduates is lack of job opportunities. Of the 481 graduates this year, 354 hold degrees from the arts and economics faculties. There are three faculties for journalism in the territories, but there is hardly a need for that many journalists.

It is estimated that there is a total of some 13,000 university graduates in the territories working at jobs for which they were not trained because they could not find jobs in their professions.

Unemployment, however, is not widely felt in the territories. Those who want to work can find jobs either in Israel proper or closer to home. But the shadow of unemployment hung over the commencement ceremony at A-Najah last Thursday. It also hangs over Israeli officials in charge of the territories who know that unemployment in the territories is not only a social and economic problem, but may well have serious security implications.

A hungry, hostile population may be much more unpleasant than a population that so far has had little to complain about so far as their standard of living goes.

NEXT STORY