Photo: Doron Sheffer
Ariel - One of Israel's largest West Bank settlement
Photo: Doron Sheffer
Photo: Doron Sheffer
Dozens live in the college dormitories
Photo: Doron Sheffer

Arab students attend West Bank college

Politics don't dissuade Palestinians, Israeli Arabs from studying in Ariel, one of Israel's largest West Bank settlement

Every day, Nida Hussein takes a trip that for most Palestinians would be unthinkable - a two-hour bus ride from Jerusalem to the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel, one of the largest West Bank settlement.


Hussein, an 18-year-old from eastern Jerusalem, is one of more than 300 Arab students, many of them Israeli citizens, enrolled at the college built on land the Palestinians claim belong to them.


"It was a little difficult at the beginning, but the most important thing is learning," she said. "Some friends asked me 'why would you go there?' But I want this and my parents let me."


The college, a tree-lined campus on a hilltop, says it welcomes Arab students, both Israelis and Palestinians, to promote diversity.


But the presence of Arab students could strengthen the university's place in the Israeli academic mainstream. Institutes of higher learning routinely admit Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israel's population but often feel marginalized.


"We don't view ourselves as a settlement," college spokesman Michael Stoltz said. "We view ourselves as a continuation of the Jewish dream, but the Jewish dream has an Arab minority."


Arabs, though often torn about studying in a settlement, say they feel largely comfortable there. Some note they did not have marks high enough to qualify for more selective universities inside Israel.


They are also reluctant to study at Palestinian institutions or those in nearby Arab countries for fear their qualifications will not secure them jobs in the Jewish state after graduation.


Expanding ranks


"If you study at Bir Zeit or al-Quds universities, nobody in Israel recognizes the degrees," 20-year-old Jerusalemite Adel Hamida said, referring to two prominent Palestinian universities.


She is enrolled in a pre-college program at Ariel.


The 320 Arabs enrolled at Ariel make up just three percent of the college's student body of 8,500, but their ranks are rapidly rising even if most oppose Israel's presence in the West Bank. A year ago, the school had just 235 Arabs.


Zainab Alayan, an 18-year-old from Jerusalem, said she enrolled in the college because she could not get in elsewhere and there were "no places that would be better".


She said she thought settlements, including Ariel, would have to be dismantled as a condition for peace, but defended her decision to study there.


"The whole country is occupied. I came here to learn," she said.


From college to university


In a controversial move in May ahead of Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip, the Israeli cabinet backed granting the college full university status, and the school is now starting to offer post-graduate degrees.


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said upgrading the school would help strengthen West Bank settlement blocs Israel wants to keep in any final peace deal with Palestinians.


The move infuriated Palestinians who view efforts to bolster settlements as a threat to peacemaking and the establishment of a viable state in the West Bank and Gaza.


But for Hussein, the issue was academic.


"I am so happy and I hope it comes true," she said about transforming the college into a full-fledged university.


At the college, where classes are taught in Hebrew, female Arab students in Islamic headscarves are a visible presence.


Arabs speak their native language in the halls and share space with Orthodox Jews, settlers, secular Israelis and recent immigrants.


"I want to position the city of Ariel as part of Israel," said Ariel Mayor Ron Nahman. "The fact that Arab-Israeli students are coming to study shows one thing, that we are good people, that the college is a liberal, open-minded institution and that the people of Ariel are tolerant."


Dozens of Arab students live in dormitories, although they are typically not assigned Jewish roommates.


Hard decisions


The students, many of whom struggle with the political implications of their choice, say they often feel uneasy about their decision to study in Ariel. The World Court has branded settlements as illegal and Palestinians see them as a main obstacle to peace.


"I am Israeli, definitely Muslim, Arab and Palestinian. It is a difficult identity," third year criminology student from the Arab town of Jisr al-Zarqa.Mahmoud Hamash said. "As an Israeli it is OK to study here, but not as a Palestinian."


Others said they could feel tensions under the surface, but felt that with the Palestinian uprising fading, they could afford to study in Ariel.


"Now it is calm. If the situation were tenser, then I would choose to study in Jerusalem," said Majdi Hussein. But he said an October suicide bombing in Israel had raised tensions.


"When I come on the bus there are many soldiers. If I speak in Arabic with my friend, they stare at me like they want to kill me," he said.


Rifaat Sweidan, who advises Arab students, says he has received no specific complaints of harassment or racism although some do face academic difficulties.


"Maybe if an Arab student walked in Ariel, below us, it would be a problem. But not at the college," he said. "In an academic institution, people are used to hearing Arabic."


Some Jewish Israeli students on campus said they appreciated interacting with Arabs. But others said they were perplexed as to why the school would want to welcome them.


"I had two Arabs in my class. They didn't talk much. We don't have anything to talk about," recent criminology graduate Ravital Sabag said, as she sat outside a campus cafeteria. "I think it is not good to bring more Arabs. I don't trust them."


Her friend Gali Mark, also a recent graduate, said she also did not want more Arabs to enroll. If they do, she said: "Jewish people won't come here to study." 


פרסום ראשון: 12.05.05, 09:43
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