Albert Aghazarian at the House of Commons: "It is better to light a candle every day than curse darkness forever."
On 24 February 1998, Public Relations Office Director Albert Aghazarian spoke at a Friends of Birzeit University (FoBZU) public meeting at the House of Commons in London. His talk ranged from the character of Birzeit University in a changing political situation, to the issues of the peace process and the tension between "the culture of power and the power of culture."
It is certainly a special privilege and a joy to be here amongst friends who I have come to know over the years and some new ones and, in a way, it is very rewarding to see a meeting here in this prestigious place for Friends of Birzeit University.
Things like this enable one to carry on. The feeling that there are people who care and who follow the work of Birzeit University and the Palestinian people in general are trying to do under very difficult circumstances.
Often, when I meet friends, they ask me, "Are you still with Birzeit?" I tell them, "Yes, I am still with Birzeit." I have been glued to this institution for 20-some years. In a regular university, people conduct experiments and make research. Birzeit as a whole is an experiment and I can say that to a large extent, despite all the difficulties and flaws here and there, that it has been a success. I think our challenge for the future is to go out from the walls of the university and try to spread it to the rest of the Palestinian community.
Now all this ordeal of Birzeit started from very simple principles. Right from the start, we believed in freedom of thought and freedom of expression. And freedom of thought and expression means that the university must be outspoken, it must be articulate and it must be intellectually irritating. When people living under occupation have opinions to express, in whatever direction, not only the university must provide a forum for that but it should also encourage it.
The second thing was that it was a university that, right from the outset, believed in interaction with the community. Again, there is a very simple principle but on the ground it meant a lot, that we are not an ivory tower trying to isolate ourselves from the community but rather an institution trying to interact with the community. This was reflected in our programmes, such as the Community Work Programme that most of you know is a graduation requirement in Birzeit University, and in order not to be totalitarian the choices are very wide and the ways students can fulfil this service is very broad.
Birzeit seeks to incorporate the different groups which constitute Palestinian society. For example, at Birzeit University we have the Islamic students incorporated as part of the student body. We feel as members of the administration, that our job regardless of what our political positions are, as in Britain is to be civil servants. It should not be our responsibility as an administration to decide who the students vote for, or what they vote for, or what are the priorities. To put it metaphorically, and as many of you know I like these metaphors, it is like we are operating a train or a bus and our job is to say what time the bus leaves, what is the fare to get in, and when to get out, but who uses this bus within this system is not our business.
As such, Birzeit, concretely has been experimenting with this on the ground and not just with colourful slogans. For example, when the Palestinian Authority detained 1,000-plus Islamic-oriented people out of which there were 15 Birzeit students, maybe 985 of them were forgotten about, but the cases of the 15 students were followed day in and day out and we used every forum possible to communicate the message that it is unnacceptable that these people should be detained without due process of the law. When the results were not happening, we sued President Yasser Arafat in a Palestinian court of law and on the 18th of August 1996, it was decided that they should be released immediately.
Of course they were not released immediately, it took a while as they trickled out, but during this process I would say many people in the Palestinian Authority were careful that next time they would not enter a trap like this and due process would be involved. And later on, when we had some Islamic-oriented students who burned a replica of an Egged No. 18 bus as a form of glorifying suicidal incidents, we felt that it was unnaceptable that if we want to keep the sanctity of the university that we should not condone events like this. If you want to preserve the sanctity of a university, you should not symbolically be throwing stones or else you undermine the independence of the university. There were pictures that were very embarassing for us, including in the Guardian and other papers, where Palestinians were burning the replica of a bus and we took measures including serious action, and some of the students involved in this were dismissed for a semester or two.
So it is this spirit which is prevailing in Birzeit: at the same time we are sticking to the value system of the region, the Arab, the Palestinian, the Muslim character, we have sought and chosen to be open world wide. And through programmes like the international summer camps and the Palestine and Arabic Studies (PAS) programme - and I see in this hall some of our students who have benefited from this throughout the years - we have had this exchange with international students and I would say that we have not less than 200 students every year, not only in the summer, but during the regular academic year.
Finally, regarding the big slogans that Palestinians are yearning for - whether it is the question of transparancy, openness, or accountability - we have decided to 'put ourselves in the new format of communication', and Birzeit has established a very dynamic website, which is trying to reach out and make available all relevant information on this.
I find all of this a very exciting experience because it is an experience that is working, and while we maintain our Palestinian identity and our Palestinian character and we are part of the struggle, we are simultaneously trying to keep this national unity and this openness, through which we feel that Birzeit has the ability to create among its student population a sense of belonging, regardless of where they stand politically. Essentially, we find that this is an experience that I would say is rare in our region and maybe that's why it is something that deserves a Friends of Birzeit association in order to cheer this spirit.
Looking back, some of the students who gave us the hardest times over the years, whether politically or otherwise, have become our best ambassadors and supporters, regardless of their political beliefs.
On the other hand, I do not think that we are bystanders or researchers in a negative or a passive sense. Birzeit is very much a participant. The Israeli press often quoted that the Madrid Peace talks were "essentially talks between Birzeit University and the government of Israel." We note that over half the members came from Birzeit, including the supporting staff - the secretaries, the telephone operators and others - sometimes that maybe can be explained by our ability to mobilise quickly, because as many of you know, our experience has been that often we would be heading to school and we weren't sure if we would make it to the university on that day by being returned by a road block or a closure order, yet the work had to be done, and in a very quick way we could improvise ways of learning and teaching. Many of you who know me might be smiling when I say, that over all these years, 'ad hoc-ery' has been the name of the game.
Looking back, Birzeit has never been run as a big project, where we needed a couple of a hundred million dollars to get started. We have always set ourselves small targets, small steps. We want this periodical, this project for a thousand quid or two thousand quid. Little by little I think we have built an institution in this spirit. Many of you will be familliar with the saying, "It is better to light a candle every day than curse darkness forever," which we feel should be the essence of an educational institution.
Sometimes, when we go through troubles, the first thing being asked is "Are you optimistic or pessimistic?" We have a Palestinian writer who coined the phrase "pessoptimism", which really reflects the situation but I would say that, working in an educational institution with young people, it is a professional crime to be tending towards pessimism. We have every right to be pessimistic but we have no right to be pessimistic and handling people who are starting their life and who have a path in front of them. It is this spirit that has prevailed at Birzeit.
Let me give you an example of one of the projects that we have seen proliferating. In 1978, one of our female researchers, a pharmacologist called Rita Giacaman, did a study on infant mortality and found that the health situation in Palestine was getting worse. Now what do you do about something like that? Do you simply go and condemn and make propaganda and say, "Our situation has deteriorated," or do you try and do something about it? Now of course you want to do something but where do you start? Not only do you not have state mechanisms but you have interference in your attempts. Medicine is an enormous field. Do you go to hospitals or start public health projects? You find there are have 1001 things to do.
So first, you go to the four villages surrounding Birzeit and select two women from each and give them six months of intensive training in four aspects of community health - nutrition, hygene, first aid and mother and childcare - and then you start assessing the needs and seeing what needs to be done next. Once this was done, you try with 16 villages, with 64 villages until it expanded to include the whole community.
As you are proceeding with this you find that there is a direct connection between the status of health and the level of economic income, so you try to seek ways and means of cooperating with grassroots organisations regardless of where they are. One grassroot might be strong in one village and weak in another. So you work with the forces in the field, and you find ways to boost the income of the family, whether it is through cooperative activities, or finding whether a woman can do embroidery or make pickles in her house. By the time you find another group interested in this project, you hand them the whole files. There is no duplication. You just make sure that they will continue the work, as we have areas that are untouched. So now, the Department of Community and Public Health is dealing with sewerage and garbage which is something no one else wants to do, while at the same time developing a masters programme in public health.
We come to another domain. In 1982, there was a case in a girls' school in Jenin where they were finding yellow powder on the tables and collectively the female students were expressing a kind of hysteria. Now, we had no mechanism to check if this was psychosomatic or chemical. This helped to start the Center for Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (CEOHS), an idea which basically developed and mushroomed. Today, water analysis in both the Gaza Strip and West Bank is done in Birzeit University and the Palestinian Ministry of Health contracts Birzeit for this work. Similarly we have many pharmaceutical companies in the area which we check the quality of their product, and have undertaken training in the field with farmers on the safe use of pesticides. Today, they are growing pesticide-free tomatoes in a model project in the Jericho area. The best farmer in the Jericho area can produce 15 tons of tomatoes a year and these people are producing forty tons, completely computerised, without 70 percent of the usual cost of farming that is spent on pesticides. Through the help of FoBZU, the ODA is funding the CEOHS to expand into the area of food quality control.
With the initial euphoria that surrounded the coming of the Palestinian Authority, there was also an awareness that, in order to build a new civic society, you have to have an integrated, pluralistic media. Palestinians do not want to have a replica of His Masters' Voice. We would like to have a pluralistic, open media. A Media Center was established where we have advanced equipment for the training of radio and print journalists, with television on the way. These are projects carried out with international partners. For instance this project was done in conjunction with the Finnish Broadcasting Association, with SIDA (the ODA of Sweden), and Bentenscaft, the German Green Party foundation. We have radio trainers, graduates from Birzeit, like 'Araf Hejawi, from the Arabic Service of the BBC, who is giving courses at the center.
And there have been human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority. We feel that we have an educational role. We are not there to condemn, on the contrary, we are there to rectify and I think we have succeeded in passing on the pedagogic lessons to members of the Palestinian Authority. I think, to be honest, their performance has improved to a large extent. These people who have come to run the Palestinian Authority are people who have no experience of running a civil society. Civil society is a two-way street. We have to fight for it. All our problems are open. Human rights organisations should not only have the role of exposing, but also of educating. Palestinian human rights organisations, in the context of state building, should be aware that, for example, when you have a crude Palestinian officer who is violating human rights, if you go with the intention of picking at him he will close and you will lose any opportunity of goodwill. In every case, where we have violations, we follow it up, we keep track of it and we document it.
On the political front, there is a basic question about all this process called the 'peace process' which has still not been answered. Are we into a format of sharing the historic land of Palestine? Here I am not speaking of how fair or unfair the sharing is, but whether there is a principle of sharing to start with, or is the Israeli occupation trying to tighten its stranglehold and its domination, over the Palestinians? Does Israel perceive the Palestinian Authority as a mechanism to help them in this subjugation or are we heading towards a more balanced relationship whether it is a binational state or statehood.
Now the Palestinian negotiators, from the beginning were basing themselves on the assumptions that we were heading towards statehood or some kind of an independent entity. However, on the ground, we see that there is the establishment of an apartheid system and there are very worrying messages. Among these is the control of law, and I mean the control of flow in every sense possible, and this has nothing to do with 'security' or "securitism" which is a term I like very much. We are speaking about the movement of people, of goods, the control of water, of electricity, of merchandise. The European Union has sent material for a Palestinian airport that has been held for several months by the Israelis in Ashdod port and the European Union is paying rent for every day of delay. I don't know the figures, but I can safely assume that more money will have been spent in the end than it cost in the first place.
With Jordanians for example, there is an accord that they have reached with the Israelis, that when cement is exported from Jordan to a Palestinian or Israeli address, it arrives in one truck. In the case of Palestinians, between Gaza and the West Bank, this is impossible. In Karnay station, they have to unload and change trucks completely.
We have been for the last three or four years trying to organise the passage of Gazan students from Gaza to the West Bank. We have an estimated 1,300 students that study in the five West Bank universities. Last week they finally said that 'We can allow one hundred such students to coming." In the list that came out, 19 of the people were banned 'for security reasons', leaving 81 students as the total allowed to study in West Bank universities. We are not speaking about a clear process where someone has a file and rightly or wrongly they are banned from moving, we are speaking about an arbitrary proceedure. When Israel says, 'We have now allowed 20,000 Gazans to work in Israel,' this comes with an attachment that is extremely significant. They have to be over 32 years of age, married and, out of the 20,000, 8,000 must be in the construction sector, 8,000 in the agricultural sector, 4,000 in the service industry. Later on when they describe 'an easing of the closure' they mean another 10,000. This time it is 29 years of age and over and married. Now this is a very scary pattern of Apartheid, and already people are referring to this as the "Palestans", remembering the South African bantustans.
One of the problems we are confronting is that, in Israel, there is a phenomenon of 'securitism'. The defence establishment has been at the core of life throughout Israel's fifty years of existence. The generals were the untouchables. The people representing the Shabak, the Aman, and the Mossad, these are the core and I would very simply and simplisticly say that these people are not willing to abandon their privileges and their job is to create an atmosphere of panic and lack of security. It is as if you have a bodyguard that is taking $10,000 a month and no one is undermining you, their job is to tell you, 'Don't be that sure.' It is in the same spirit that you see, in this life, some people that see an enemy behind every friend and some people who see friends behind every enemy. The job of these people is to see an enemy behind every friend. That's what they are paid for. The other day I was reading in Ha'aretz that the man in charge of security in the Knesset makes more money than all the legislators in the place and even makes more money than the Prime Minister of Israel. These are all elements to consider.
Our job in Birzeit is to find a substitute. On the ground over there we are trying to the best of our abilities to see pluralism realised. Within the development of Palestinan society this is how we can serve our cause best and we are constantly trying to inform our Palestinian Authority that this is the way that we should go. If we don't have a dynamic, active NGO sector such as universities in general should be - if everything was controlled then we would be in danger of being crushed. We have a long way to go and we are entering fresh grounds all the time.
My greatest criticism of the Palestinian leadership was that at the time there was the announcement of Oslo, they abandoned the grassroots work, the diplomatic work, and the solidarity work. This was a major mistake, because just at the time that our embassies and delegations and associations abroad could have been more effective, they were disbanded. I think it is high time for us to remobilise these groups because we need them and I do not think that moving into the future would be possible without them. From this angle I consider our meeting tonight very significant, and I think that we have to multiply these efforts for the future, for human rights, and for the Palestinian struggle for justice and peace.
Q: Have your salary problems with the EU been solved now becuase it was very serious a few months ago?
A: They haven't. You see, as many of you might know, the universities developed as private foundations and they had to respond to the need not only of natural expansion but also - due to a perceived Israeli attempt to push Palestinians out of the country - a need to build local universities. As universities expanded they were handed over, as in the case of Birzeit, to an independent board of trustees. We were being subsidised by the Association of Arab Universities when it was "illegal" for the PLO to finance institutions. Money was trickling through the Council for Higher Education and after the Gulf War the money was cut off, and with the new peace process the European Union undertook to subsidise an important chunk of the operational budget, to the tune of about 70 percent of operational budgets.
Every year the EU was saying, 'You cannot count on it forever,' and it is being gradually cut off.
With the coming of the Authority there was another argument that came: Is the Authority responsible for the state structures or do they have an obligation to support independent institutions without having to control them in a direct way? Our argument is that they definitely have a responsibility to ensure that these universities are functioning and, at the same time, ensuring their independence, keeping their autonomy. We have been trying to make the point that this is a much better way of serving the Authority and the community than being a state institution. My favourite example of that is the example of the BBC. The BBC in Britain is an independent insitution and it gets money from the government yet that it is an autonomous body and serves British interests much more than if it was under the direct command of the political establishment. Now the ideal situation for Palestinian universities would be to be in a similar situation as the BBC is in this country. As such we feel that eventually, we have to build up an endowment. Our main problems would be solved. Yet of course there are lots of difficulties in this because it is much easier for people to donate for a classroom or a building or for equipment than for operational costs, yet this is a top priority.
For a period of two months there were no salaries, then they were paid by the university by a special loan arrangement. At the same time, the students were adamantly refusing any increase in tuition fees. When there is news of corruption or money being wasted here and there, it makes it much more difficult for students to be cooperative. We have to move towards endowment projects and maybe to have a core group of people to sponsor the university. FoBZU will definitely hear soon what strategies the university has to improve this situation.
Right now, to answer your question in a direct way, the university still owes us half a month. The rest has been paid.
Q: First of all, I admire your pessoptimism. What is the percentage of your budget comes from the Israeli authorities?
A: Of course there isn't a single penny that comes from the Israelis. In fact, we paid them taxes on all the equipment we get. Over the years, we have had experiences where Israeli universities, which are exempt from paying taxes on equipment we get. We were dealing with the same Israeli importers and we wanted similar status. The procedure is that once you get equipment, say worth $100 with $30 tax, there is an application for exemption. When the Hebrew University asks for it, they would always get it. We wouldn't, despite the fact that is was the same scientific equipment from the same importers. The classic Israeli argument is that before 1967, there were no Palestinian universities. Now there are. For all intents and purposes they wanted to claim credit for their establishment. It's as if I hadn't had any children before 1967 and now I do and it happened under the Israelis, it must be thanks to the Israelis that I have them. It's the same argument. We reached a point that we felt, 'If you want to claim the credit, claim the credit, but let us at least not pay taxes and be able to operate without closures and roadblocks. We don't want anything from you. But let us at least not pay taxes.' Or, 'Let us stay open. Claim credit but let us stay open and then you can go around the world and say that you have been promoting education in Palestine.'
There was someone who received the Israeli Wolf Foundation Prize, an American physicist, Freeman Dyson, and from the Knesset podium he said that, "The Jewish people have a responsibility to promote education not just in Jerusalem and Rehovot, but also in Birzeit and Bethlehem." That was all he said. The next day there was four editorials in the Israeli media attacking him. One said that 'We are trying to honour him and he is insulting us.' Another said, 'We have to withdraw the prize.
So we are not asking for any contribution. What we are asking for is simply to be able to operate. With all the skills we have acquired in using Israeli agents to import equipment, we still get caught up with all the bureaucracy. Since the coming of the Palestinian Authority, it has become at times more difficult. We used to have direct lines. Now we have an apparatus of civil coordinating and liaison committees and it's all linked to whether the negotiations are stopping or not stopping at that time. Our ability to manoeuver around and to be able to get things done by ourselves is dead.