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Hebron welcomes pull-out

AS THE INK dries on the long-awaited agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority on redeployment in Hebron, the city's university is coming to terms with the peace.

Looking at how redeployment will affect the university, Ahmad Atawneh, dean of the arts faculty and acting university president, said: "It depends on how the situation will be with the settlers and our extremists. We'll feel more secure, more protected, better able to plan and succeed. If the students had less power, we would have a better academic environment."

He admitted that "the standard is going down in West Bank universities and especially here".

Dr Atawneh said that after living in the United States, Syria and England, it was "very difficult coming to the unstable situation here". He said that the power of the student council led to problems. "You might start your course in September, thinking it will end at the end of December and you may find yourself doing it six months later (because of the occupation)."

Dr Atawneh described student pressure on faculty members who may support another political stream: "If you're affiliated with one stream, you can be attacked by the others . . ."

However, Nabil Abu Zneid, the university's public relations director, who is reportedly close to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and supports the peace process, said: "After 28 years, we have a society built on resignation, resistance, on fighting the occupation. We feel the police are against us. However, we have now become part of the police force. It's hard to believe - that the police are working for us. For the first time, we're building our own institutions. We have to change attitudes."

Founded in 1971 as an Islamic studies college and still known today for its Islamic majority on the student council, Hebron is one of eight universities on the West Bank. But it is considered to be one of the weaker and poorer institutions, according to Lili Feidi, director general for international and cultural relations at the Palestinian ministry of higher education.

The university, a few miles from the centre of Hebron, was closed by the Israeli army last March and only reopened in the new year after demonstrations by the students followed by negotiations.

Mr Abu Zneid said the Israeli government's decision to close the university after bus bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, was "a political one, designed to placate right-wingers and settlers in Hebron". None of its students was arrested for involvement in the bombings.

The university was initially closed for six months but this was renewed in September.

Shlomo Dror, coordinator of activities in the territories, said the closure was because "it has connections with Hamas, its students are known as extremists" and the Israeli authorities decided they had to "fight the structure of Hamas." They found materials in the university "inciting to violence," including video tapes, presenting the bombers as martyrs, books and other written materials.

It was only after they convinced the university authorities to promise to keep "law, order and security" over certain students that the university was reopened.

Hebron is partly funded by the European Union, with the money funnelled through the ministry of higher education. The university receives about $2 million, including $1 million for salaries. It has five faculties: Islamic law, liberal arts, science (chemistry, biology, physics), agriculture, and business and finance. There are 1,600 students and 70 faculty members.

Abdulqadir Jebarine, acting chairman of the history department, said: "Students are supposed to come from all parts of the West Bank, but they can't get in, (because of curfews around Palestinian cities imposed after terrorism activities) so there aren't enough students." He admitted that "students prefer to go to other universities".

The agriculture faculty was initiated in 1987, but only opened in 1990, after the intifada. The faculty has a lab for soil analysis and is involved in several European Union projects, including "Peace Campus", a project for the conservation of plant gene banks in the Mediterranean region. They have also received one million Ecus (Pounds 729,927) to establish a centre for agricultural research.

Abdul Fattah Shamleh, acting dean of the newest faculty of finance and management, said it offers the first practically-oriented course in finance and civil service laws in the West Bank.

A significant attraction is the university's exchange and research programmes with other universities, including Wayne State University in the United States with which it has established a business technical assistance centre, and Sheffield University.

The university also has a programme called "Mid-campus" (a programme of human resources development) which offers training to civil servants and top businessmen and women.

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