The Israeli government appears to be shunning a Palestinian peace studies course – even as a third intifada escalates.
The Arab world’s first Master’s degree in Peace Studies – developed by a Bethlehem college – is getting the brush-off from a government whose commitment to peace is already being questioned from within the Jewish world.*
Bethlehem Bible College (BBC) aims to train Muslim, Christian, and Jewish peacemakers to build bridges instead of walls.
But 24-year-old ‘William’, a Canadian, and one of five international students in the inaugural class, cannot obtain a student visa.
Instead he must come and go every three months as a tourist. Afraid of deportation, he shields his identity online and makes no mention of his studies to the authorities.
‘My fear is maybe they would become aware of what I’m doing and reject any subsequent tourist visas,’ William, using a pseudonym, told Lapido.
‘It has been a step of faith, but I figured I would just take the risk and do it.’
BBC was established in 1979 to offer theological education to Palestinian Christian leaders. William is motivated to help Christians in the West shift away from theological positions that are biased towards Israel.
Accredited by the Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education, BBC has a long history of opposition to the Israeli occupation. It was founded by Bishara Awad, brother of Mubarak Awad, who in 1983 created the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence.
Often called the Gandhi of Palestine, Awad was deported by Israel in 1988. He returned to teach the first MA module, but like William and the team of international professors, he also had to come as a tourist.
According to the 2012 European Commission report, Higher Education in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, international students are able to enrol in Palestinian universities.
In practice, however, it is ‘very rare’ due to the difficulty of obtaining Israeli permission to enter the country.
William was advised by the BBC not even to try. But this has not stopped him from full immersion in Palestinian society, gaining a first-hand education that peace studies students in other universities can only read about.
On 5 October he witnessed an angry crowd of hundreds passing by campus. They chanted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and threw stones at security after 13-year-old Abdel Rahman Abdullah was shot in the chest by Israeli security.
He describes witnessing the agony of Abdullah’s brother [pictured above in blue hat]. ‘It was heart wrenching,’ he says.
‘He was weeping and flailing, his anguish was so horrible to see. I’m tearing up just thinking about it right now.’
For Nayef Hashlamoun, a veteran Muslim activist from Hebron and one of two Muslim students in the programme, witnessing such anguish has become commonplace.
‘My life is for my homeland, but I cannot kill,’ he said. ‘I choose the way of nonviolence, I choose instead to carry a camera.’
Hashlamoun worked for twenty years with Reuters as a photojournalist, and founded the Watan conflict resolution centre in 1985.
He has pursued peace studies at American University and the School for International Training in Vermont, but events in Palestine always brought him back.
Over time he became friends with the Awads, who invited him to BBC. Mubarak Awad went on to found Nonviolence International, which has translated much of the literature on peace studies into Arabic.
‘They are Christians and I am Muslim, but I will be proud to have a degree from BBC as our relations are as brothers,’ he said. ‘And now I can pursue my education at home.’
The three-semester MA is taught in English and requires 39 credit hours, including a practicum or thesis.
It features distinguished professors from around the world including Nancy Erbe, Fulbright Specialist in Peace and Conflict Resolution, Mohamed Abu Nimer, Director of the Peacebuilding and Development Institute at American University, and Edward Kaufman, formerly of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University.
Jews are welcome at the centre, but none has so far enrolled. Two of the twelve students identify as nonreligious, and four local Palestinians are auditing.
Jonathan Kuttab, chairman of the BBC board and a human rights lawyer in Israel and Palestine, hopes officials from Fatah and Hamas will also join.
‘Nonviolence is far more effective than violence, which certainly has not helped us in working for our rights,’ he told Lapido. ‘For me, this is an easy sell.’
In the current context Kuttab is critical of Benjamin Netanyahu for provoking violence from Palestinians. But he also criticises Mahmoud Abbas for policing his own people on Israel’s behalf at the expense of nonviolent resistance.
‘There is a lot of acceptance of nonviolence in the Palestinian community,’ he said, ‘but the Palestinian Authority has been so weak in pursuing our rights that it has given peace a bad name.’
Education is limited in its direct impact, said Kuttab. But he is hopeful that beyond increased international attention in peace studies circles, the programme will deepen local commitment to nonviolence through strong engagement with the academic literature.
‘We have to revive what real peace and real nonviolence mean,’ he said.
‘Bethlehem is the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, where else should we have this programme?’
No spokesman was available from the Israeli government as this story went to press.
*War Against the People: Israel, The Palestinians and Global Pacification by Jeff Halper, published by Pluto Press. 2015.
This article was first published at Lapido Media.