Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 1992, pages 20, 82


Hanna Nasir—President of Bir Zeit University

By Andrew I. Killgore

"We shall spirit...[the Palestinians] across the border..."
Theodor Herzl's Diaries (about 1895) 

"I looked over Jordan and what did I see, Coming for to carry me home? A band of angels coming after me, Coming for to carry me home."
—African-American spiritual

Nearly 100 years ago Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism and ultimately of the state of Israel, confided to his diary that the Jewish state which he envisaged creating in Palestine would expel the indigenous Palestinians. Herzl was long dead when Israel was established on Palestinian land in 1948. True to Herzl's original aim, however, Israel terrorized 750,000 Palestinians into fleeing for their lives during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-1949.

In the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, bull-dozers accompanied the invading Israeli army at Jericho in the Jordan Valley. These quickly made rubble of the giant Palestinian refugee camps of Aqabat Jaber and Ein Sultan, while Israeli jets screamed over at roof-top level. Israeli loudspeaker trucks boomed, "Join your Uncle [King] Hussein. He's waiting for you." Another 200,000 refugees from Jericho, the bulldozed camps and other destroyed villages fled in terror across the River Jordan into exile.

A third "slow" exile has pushed tens of thousands of Palestinians out of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in the quarter century that has passed since Israel seized these areas in 1967. The "push" came from Israel's policy of "economic strangulation," designed to make it increasingly difficult for Palestinians to make a living at home. This was accompanied by a ruthless get-rid-of-the-leaders drive under which prominent Palestinians were forcibly seized and hustled out of their country, generally into Lebanon.

This is how Israel "got" Dr. Hanna Nasir, president of the West Bank's Bir Zeit University. He had been a prime target of the drive as early as 1972, when he developed Bir Zeit College into the first Arab university in Palestine. In the 1974 academic year, he had successfully calmed a student body grown restive over harsh Israeli occupation policies and physical interference by Israeli soldiers with campus life.

One midnight in November 1974, Israel struck. Seized by armed Israelis, Nasir was blindfolded, driven across the border into Lebanon and released in the darkness of night. His wife Tania (Tamari) Nasir was left behind with their three sons and one daughter to agonize about his whereabouts and safety. The Israeli army announced that Dr. Nasir had been expelled for promoting demonstrations against the Israeli occupation.

Hanna Nasir moved to Amman, Jordan, where his wife and children joined him when it became obvious that the Israeli authorities meant his expulsion to be permanent. He and his family are victims of a fixed Israeli policy aimed at ridding Palestine of all Palestinians and which, with natural increase, now counts between 2.6 and 3 million exiled victims.

Talking to the family last Easter in Amman, it seemed to me that the pain of being jerked from home and country had imbued the Nasirs with a gritty determination never to accept the fate to which Israel would consign the Palestinians. As an eloquent university president in exile, Hanna speaks often in the U.S. and Europe on the Palestinians, with special emphasis on the Israeli policy of denying them an education since the Palestinian intifada began in December 1987.

From the Bir Zeit University Liaison Office in Amman, Hanna Nasir carries on university administration, raises funds and talks on the Palestinian issue with fact-finding groups visiting the area. During his exile, Bir Zeit has continued to grow. A junior year was added to the curriculum in 1974, followed by the senior year in 1975. In 1978, a Faculty of Commerce and Economics was established, and in 1979 a Faculty of Engineering. The university became a member of both the Association of Arab Universities and the International Association of Universities in 1976.

In January 1988 Israel closed Bir Zeit University entirely, after a long campaign of harassment and acts of violence including shooting and killing of students, administrative detentions, deportations of students and staff, restrictions on receiving books and periodicals and frequent closures. A few weeks ago, after being closed for more than four years, Bir Zeit was allowed to re-open, but for only half of the normal student body of more than 2,000, of whom one-third are women.

Maintaining Academic Standards

In spite of the long closure, classes had continued in student and faculty homes and in rented premises off campus. Notwithstanding the lack of normal access to libraries, laboratories and other facilities, Bir Zeit was able to maintain its academic standards and to graduate students, albeit with extra cost and effort. Similarly, other West Bank universities, secondary and even primary schools have managed somehow to cope with Israel's policy of denying education to Palestinians.

The Nasir and Tamari families are among the great Christian families in a Palestinian society of generally cordial relations between Muslims and Christians. Enrollment at Bir Zeit has always been without regard to religious affiliation.

Dr. Nasir's father, Musa, who headed Bir Zeit College for many years before his death, was a foreign minister of Jordan. Tania (Tamari) Nasir is a painter and opera singer. She dreams of future musical studies in Europe if the Middle East peace process succeeds, and she and her family can go home and claim their birthright.

Ironically, in spite of the misery that accompanied being forced from his home and land, Hanna Nasir has been "liberated" by exile. Out of Israel's physical grip, he was elected in 1978 to the executive committee of the PLO, in charge of higher education. In 1982 he became head of the Palestine National Fund. He is a member of the Palestine National Council, the national legislative body, and the Central Committee of the PLO.

Like his father before him, Hanna Nasir earned a degree (master of science in physics) from the American University of Beirut. He received his Ph.D. degree, also in physics, from Purdue University in the United States. Continuing the family tradition of studying at American institutions, the Nasirs' eldest son, Musa, is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

During their 18 years in Amman, Hanna and Tania Nasir have watched the Jordanian capital expand into mile after mile of white stone villas. The huge new American Embassy's compound of forbidding walls is not-so-jokingly called the Qal'a, or fortress, in Arabic—a brute statement that lots of money and steel-reinforced concrete will protect American diplomats from the consequences of one-sided American policies on the Arab-Israel issue.

The Nasirs long ago created a good home for themselves in a city which, with 300,000 mainly Palestinian-Jordanian citizens displaced from Kuwait, now has 1.5 million inhabitants. Yet the Nasirs ache to return to their own Palestinian homeland.

Obviously, Jordan faces daunting economic problems, but it was not possible to be pessimistic at Easter 1992. Crisp, dry air, brilliant sunlight and thousands of pilgrims lent an almost festive air to Amman. For the first time, despite skepticism born of previous disappointments, there was real hope that this time the United States might really follow through to settle the Palestine problem.

"Will President Bush really force a settlement?" I was constantly asked by old friends.

"Aren't the Zionists too strong for him?"

When I suggested to Hanna Nasir that he and his family might well be back home within three years his optimistic answer surprised me. "If President Bush is re-elected, even within one year, maybe," he said.

If the 44-year Palestinian diaspora ends, for the Nasirs the physical journey home will take them from the 3,000-foot heights of Amman down the twisting roads through spectacular gorges to the lowest point on earth at the Dead Sea, and then up the sere Judean Hills to Jerusalem and on to Bir Zeit.

The even more complex emotions of the spiritual journey home will be sweet for the Nasirs, and all Palestinians, whether or not they choose to return physically to live in a homeland no longer ruled by Israeli guns. It all depends upon the United States of America which, if it stops supplying those guns for subjugation of one people by another, will no longer need to barricade its diplomats into concrete fortresses in Amman and everywhere else in the Arab and Islamic worlds. 

Andrew I. Killgore, a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, is the publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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