Arab enrollment jumps at West Bank settler college
By Cynthia Johnston
ARIEL, West Bank (Reuters) – Every day, Nida Hussein takes
a trip that for most Palestinians would be unthinkable — a
two-hour bus ride from Jerusalem to a Jewish settler college in
the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Hussein, an 18-year-old from Arab East Jerusalem, is one of
more than 300 Arab students, many of them Israeli citizens,
enrolled at the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel, a large
settlement cutting deep into land Palestinians want for a
“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
The college, a tree-lined campus on a hilltop, says it
welcomes Arab students — both Israelis and Palestinians — to
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
“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
Arabs, though often torn about studying in a settlement,
say they feel largely comfortable there. Some note they did not
have grades 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
“If you study at Bir Zeit or al-Quds universities, nobody
in Israel recognizes the degrees,” said Adel Hamida, a
20-year-old student from East Jerusalem enrolled in a
pre-college program at Ariel, referring to two prominent
The 320 Arabs enrolled at Ariel make up a tiny proportion
of the college’s student body of 8,500, but their ranks are
rapidly rising even if most oppose Israel’s occupation of the
West Bank. A year ago, the school had just 235 Arabs.
Palestinians from East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in
1967 in a move that was not recognized internationally, also
attend the college at Ariel, but there are no Palestinian
students from the rest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The college says it would accept them, but none have
applied against the backdrop of a 5-year-old Palestinian
uprising and Israeli-imposed travel restrictions in the West
Zainab Alayan, an 18-year-old from East Jerusalem, said she
enrolled in the settler 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.”
In a controversial move in May ahead of Israel’s pullout
from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation, 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, right-wing 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.
The students, many of whom struggle with the political
implications of their choice of school, 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 peacemaking.
“I am Israeli, definitely Muslim, Arab and Palestinian. It
is a difficult identity,” said Mahmoud Hamash, a third year
criminology student from the Arab town of Jisr al-Zarqa. “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 more tense, 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,” said Ravital Sabag, a
recent criminology graduate, as she sat outside a campus
cafeteria. “I think it is not good to bring more Arabs. I don’t
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.”