The Israeli government has told eight foreign professors, including four Americans, that they will not be allowed to teach any longer at a Palestinian Arab university that has been the scene of frequent political protests.
Moreover, eight Israeli Arab professors reportedly have been told by the military government that they cannot travel to the West Bank to teach at Bir Zeit University, the occupied territories' largest university which is, in effect, a Palestinian national college.
The acting president of Bir Zeit, Gabi Baramki, charged this week that the Israeli actions against the foreign visiting professors amount to expulsion from Israeli, and are part of a systematic Israeli attempt to ruin the university.
A day after first refusing to comment on the Bir Zeit allegations, the occupation government yesterday told reporters it has no intention of denying work permits to visiting foreign professors at Bir Zeit nor any intention of causing harm to the university.
A military government official said that the status of all temporary residents, including correspondents, is subject to periodic review by the authorities, and that the Bir Zeit professors were not the object of any harassment or intimidation.
However, one of the eight foreign professors, Nafez Nazzal, who is Palestinian by birth but holds a U.S. passport, said he did not trust the military government's statement of denial.
"I would hope they were reversing a lower-level decision, but I suspect they are playing game with us," he said.
Bir Zeit, located about 10 miles north of the West Bank city of Ramallah, has been closed by the military governor during past demonstrations against Israeli occupation. Its president, Hana Nasir, was expelled from Israel in November, 1974, during demonstrations precipitated by Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat's speech at the United Nations.
Many Israeli regard Bir Zeit as a center of political dissension, the West Bank's equivalent of the University of California at Berkeley. However, the alleged actions against the visiting professors, coupled with a series of other restrictive measures imposed by the local military governor, have raised questions among scholars here and elsewhere over whether an atmosphere of academic freedom can even exist in a military occupation zone.
Since Palestinian educators living abroad have not been given access to the Israeli occupied territories, the university relies heavily on foreign teachers who are given temporary resident status and are issued work permits.
About teachers need work permits, and university officials expressed concern that more foreign teachers would be denied permission to remain.
"This sort of thing can cripple us. We're already under tremendous pressure from the military governor, but if they take away our faculty, what do we have left?," said Mohammed Hallaj, head of the liberal arts program.
Three of the four American professors were told in April that they would have to leave Israel immediately, although no reason was given, Baramki said in an interview. He said the military governor's office later reversed itself, and said the Americans, along with four other foreign professors, could remain until the end of the semester on July 7.
The other foreign professors include a British citizen, a Canadian, a Palestinian with American and Jordanian passports, and a Palestinian with American and Israeli passports.
The fourth American, a Palestinian by birth who became naturalized in the United States, was summoned yesterday to the military governor's office and told he was "finshed at Bir Zeit," according to university officials. No explanation was given, the officials said.
Baramki said none of the eight foreign professors has been especially active in Palestinian political causes, and that he could detect no pattern to the work permit refusals, which he said will not allow them to remain in Israel, unless they stay as non-working tourists.
The Americans included Robert Adkins, a retired U.S. Air Force officer who taught for eight years at American University in Washington, and who was deputy director of the Institute for Education Research.
Also included are Donald Holroyd, an English professor from York College in Pennsylvania; Hugh Harcourt, a philosophy teacher from Portland State University, and Wasif Abbousini, the Palestinian-born American, who is a senior professor at the University of Cincinatti.
Bir Zeit faculty members and administrators interviewed said none of the foreign teachers were extraordinary active politically. They said one, Richard Lorch, of Manchester, England, is an avowed conservative whose principal interest is medieval Arabic astronomy.
"I think this list is deliberately disguised to obscure the point of what they are doing, "Which is to undermine the university," said Harcourt, who formerly taught at the American University in Beirut. "None of us has ever sat down and discussed anything political. I barely know some people on the list," he added.
Harcourt, along with other professors, said they were distressed that once their case receives public attention, it will detract from what they called harsh and arbitrary treatment of Palestinian students at Bir Zeit, which has an enrollment of 900.
"I think the university should prepare itself for more harassment next year," Harcourt said.
Baramki said his efforts to reverse the government decision have been frustrated because, although from time to time he has been given second-hand indications that the government was thinking of rescinding the work permit denials, he has yet to receive any written communication.
The work permit controversy is the latest in a series of clashes between the faculty and students and the military authority in the West Bank.
One professor, Tasir Aruri, recently was released after 44 months in prison on administrative detention without being charged with a crime.
University administrators complained that Bir Zei, unlike Jewish universities in Israel, is required to pay duty on equipment and textbooks it imports, and that faculty members who try to travel to Amman, Jordan, over the Allenby Bridge often are turned back by authorities. Moreover, they said, students and faculty members often are summoned from classrooms and interrogated by the military government.
They said a pattern of harrassment goes back to the end of the 1967 Six Day War, when the university had to submit all its textbooks for approval.
In December, 1973, Bir Zeit was closed for two weeks by the military governor after demonstrations precipitated by the deportation of eight prominent West Bank residents. The village of Bir Zeit was cordoned off by the Israeli army, and the university finally complained to the United Nations through UNESCO.