Officials and teachers of the Arab universities in the occupied West Bank reacted skeptically today to the Israeli Defense Ministry's decision to alter the demand that foreign teachers at the schools pledge not to provide assistance to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Col. Yigal Karmon, acting head of the civil administration in the West Bank, has summoned officials from the three universities--Bethlehem, Bir Zeit and Najah -- to a meeting Wednesday to explain the new work permit requirements for foreign nationals in the territory.
The Defense Ministry announced last night that it was dropping its demand that the foreign teachers sign a pledge that they will offer no assistance to the PLO before they are granted work permits for the current academic year. Instead, it announced that all foreign workers in the occupied territories will be given new work permit applications that contain language similar to the anti-PLO pledge.
If that is the case, said Leighton Pratt, a lecturer at Bir Zeit University and one of more than 100 foreign teachers threatened with expulsion from the West Bank for refusing to sign the pledge, the issue may not have been settled.
"If the text has been incorporated into the work permit application . . . then I wouldn't think the situation has changed at all," Pratt said in a radio interview. "This is no change. I can't see any change in our position, or in the position of the American State Department."
Brother Thomas Scanlan, vice chancellor of Bethlehem University, said, "If they simply take the whole statement and put it in the work permit, they haven't done anything."
[In Washington, State Department spokesman John Hughes, while cautioning that the United States will have "to see in greater detail what is actually happening," added: "But certainly we welcome what appears to be taking place. It seems to be a moderation of the earlier position, and we welcome that."]
The Israeli civil administration began requiring the anti-PLO pledge in September and since then has deported 22 foreign teachers -- all but two of them Palestinian holders of Jordanian passports -- for refusing to sign it. The other foreign nationals, including several Americans, have been threatened with expulsion when their tourist visas expire. Several of them have been ordered to stop teaching in the meantime.
The dispute became a major issue in Israel last week when Secretary of State George P. Shultz sided with the teachers, criticizing the Israeli policy as an infringement on academic freedom. Even before the U.S. criticism, a number of Israeli academics had begun to circulate a petition in support of their colleagues at the Arab universities.
According to a Defense Ministry announcement, the new application for work permits in the West Bank will contain a clause pledging that the permit holder will "refrain from any action harming security and public order and will, in this context, obey all the law's stipulations and security legislation forbidding any action or providing any service that can be construed as aiding or supporting the PLO or any other hostile organization."
Albert Aghazarian, the spokesman for Bir Zeit, said teachers there were "wavering between settling the issue or saying they haven't changed anything." He said a definite reaction from the universities and their foreign faculty members is unlikely before the meeting Wednesday with Karmon.
In the past, the teachers have objected to any statement that specifically mentioned the PLO, saying this would inevitably draw them into the most heated political issue in the region and was unnecessary, since even under the previous procedure they pledged to obey all the laws of Israel and the occupied territory. They charged that the anti-PLO pledge was an attempt by Israel to disrupt if not close the Arab universities.
Israeli officials have rejected criticism that the pledge infringes on academic freedom and have portrayed it as simply an attempt to provide additional guarantees for their country's security.