University Of Peace

SOE student and Arafat relative Taweel leads effort to start an Arab-Israeli university

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

It seems the unlikeliest of dreams: a "University of the Middle East" where Arabs and Israelis can study side by side, debating their region's problems in an atmosphere free of acrimony.

Yet School of Education doctoral candidate Hala Taweel, sister-in-law of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, is determined that this vision become a reality in her strife-torn homeland.

Taweel is president of the board of directors of the University of the Middle East Project, an initiative by a group of Arab and Israeli graduate students in Boston to establish a system of colleges across the Middle East and North Africa. Plans call for three flagship campuses in Israel, Palestine and Egypt, with Israelis required to study for a year in an Arab country and Arabs for a year in Israel.

"We know what our differences are. We want to find out what we have in common," said Taweel in a recent interview. "The University of the Middle East should be a place where we can talk openly of our feelings about the past. We should debate without fear, without bombs."

SOE doctoral candidate Hala Taweel. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Boston College's experience in bringing together Catholic and Protestant business executives from Ireland through the Irish Institute was one of the factors that drew Taweel to the University, she said, and has provided some inspiration for her efforts.

Taweel, an intern at the institute, sees "lots of similarities" between the embattled Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods of Ulster and the Palestinian sections of the Israeli-occupied West Bank where she was raised.

"There is the same violence. I'm sure we lived the same childhoods," she said. "Hopefully the work of the Irish Institute will inspire our project."

Taweel is a member of a prominent Palestinian Catholic family: Her mother, Raymonda, is a journalist who runs a press agency in Jerusalem; her sister, Suha, is Arafat's wife. Taweel has held diplomatic posts in Romania and Algeria, and accompanied Arafat as a member of the Palestinian delegation on several official visits to Europe.

The idea for the University of the Middle East was hatched by an Israeli-American after the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Project organizers are now applying to foundations for grants. Their hope is to raise $500,000 for a feasibility study of the project as well as for a pilot program this summer, possibly at a campus in Morocco.

Taweel says she envisions the university as a seedbed for a more peaceful Middle East, where youngsters will not grow up, as she did, under the shadow of guns. She was raised in the town of Ramallah, which came under Israeli occupation following the Six-Day War in 1967, when she was only two.

"I lived all my life under occupation," she said. "It was so hard for my parents to send us to school, often not knowing if we would return [due to violence]. I don't want my children to live the life I lived.

"Between Israelis and Palestinians, there is often no more than a street's separation," she said. "We have to learn to live with each other. We have learned how to hate each other, through wars, through history. It's the 21st century - it's time to stop the hatred."

Today, she is studying Hebrew, a language she first acquired haltingly as a teenager to navigate Israeli security checkpoints. "I learned Hebrew so I could communicate with my enemy," Taweel recalled. "Now, I'm learning Hebrew with a different concept: I want to be able to communicate with my Israeli friends."

She says she is "optimistic" that her envisioned oases of academe can flourish in the often hostile climate of the Middle East. But she acknowledges that each new report of violence from the region invites skepticism that such an ideal of Arab-Israeli collegiality can ever be realized.

"That's why we want to do it," she said. "We want to establish relationships between the people of the region. We have to break the stereotypes by bringing people to work together."

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