Fallout in the Middle East

Colleges in Lebanon and Israel -- with many American students enrolled for the summer -- deal with return of violence to the region.
July 17, 2006

For colleges in Lebanon and Israel, recent years have been remarkably encouraging. As the violence of civil war in Lebanon and the Intifada in Israel subsided, normalcy had returned, and with it came more American students and professors. The expanding war between Israel and Hezbollah during the last week -- both in Lebanon and in Israel -- has shocked educators. To date, there are no reports of casualties on the campuses in the region, but programs are being adjusted, students are trying to leave, and fear has returned.

"Students and faculty, especially international faculty, are in various gradations concerned, depressed, scared and terrified," said Peter Heath, provost of the American University of Beirut, in an e-mail interview. On Sunday, he announced that the university would suspend its summer session -- until further notice -- because of the warfare.

Fighting has been loud, but has not come closer than a few miles from the campus, he said, and the university is not a target of any of the combatants. Beirut's airport has been hit and is shut down. Heath said that officials at his university and U.S. embassy officials are in agreement that students are safer on the campus than they would be trying to leave the country because roads to Syria are being bombed.

"As soon as possible, we will make all possible efforts to get international students out of the country," Heath said.

Several hundred Americans are on the campus this semester. One of those studying Arabic, Joanne Nucho of the University of California at Los Angeles, told MSNBC that she was huddled in a dormitory with 40 other American students. "I've never been this scared in my life," she said. "Two hours ago I was curled up in a corner crying. The sounds of the bombs are shaking me to the bones. My whole body is in trauma."

Lebanese American University, also in Beirut, has a statement posted on its Web site stating that its campuses are open but that classes have been called off for today. All foreign students and faculty members have been moved to a campus in Byblos, in northern Lebanon, according to the statement.

But it's not clear that all of those students moved to the northern campus. Ryan Burnette, who graduated in May from Georgetown College in Kentucky, enrolled at Lebanese American this summer to prepare for a graduate program he'll be starting at the University of Kentucky in the fall. The Louisville Courier-Journal quoted him as saying that he stayed in Beirut, rather than going north, because he thinks his chances of being evacuated are better in Beirut. About 10 students from Florida State University are believed to be enrolled at Lebanese American this summer.

On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut said that it was preparing evacuation plans for Americans, to Cyprus, where they could seek commercial transport home. Some of those evacuations have started, including one with the Kentucky student.

In Israel, which also attracts many American students, the bombing by Hezbollah this weekend forced two universities in Haifa, the Technion and the University of Haifa, to shut down temporarily and to suspend exams and work assignments. During the attacks, the universities made use of bomb shelters for students and employees. About 250 students from outside Israel -- many of them from the United States -- attend an intensive Hebrew program at the University of Haifa during the summer, and the university pledged in a statement to take "full responsibility for these students and their safety."

Hanan Alexander, head of the Department of Overseas Studies at Haifa, said in an e-mail interview that about 30 students have left the country because of the attacks on Haifa. When the university decided to shut down activities, Hebrew University of Jerusalem offered temporary housing to foreign students at Haifa and the students were taken to Jerusalem Sunday evening, where they will participate in educational programs for a few days while Haifa figures out its plans. Alexander said that many students are anxious to continue their programs and that the university wanted to resume the program -- either in Haifa or at another location.

While Alexander said that some students were "emotional" during their time in the bomb shelters, most handled the situation quite well. He said that staff members were with the students and created "an atmosphere of calm and confidence among the students, many of whom sat and studied Hebrew in small groups on their own, while waiting for the all-clear sign to leave the shelters."

A statement from the Technion said that students were in exams when the rockets hit Haifa. Exams were stopped and students have been advised not to come to campus until further notice. A spokesman for the Technion said that about 20 American students are currently enrolled at its medical school.

The situation is more stable for Israel's other universities, which are south of the points Hezbollah can reach. The Rothberg International School of Hebrew University of Jerusalem has been posting regular updates for parents of foreign students, noting that they have been offered briefings on security, access to psychological counseling, and lectures about the crisis. The letter -- from Jaime Kapitulnik, the provost -- says that there is no need for students to leave. Kapitulnik's letter adds that the university is trying to keep a "business as usual" attitude so that students could benefit from their academic programs.

The increased tensions in the Middle East come at a time that many students have been pushing colleges in the United States to make it easier for students to participate in programs in Israel.

In another development in Israel, The Akron Beacon Journal reported that a professor of geography at the University of Akron was being detained by Israeli officials.

While that professor was visiting family members, the violence in the Middle East also underscores the difficulty of scholars in conducting research in the region. The new issue of the journal PS: Political Science & Politics features a symposium on the topic.


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