The New Zealand-born vice chancellor of Bethlehem University, Br Peter Bray FSC, says a climate of fear has enveloped the West Bank as violence there threatens to explode in addition to the war on Gaza.
“In my 15 years living here I’ve never experienced Palestinians being so frightened,” he told The Catholic Weekly in an interview by Zoom from Bethlehem, which is under lockdown.
“They are just so conscious of the brutality underway in Gaza and the lack of any respect for life there.
“And the thinking is, ok once they’ve finished with Gaza, what’s going to happen on the West Bank?”
One of Br Bray’s third-year students, Khaled Al-Muhtasibb, was killed in Jerusalem on 12 October and both the president of the student senate and a security guard were arrested on different occasions but later released amid tightened security measures and clashes with authorities.
The university has lost contact with all of its graduates in Gaza but Br Bray learnt through the Latin Patriarchate’s office that a number of students of a new online course had been recently killed.
“There’s a notice in Jerusalem that if any Palestinians supported anything on social media they can be arrested,” Br Bray said.
“It’s an attempt to keep them under control I think and to avoid hyping people up about the brutality of the occupation.”
He said people were worried at the news that Israel’s security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir had begun issuing thousands of assault rifles to civilian “security teams,” including members of the illegal “settler” movement throughout the West Bank, amid increasing clashes and reports of Palestinians being driven from their homes and properties.
“And so often the settlers are accompanied by soldiers to protect them. So it’s a chaotic and incredibly disempowering experience for Palestinians,” Br Bray said.
“I’m very much of the opportunity that what’s happening now is a game-changer. It’s not going to be possible to go back to what it was before October 7.”
Around 170 Palestinians are reported to have been killed in the West Bank including 46 children, 2,500 injured, more than 2000 arrested and more than a dozen communities displaced since the 7 October terror attacks by Hamas on Israeli military and citizens.
The university’s eighth vice-chancellor had signalled his desire to retire in December before violence broke out.
In the meantime, Br Bray said that the university remains an “oasis of sanity” and safe but mostly empty—with Bethlehem’s entry checkpoints sealed, all classes have moved online.
Counselling is being offered but it is a struggle to engage students and faculty on academic matters when they are worried about their relatives and friends in Gaza, and grieving deaths, Br Bray said.
One graduate living nearby said his wife’s immediate and extended family members were among nearly 20 people killed by an airstrike on an adjacent building while they were sheltering in the St Porphyrios Greek Orthodox Church on 19 October.
With the tourism and pilgrimage industry stopped and work permits for Palestinians now useless, many West Bank families are also without an income for the foreseeable future.
“Psychologically, it is having a devastating impact,” Br Bray said.
“But on campus it’s a beautiful autumn here, very quiet and it’s very surreal because if I hadn’t been watching the news, I’d have no idea that 60kms from here 100s of Palestinians are being killed.”
Br Bray has been accused of being “unbalanced” in his perspective on this latest war in the Holy Land, “but this is not a balanced situation,” he said.
“We at Bethlehem University are opposed to any killing, full stop. But this has been going on for 75 years.
“As I look at it the Palestinian people have been in that concentration camp (of Gaza) for 16 years now.
“There’s no future and no hope for them there.
“People interpret that to mean I approve of what Hamas did but that’s not the point, I think it’s important to see the wider context in which that happened.”