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Danger Zone

SESAME Field Trip: Warning! You are entering Area A

DW's Zulfikar Abbany was one of seven science journalists on a field trip to Jordan. Things were about to get complicated in Bethlehem. This is part four his Middle East diary.

(Go back to the start of Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME Field Trip diary here.)

It's quite possible to drive through an Israeli checkpoint into the West Bank and not even realize it. If you're not paying attention.

And especially if your taxi's running Israeli plates.

Rock up with Palestinian plates, however, and you might not make it through at all.

Rubble and a billboard for stretch marks creme in Bethlehem (DW/Z. Abbany)

Rubble in Bethlehem: It's not what a virgin visitor would think to find in the birthplace of Christ

But you cannot help notice how the landscape evolves from the stylish mesh of modernity and heritage in Jerusalem to the dusty, rubble roads of the West Bank.

Read more: The West Bank and the Jordan Valley explained

You may encounter a red road sign warning Israelis that they're entering areas under Palestinian authority — "This road leads to Area 'A'… Entrance For Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives And Is Against The Israeli Law."


A common red sign in the West Bank, warning Israeli citizens they are entering Area A (DW/Z. Abbany)

Warning! This red sign found on roadsides throughout the West Bank telling Israeli citizens that "Area A" is dangerous

And then you're in it.

It began in Bethlehem

After a brief stop at our hotel, we piled back into taxis headed for Bethlehem University.

We were hours late for a meeting with Dr. Jamal Ghabboun, head of the university's physics department and Secretary of the SESAME Users' Committee.

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On his departmental website, Ghabboun writes that "physics is crucial to our young Palestinian society." And it's easy to trust his conviction.

Ghabboun studied in France and returned to what is, essentially, an underfunded, dilapidated institute. "I wanted to help my country," he says.

Bethlehem University's Physics Department survives on donated equipment — discarded gear from Britain in the 1950s and 60s, or a 3D printer from the University of Dresden Germany.

Read more: Israel begins demolition of Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem

Dr. Jamal Ghabboun of Bethlehem University (DW/Z. Abbany)

Dr. Jamal Ghabboun of Bethlehem University holds a tiny solar cell in his right hand, passionate about the potential for photovoltaics in Palestine

But what they really need is an X-ray.

"We take it day by day," said Ghabboun as we stood in a virtually empty lab. 

Money, money, money

Finding money for science is always a problem. The question for Palestine is whether that's an issue of priorities or a simple lack of funds.  

"It's not a priority," he told us. "Maybe freedom is a priority. Making people feel safe is a priority. Improving their lives… Access to electricity and clean, drinking water."

Read more: Israeli soldier found stabbed to death in West Bank: army

But we see how improvements come through science, I pressed Ghabboun, so how do you communicate that to the people who would perhaps make it a priority?

Donated electrical equipment in the physics department at Bethlehem University (DW/Z. Abbany)

The physics department at Bethlehem University relies on donated equipment, much of it decades old

What follows is a transcript from my audio, barely edited for length and comprehension:

JG: If you do research that concerns people's lives, making their lives better, then maybe it is a breakthrough. I told you about the Department of Biology, which is researching diseases that spread through the Palestinian territory… I mean, in Palestine… But we also need other research, such as solar energy. There's a lot of sun in our country. So, why not make this a priority? But we don't have this priority now, because of the political situation, the occupation, so many things. Okay?"

Solar cells in a petri dish at Bethlehem University (DW/Z. Abbany)

Nothing growing: solar cells in a petri dish

ZA: So, solar power… The SESAME synchrotron is the first of its kind to run entirely on solar power…

JG: SESAME? No, I will not go through this. For SESAME you'll have to ask someone from the ministry. We are not supposed to give… erm, ah… Anyway. To use SESAME you have to prepare your samples, and we don't have the infrastructure to prepare our samples. But, no, through SESAME, we are not expecting a lot. We will… You will have to ask someone from the ministry to tell you more. There is a national committee and the head of that committee can tell you more."

All I'll say is, 'No comment'

Now, naive as I am, I would have thought — in fact, we all thought — that Ghabboun, as a Palestinian representative at SESAME and Secretary of the SESAME Users' Committee, would have been in a perfectly good position to answer any question on the synchrotron.

But, clearly, there were pressures at work to which we were blind.

Handcrafted poster reading Physics is the basic of the basics (DW/Z. Abbany)

As the poster says, "Physics is the basic of the basics," but Bethlehem University's physics department lacks basic funding

For instance, Ghabboun estimated that if global science standards were on a scale of 1 to 10, Palestine was at about 2 or 3. At best. So even if they wanted to collaborate in a project like SESAME — if they were allowed to collaborate — and applied for beamtime, chances are they wouldn't get it.

So much was on the record. After that, Ghabboun turned reticent, and uttered three words that journalists fear most.

Copper wire contraption perched on top of a cupboard (DW/Z. Abbany)

Random bits of science strewn around an otherwise bare physics lab at Bethlehem University

"This is now is off the record."

What he said stays between him, me, the rest of the group and my illegible, hand-written notes. I had switched off my mic.

Over in the biology department, Ghabboun's colleague, Dr. Omar Darissa, was working on pharmaceuticals. In fact, Darissa has a collaboration with a research center in Germany called the Forschungszentrum Jülich. 

"We are trying to extract pharmaceuticals from new isolates of algae," Darissa said in his cramped lab. It was about the size of the kitchen at a "greasy spoon café" in London, and it was about as poorly stocked as one, too.

Stacked petri dishes and glass beakers in a biochemistry lab at Bethlehem University (DW/Z. Abbany)

In a biochemistry lab at Bethlehem University, the beakers and dishes look worse for wear

"The West Bank has never been properly screened for new species of algae," he said. "And if we find any with a known chemical potential, we will produce it in large amounts."

Watch video 05:33

Green power

The goal is to establish a bioreactor at the Mar Andrea campus to commercially produce pharmaceuticals, and also to get benefits from the biomass of the algae for fertilizers and so on.

"That's our work with Jülich," he said.

With strings attached

Those are grand plans that involve an exchange of knowledge and staff. But, as with Ghabboun's plans for physics, Darissa's biology department relies heavily on Palestine's political will.

"Personally, I don't like funds with conditions where you have to collaborate or not. Even if the Palestinian Authority allows it, I need to feel free that I can choose, and that I'm not only getting the funds because I am willing to cooperate with an Israeli scientist," Darissa said.

Day to day, the political situation creates restrictions for Palestinian research. Although there is one positive, even though it's one that comes from a negative.

About three quarters of the students at Bethlehem University are women. And a large proportion of its staff are too. But that's only because men won't accept the low pay and low job security that the university can afford to offer.

The images of men stencilled on walls in Bethlehem (DW/Z. Abbany)

A common image of men in the West Bank: Their faces stencilled on walls

Read more: Palestinian 'honor killing' sparks outrage, calls for women's protection

"In Palestinian culture, women work like men, but it's not necessary for women to earn the money for the house. That's a man's responsibility," said Darissa. "Most researchers here are female because no male will agree to work on a subcontract, and after a year I tell them I have no funds because of the political situation. So they go and look for a permanent job."

A skewed gender balance

As in other countries, women are underpaid in Palestine, too. But it's not like the university has much choice.

"That's the main obstacle we face — we don't have the researchers and we don't have the funds, and because of the checkpoints … " he said. "Some of our researchers are from Jerusalem and they have better opportunities there. You spend six months of training them and as soon as they get another job, they leave you, and you have to train another team again. This is a big problem."

So, I nudged, what will bring the change… a project like SESAME?

And that was the end of another conversation.

OD: This is the specialization of Jamal. I have no big idea.

A man sits at his stall and behind him a painted slogan on a wall reads Boycott Israel (DW/Z. Abbany)

There is no escaping sentiments in the West Bank: Here, a man sits casually at his roadside stall and behind him a painted slogan on a wall reads "Boycott Israel"

ZA: How about a small idea?

OD: If they support biology without any political pressure, I am always willing to establish a team and work.

Deep cuts

It's almost impossible to write this up without cutting close to the bone. But this is the sum of things so far. For some, SESAME is not purely a scientific facility.

Some see it also as a political symbol peace.

Read more: Israel: Archaeologists uncover 1,200-year-old mosque

But the Palestinian scientists we met aren't interested in symbols of peace.

They want real peace. They also want to do science on their terms, in their labs, with the freedom to spend their funds as they see fit.

And that comes with conditions.

Panorama of Bethlehem from a rooftop at Bethlehem University (DW/Z. Abbany)

Bethlehem, a world apart from Jerusalem

For now, one thing is certain when it comes to SESAME: Palestinian scientists will feel damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

If they engage with SESAME without sanction from the Palestinian Authority, they could get their knuckles rapped. Serious trouble.

If they don't engage, Israeli politicians may say, "See, we want to collaborate, but they don't."

That's the politics. And in the middle, you have scientists from both sides.

Read more from Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME Field Trip diary:

Rocky road to science and diplomacy (part 1)

Reality checks in Jerusalem (part 2)

Models of science and society (part 3)


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