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SESAME Field Trip: You are entering Area A!

September 25, 2019

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

Political images on a wall in Bethlehem
Image: DW/Z. Abbany

(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
Rubble in Bethlehem: It's not what a virgin visitor would think to find in the birthplace of Christ Image: DW/Z. Abbany

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
Warning! This red sign found on roadsides throughout the West Bank tells Israeli citizens that "Area A" is dangerousImage: DW/Z. Abbany

And then you're in it. We were in it — a group of science journalists on a field trip through Israel, the Palestinian territories and onto a synchrotron called SESAME in Jordan. We had spent a day or so in Jerusalem and departed for Bethlehem on a Monday afternoon. 

Bethlehem or bust

After a brief stop at our hotel, and a bite to eat, 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." 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 — gear discarded 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
Dr. Ghabboun of Bethlehem University holds a tiny solar cell, passionate about the potential for photovoltaics in PalestineImage: DW/Z. Abbany

What they really need is an X-ray.

"We take it day by day," said Ghabboun as we stood in his 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, so how do you communicate that to the people who could perhaps make it a priority, I pressed Ghabboun.

Donated electrical equipment in the physics department at Bethlehem University
The physics department at Bethlehem University relies on donated equipment, much of it decades oldImage: DW/Z. Abbany

What follows is a transcript of 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
Nothing growing: solar cells in a petri dishImage: DW/Z. Abbany

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."

Awkward conversation

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 we were wrong. There were pressures at work to which we were blind.

Handcrafted poster reading "Physics is the basic of the basics"
As the poster says, "Physics is the basic of the basics," but Bethlehem University's physics lab lacks basic fundingImage: DW/Z. Abbany

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, anyway. After that, Ghabboun turned reticent, and uttered those three words that journalists fear most.

"This is now is off the record."

No one likes to hear that but you have to respect it. So what he said stays between him, me, the rest of the group and my illegible, hand-written notes. I had switched off my mic.

Copper wire contraption perched on top of a cupboard
Random bits of science strewn around an otherwise bare physics lab at Bethlehem UniversityImage: DW/Z. Abbany

Over in the biology department, Ghabboun's colleague, Dr. Omar Darissa, was working on pharmaceuticals. 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
In a biochemistry lab at Bethlehem University, the beakers and dishes look worse for wearImage: DW/Z. Abbany

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

The goal is to establish a bioreactor at the university's Mar Andrea campus, where they would commercially produce pharmaceuticals, and also to get benefits from the biomass of the algae for fertilizers.

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

Those are big plans that will require 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 to do that.

"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.

A skewed gender balance

Day to day, the political situation creates restrictions for Palestinian research, and many of the stories we heard seemed to confirm that. It painted a rather negative image. Even among the positive aspects, there were negatives woven in.

For instance, about three quarters of the students at Bethlehem University are women. And a large proportion of its staff are too. You would think that was a positive. But it's only because Palestinian men won't accept the low pay and low job security offered by the university.

The images of men stencilled on walls in Bethlehem
A common image of men in the West Bank: Their faces stencilled on wallsImage: DW/Z. Abbany

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, if after a year I tell them I have no funds because of the political situation. So, they go and look for a permanent job elsewhere."

Circle back

As in other countries, women are underpaid in Palestine. 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. 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"
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"Image: DW/Z. Abbany

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 as a political tool and a mere symbol of peace.

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

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

They wanted 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.

Panorama of Bethlehem from a rooftop at Bethlehem University
Bethlehem, a world apart from JerusalemImage: DW/Z. Abbany

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. It could bring serious trouble.

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

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

That was part four of Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME Field Trip diary. Read more:

"We Palestinians pray for peace" (part five)


DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI, the mind, how science touches people, European perspectives
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