- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank

hat does an out-of-work Palestinian strongman, fresh from a devastating election defeat by his own brother, do with the time on his hands?

Jibril Rajoub went back to school to study his adversary: Israel.

He has the skills, perhaps even more so than his teacher. Mr. Rajoub, who speaks fluent Hebrew, spent 17 years in Israeli jails and served as a negotiator with Israel for a decade. Now he is at the West Bank campus of Al Quds, a Palestinian university, pursuing a master’s degree in Israel studies.

“I am trying to be a serious man,” he said.

Mr. Rajoub, 53, is one of dozens of Fatah officials who suddenly found themselves jobless after the party was thrashed by Hamas militants in the January parliamentary elections.

Some, such as former Foreign Minister Nasser Al Kidwa, slipped seamlessly into jobs in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ office. Others took jobs with private companies or are thought to be waiting to take back their old jobs if Hamas falters.

Mr. Rajoub spent more than a decade near the pinnacle of power. He was a close aide to Yasser Arafat, who made him head of the Preventive Security Service in the West Bank, a post that gave him a seat in security talks with Israel. He later became Mr. Arafat’s national security adviser and held the same position under Mr. Abbas, who took over after Mr. Arafat’s death.

He was forced to resign when he ran as a Fatah candidate in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, facing off against his brother, Nayef, a longtime Hamas activist.

“Immediately after we lost, I recharged my batteries, opened a new page,” he said. “I have been involved in politics and the resistance and security, and I thought it was time for me to do something for myself.”

Though he does not have a bachelor’s degree, the school gave him tests and let him enroll in the master’s program in Ramallah, the city from which he once ran his security forces.

Mr. Rajoub’s presence turned his courses into an instant hit.

“So many students wanted to join the class when he came, because he is such an important guy,” said Saed Muwafi, 37, a journalist who is taking classes with Mr. Rajoub.

Fatah officials who weren’t even in the program enrolled in courses with Mr. Rajoub. They included Ziyad Habalreh, a Rajoub protege who is the West Bank head of Preventive Security and a new student in a class on Israeli demography.

On a recent day, Mr. Rajoub, a broad man in a dark pinstriped suit and a shirt unbuttoned at the collar, dominated the demography class.

While the teacher listened patiently, Mr. Rajoub gave a lengthy monologue in his raspy voice about Israel’s deportation of more than 400 Palestinians to Lebanon in 1992, describing the internal deliberations among the Palestinian leadership over how to respond.

In another class, on Israel’s political system, he repeatedly corrected the teacher, Mahmoud Muhareby.

When Mr. Muhareby said the first Israeli election was in November 1949, Mr. Rajoub murmured: “January 25, 1949.”

“Yes, January,” Mr. Muhareby said.

Some students say they are learning more from Mr. Rajoub than from the teacher, and they talk of a classmate who once asked Mr. Muhareby to stop interrupting Mr. Rajoub.

But Mr. Muhareby praised Mr. Rajoub, saying he does all his homework and reading, comes early to every class and brings a wealth of independent knowledge.

“He is one of the best students,” he said. “He has a presence. He is a very amicable person, and he mixes well with the students.”

Mr. Rajoub said he often stays up until 3 a.m. to finish his homework.

Between classes, he takes personal lessons on basic computer skills: using Windows and surfing the Internet.

Rawan Siniore, Mr. Rajoub’s tutor, said the former strongman likes to Google pictures of himself and Mr. Arafat and then explain when they were taken.

Mr. Rajoub looked up from his keyboard and smiled as Mr. Siniore described his vastly improved typing skills.

“I don’t accept compromise, and I don’t tolerate failure,” Mr. Rajoub said.

While some Palestinians think Mr. Rajoub is using his time in the political wilderness to simply burnish his credentials for another stab at power, Mr. Rajoub said he genuinely wants to further his education.

Focusing on Israel is a natural continuation of his quest to learn about his people’s enemy, a process he began when he taught himself Hebrew while imprisoned in Israel, he said.

“I think I know more about Israel than Israeli leaders,” he said, “but I think there are still a lot of things I need to learn.”

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