New Scientist Magazine
Interview: Breaking the barriers
26 February 2005
Moien Kanaan is associate professor of molecular genetics and director of the Hereditary Research
Lab at Bethlehem University. Karen Avraham is professor in the department of human genetics and
molecular medicine at Tel Aviv University. They are investigating the genes behind inherited
deafness with Mary-Claire King at the University of Washington in Seattle, on a grant from the
National Institutes of Health. Their collaboration is also part-funded by money from the Dan David
prize, which allows a Palestinian from Bethlehem University to study in Avraham's lab in Tel Aviv
What is it like doing science in a Palestinian university today?
Much of the Palestinian territories are occupied by the Israeli army, so it is very difficult. I'll give you an
example. My lab specialises in genetics. It requires many biological agents - hormones, enzymes and the
like - but we cannot acquire them in the usual way. A professor in Tel Aviv would get one of his students to
order what they needed and they could guarantee it would arrive. I have to do the ordering and collecting
myself, since the materials come from outside the Palestinian territories, and Israeli drivers cannot come
through the Bethlehem checkpoint from Jerusalem to deliver to my lab. I am fortunate in having an ID card
that allows me into Jerusalem, otherwise our supply of raw materials would be severely limited.
What about lab equipment?
You wouldn't believe what I had to go through to install our DNA sequencing machine. The supplier
delivered it to Jerusalem, and I organised a car to bring it from Jerusalem to the checkpoint. Then I brought
the university's car to the checkpoint, backing it up so we could move the equipment from the other car into
mine. Then I had to go to a workshop in Tel Aviv for a week to learn how to install it. All these things are
taken for granted in labs elsewhere. The agent comes, installs it, shows you how it works, then he leaves. I
even have to check and repair it myself, because the Israeli agent cannot come here. I should be writing
papers and grant proposals, I shouldn't have to worry about servicing equipment. Sometimes I feel, how
long is this going to go on?
How else does the occupation affect university life?
It affects it very much. We used to have students coming from all over the Palestinian territories, from
Nablus and Jenin and Gaza. Now we don't, because it is so hard to travel through all the checkpoints. We
hardly have any students from beyond Bethlehem; each Palestinian university has become a city university.
What's amazing is that we collaborate less with other Palestinian universities than we do with Israeli
universities. I come from Nablus, about 60 kilometres north of Bethlehem, but for the past five years I
haven't been able to go there. When I want to see my mother we have to travel to Amman in Jordan to
meet. Things that are usually considered normal, like seeing your mother, have become impossible under
The occupation disrupts us in other ways. We have had several incursions here by the Israeli army. The
first time it happened the lab was completely shut down. There was shooting around the town and the
university. We lost all the tissue cultures and some of the cell lines because of the electricity shortage.
Incursions also have a great social and economic impact. People become paralysed, they cannot go out, and
it takes time for them to get back to working again. There's a significant psychological effect. Everyone in
the lab has had their own experience of the violence.
How can you visit your research subjects in the West Bank if you cannot travel?
It is very difficult. We improvise by paying local medical labs in little towns and villages to collect samples
for us, and I arrange special ambulances to bring blood and samples to Bethlehem.
How did you come to work with Karen?
In Palestine we have large numbers of families who suffer genetic hearing loss. There is a high rate of
inbreeding - 40 to 50 per cent of all marriages are arranged within the extended family or between first
cousins. This leads to certain recessive disorders, including hearing loss and blood disorders such as
thalassaemia. Around 1994 I became interested in investigating hearing loss, and at a meeting at the
Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel someone mentioned Karen Avraham, who was working on this at
Tel Aviv University. So we got in touch.
That's the science. But the partnership is also an opportunity to express our conviction that scientists on
both sides of the political divide could work together. It is difficult. We built up a relationship and it
became harder to maintain it in the circumstances. The checkpoints, the humiliation of the occupation and
the violence - all these things have an effect on the relationship. We manage to deal with it, but other
people don't. Our partnership has a personal side: my wife and children know her and her child; we visit
Do you talk about politics with Karen?
I tend to be very open about politics with all Israelis I meet. I cannot lose a chance to make a statement
about what we are going through. I cannot rationalise what is going on. Take, for example, the separation
wall that Israel is building around the West Bank. I cannot see the sense in building walls. I cannot imagine
what kind of brain came up with that solution.
Is there any pressure from your community not to collaborate with Israeli academics?
The formal position from the Palestinian ministry of higher education is not to collaborate with Israeli
scientists. But they have never enforced it. They leave it to each university to make the decision. My work
with Karen has become too big for any negative remarks to damage it. It's bringing money, respect, science
and prestige. It's not as if we are giving up the right to demand independence for Palestine.
How does the conflict get in the way of your science?
We don't have the problems that Moien does. Sometimes I think I'm almost losing sight of the difficulties
because it is so normal for us here. The only time it gets in the way is when Hashem, a Palestinian who is
Moien's and my joint graduate student and is studying for his PhD at Tel Aviv University, cannot get his
travel permit renewed, or cannot travel here because of restrictions imposed by the Israeli army. If he's
unable to come here for two or three weeks and there's an experiment waiting, that gets really frustrating.
It's really a logistic impediment.
How has it affected you personally?
It has made me afraid. I have joint Israeli and American citizenship, so I could choose to leave. I love it
here. This is my home, my child is here and I never want to leave, but because I have a choice at times it
has been difficult for me to stay. There was a period of two weeks when I wouldn't go to the supermarket
because of all the suicide attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and that is hard to live with. For six months I
wouldn't sit outside at coffee shops. Today I go to coffee shops everywhere, although there are still some
cinemas where I won't queue for a ticket. I don't let my son take buses; we run up a fortune in taxi bills. I
am already getting nervous because my son is 16 and will soon want to go to discos. I'm worried about him
standing in line for an hour, because that's a perfect place for an attack to take place. It is hard to live with
Why is your collaboration with Moien so important to you?
Apart from the excellent science - and I wouldn't be working with Moien if he wasn't an excellent scientist
- having contact with Moien and Hashem has made us all realise that we are human on both sides. When
we see Palestinians in the Gaza Strip or West Bank on television, we don't see people like Hashem. We see
people who are angry. We have very little exposure to Arabs these days, much less than before 2000 when
the Palestinian uprising started. I am probably more liberal than most, so I was completely open to the
collaboration. I have been to Moien's house, our children have played together. But most of us Israelis are
fearful, and when you are afraid you don't always think rationally. This collaboration has made students
and administrators here realise that Palestinians are people just like us. They see that Hashem is just a
regular guy, polite, bright and motivated, and all of a sudden they get a very different perspective.
“Most of us Israelis are fearful, and when you are afraid you don't always think rationally”
Likewise, Hashem's parents are afraid for his safety when he comes here. No one would harm Hashem, but
the Palestinians have a very different image of us, just as we have of them. Working together opens up a
different perspective of each other.
What happens when Moien comes to your lab in Tel Aviv?
Everyone loves him here, he has such a great personality. Him being a Palestinian is a non-issue.
Could you visit him in his lab in Bethlehem?
I probably could, but it's not advisable. I would feel nervous. Most of the people at the university would
welcome me with open arms, but the drive there would make me feel unsafe. I used to go every six months,
but I haven't been for over four years, since before the intifada started. The last time was in 2000, when we
had a meeting there with Palestinian and Israeli scientists about the genetics of hearing loss. That was quite
dramatic, since there had not been many joint meetings of this kind in Bethlehem before. Now if we want
to do that kind of thing we have to meet in neutral places - Turkey, Cyprus, Jordan or the US.
Do you and Moien ever talk politics?
Usually not. We sometimes do. We basically agree with each other on most points. We wouldn't work
together if we didn't have the same basic idea about the political situation. There are obviously some areas
where we disagree, but then we can agree to disagree. I never want to be in a conflict with Moien.
What happens if there's a suicide bombing by a Palestinian in Tel Aviv, or an Israeli army incursion
into Bethlehem? Does that ever affect your relationship?
No. When something like that happens, we call each other and say we feel terrible about what happened.
But my tendency has been to keep the politics out of this, because there will always be a few things we will
never be able to agree on. I am a scientist and I believe scientists should stay out of the political fray. But I
think Moien feels differently about this.
Why did you decide to work with Moien in the first place?
I believe in peace, and I believe we should all try to live in this volatile area as well as we can. Clearly the
politicians and the extremists aren't doing such a good job of it. If the rest of us make an effort, maybe there
will be hope we'll be able to live side by side one day. But my goal is the science. We're doing this because
we need to find ways to understand the genetic basis of hearing loss, and together we have the resources to
do that. The science has to be good. The by-products that come out of it are tremendous.
From issue 2488 of New Scientist magazine, 26 February 2005, page 48