New report: “Palestinian Universities Under Occupation”

A delegation of 8 academics from 5 European countries representing the European Platform for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (EPACBI) visited seven Palestinian universities and academies in April 2015 and released a report, “Palestinian University Under Occupation,” on July 1.

The report contains valuable information on the impact of Israeli policies on Palestinian universities and academics in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Excerpts of the report are below:

II. The pattern of Israeli obstruction and subversion of Palestinian higher education

1. Obstacles to travel within the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)

Distances between towns in the OPT should make it possible to travel by coach from Jerusalem to any of the 14 Palestinian universities in less than three hours and to most within an hour. The practical experience, however, is quite different. Israeli occupation authorities have blockaded Gaza since 2007, and in particular have barred all movement of faculty and students between Gaza and the Occupied West Bank.

Within the Occupied West Bank travel is possible but completely unpredictable, as a result of deliberate Israeli policy. At the permanent checkpoints erected between the main towns, Palestinian travelers normally must dismount from the coach and wait for security clearance, which may take only 15 minutes but more often half an hour and sometimes much longer. Travel is also frequently further disrupted by temporary checkpoints and unmanned barriers or simply for the convenience of Israeli settlers. Thus during a single week in April over fifty Palestinian villages were sealed off by Israeli security forces. In addition, travel between Ramallah, the administrative capital of the OPT, and Nablus, home of An-Najah, the largest university in the West Bank, was halted for most of one day so that a marathon run for residents of illegal settlements could take place. And in a separate incident travel in and out of Nablus was halted to facilitate the visit of settlers to the Joseph’s Tomb site. Perversely, much of the public transport in the Occupied West Bank is suspended on Israeli national holidays.

Besides the unpredictability of travel, Palestinians must expect humiliating treatment at checkpoints. The president of Bethlehem University reported a fourth year student’s response to the question, ‘what is the strongest impression you will take from your years here ?’ as follows : ‘the daily anxiety coming up to the checkpoint and worrying about what would happen. Will I be waved through ? Will the soldiers come onto the bus ? Will I be made to get out of the bus ? Will I be stood for hours in the sun ? Will I be interrogated ? Will I be strip-searched ?’

The consequences of these obstacles for Palestinian universities can scarcely be exaggerated. In the first place, the faculty, students and administration who comprise the university community must allow several hours to complete even the shortest journey. The result for most Palestinian universities is that the day does not begin before 9 or 10 am and stops at 5 or even 4 pm. Compared with European universities, where activity on campus commonly begins by 9 am and continues late into the evening, this constitutes a loss of at least 20 per cent in the working day.

Second, obstacles to travel impose a substantial extra cost on faculty, administrators and especially students. The only guarantee of timely arrival at class is to purchase or rent accommodation near their university, in order to avoid the deliberately imposed uncertainties of travel. This is an effective tax on many students whose parental homes are not many kilometers away but dare not risk the vagaries of what otherwise would be a short daily commute.

Third, obstacles to travel discourage collaborative activity between the universities. In earlier years the universities sought to share expertise through academic visits and exchanges. But an academic visiting a neighboring university which should be just half an hour away to give a one-hour lecture must allow a whole day to complete the round trip journey. As a result visits or exchanges of this kind are now uncommon. The practical effect is to isolate the universities from one another and diminish the quality of academic life.

Fourth, the extra time or cost imposed by obstacles to travel and the frequently abusive treatment received at the hands of the Israeli border police have discouraged West Bank students from attending universities outside their home towns or regions. This makes it more difficult for universities to become centres of excellence or to serve an integrative function in Palestine society. Instead, each university must replicate all the basic teaching functions and limit its ambitions merely to its own locale.

2. Obstacles to travel into and out of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)

For universities to function effectively, faculty must be free to travel abroad to attend conferences, undertake research, upgrade their qualifications and maintain contacts with scholars abroad. To ensure the circulation of knowledge, they must also be able to receive visits from foreign academics and scholars and enable their students to participate in exchanges. Palestinian universities report that Israel systematically obstructs all such activities.

Palestinian faculty, administrators and students, aside from the small minority with Jerusalem residence permits, have only one point of exit or entry : across the Allenby Bridge linking Palestine with Jordan. Because of Palestine’s ambiguous legal status, Palestinians often require a visa to visit foreign countries. But obtaining visas is problematic because issuing offices are commonly located in Israel which most Palestinians require a special permit to visit. In addition to the difficulty of obtaining visas and the internal obstacles to travel described in the previous section, Palestinian academics repeatedly told us that they are frequently held up at the Allenby Bridge, for periods as long as 8 hours. Refusals of permission to leave, always without explanation, are not uncommon. For other intending travelers permission to leave may be made conditional on signing a statement confirming that they will not return for up to five years : the equivalent to a deportation order.

Many obstacles are placed in the way of academics (often though not exclusively members of the Palestinian diaspora, including those from the United States and Canada) who receive invitations to work at Palestinian universities. Resident status will not be granted, and anyone stating on arrival to Israel that they are there to take up a post at a Palestinian university will be refused entry. The only possibility of being admitted is to enter as a tourist, which is normally limited to a 3-month stay. The necessity of misrepresenting their status in the OPT leaves them constantly vulnerable to expulsion, while the three-month limit has other effects on their ability to contribute academically, especially to taught courses. The president of one Palestinian university who has not been allowed resident status reports that he possesses a multi-entry visa to the OPT issued by Israel, but at the Allenby Bridge Israeli officials regularly assert that the visa has expired, threaten to turn him back, and involve him in delays that range from half an hour to half a day.

The consequences for Palestinian universities of these obstacles to international travel are comparable to those of the internal obstacles to travel. In the first place, the extra time required is very considerable. Faculty seeking to attend even the briefest event abroad must allow an additional day to be sure of reaching their destination and a further day to return home. Second, it imposes substantial additional costs, not least because the likelihood of delays or refusals means that air tickets cannot be booked in advance. Third, it discourages travel, leaving faculty, administrators and students isolated from the international community and less able to pursue research. Fourth, it seriously damages morale.

3. Israeli obstruction of foreign visitors to Palestinian universities

The obstructions already described apply to all foreign academic visitors, not just those wishing to work at Palestinian universities, and to students also. Intending visitors are frequently held up or refused entry by Israeli authorities. For example, Israeli authorities refused permission for five of the 75 foreign participants to attend the first world conference of Palestinian academics at An-Najah University in 2014, and granted permission to three or four others, including keynote speakers, only on the last day of the conference when it was too late to be of any value. Al-Quds University reports that a professor of law at Harvard University who recently sought to visit the university was interrogated at Ben Gurion airport (Tel Aviv) for fourteen hours before being permitted to proceed. Birzeit University reports that the South African Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and three prominent South African academics were refused permission to visit the university in April 2015.

Foreign academics invited to teach a one-semester course and foreign students intending to study for a semester at any of the Palestinian universities are routinely granted only a three-month tourist visa. Palestinian universities, like most European universities, operate on a system of three four-month semesters. The visas therefore do not allow visitors to stay for a whole semester. And applications for renewal of visas are a lottery, so course planning may be thrown into disarray at short notice by opaque and unaccountable bureaucratic decisions. The universities report that many foreign academics and students are discouraged from attempting to visit on account of the obstacles put in their way.

The consequences of this obstruction are obvious. In the first place, Palestinian university administrators confront endless logistical problems in their efforts to secure the passage of visitors through Israeli barriers. According to a senior administrator at Al-Quds University, 30 percent of his time is devoted to problems of this sort. Second, teaching and learning are disrupted by premature departures or undermined by the failure of visiting academics or students to reach the campus. Third, the universities are isolated from the international community, and fourth these difficulties frustrate and demoralise faculty and students.

4. Obstacles to the import of books, equipment and materials

Obstacles to the movement of people are the most common cause for complaint in Palestinian universities. But only somewhat less frustrating are the obstacles Israel places in the way of importing books, equipment and materials. Certain types of machinery and supplies, in particular electronic equipment and chemicals, are banned outright by Israel who claim they might be used for terrorist purposes. But Israeli authorities routinely hold up practically all types of machinery and supplies for weeks, months or even years before allowing them to be delivered to the universities. This has created difficulties especially for research and teaching pure and applied sciences. The delegation heard of cases where academics who received a one-year grant to undertake a research project were unable to carry it out because the necessary materials did not arrive during their 12 month appointment. But the problem is not restricted to these academic disciplines. The director of an art academy complained of serious delays in the import of works of art and art books.

5. Arbitrary arrest and detention of Palestinian academics

Imad al-Barghouthi, a professor of astrophysics at Al-Quds University, was attempting to travel to a congress of the Arab Association of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Sharjah University in the United Arab Emirates on 6 December 2014 when he was arrested at the checkpoint to Jordan and held in administrative detention without indictment or trial. He was only released nearly seven weeks later, after his detention was publicized within the international scientific community. In October 2014 Israel was holding over 470 Palestinians in administrative detention, bureaucratic terminology which translates into imprisonment without either trial or any statement of the grounds for detention.According to B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Israel violates international law in its grossly excessive use of administrative detention. Palestinian university administrators estimate that among the nearly five hundred detainees 40 were academics from the West Bank and 60 from Gaza.

The consequences of this practice for Palestinian universities are self-evident. But it is not only faculty who are targeted :  students are also frequently detained without charge or trial. In fact, this is so common that several universities have developed special programs for the education of detained students.

6. The special case of Al-Quds University

Al-Quds University operates on five campuses of which three are in or near the city of Jerusalem on the Israeli side of the apartheid wall and two, including the main campus, are in Area B on the Palestinian side. This exposes the University to exceptional pressures from Israel which claims Jerusalem as its capital and uses every excuse to expel Palestinian residents. Not least because of the difficulties facing the Palestinian population of Jerusalem (Arabic name : Al-Quds) the University seeks to maintain and expand its public role in the old city. Israel has responded in a number of deeply hostile ways. It has refused to recognize the charitable status of the University’s operations in Jerusalem, and repeatedly sued the University for carrying on unauthorized educational activities in the City. In the spring of 2015 it issued a demand for NIS 24 million (5.7 million euros) and seized some of the University’s property in Jerusalem including the president’s office and contents. It has also refused to recognize the qualifications of the University’s graduates. Teachers with a bachelor’s degree from Al-Quds University and resident status in Israel are paid there at the same rate as teachers with only a secondary school diploma. Medical doctors with an Al-Quds degree have not been permitted to practice on the Israeli side of the apartheid wall. A recent decision of the Israel Supreme Court enabled Al-Quds medical graduates to sit the Israeli professional examination this year. But it remains unclear whether the court’s decision will be accepted as a precedent in future years.

Al-Quds’ main campus at Abu Dis lies just outside Jerusalem and in clear view of the city. Nevertheless a high proportion of the University community do not have resident status in the city which lies out of bounds to them. The president of the University, Dr Imad Abu Kishek, is not permitted to visit Jerusalem or Israel. Israeli action is not limited to bureaucratic obstruction. A camera mounted high above the apartheid wall which runs barely a hundred meters from the main gate constantly monitors the Abu Dis campus. Army units regularly restrict access by erecting a checkpoint immediately outside the main gate, and appear to do so more frequently during examination time. Nor do they stop at the gate. In 2013 alone Army units invaded the campus no less than 26 times, injuring over 1700 students and staff. Bullet holes sprayed across the glass entrance to the medical school are evident from an incursion in the spring of 2014. Israeli forces recently destroyed the nearby family home of the head of the Al-Quds music department for reasons which remain obscure.

One of the most highly regarded components of Al-Quds University is its Institute of Archaeology. While other Palestinian universities are running down their archaeology departments, the Institute has been expanding. Currently it oversees excavations at three sites, at Ramallah, Beit Sahur and Sebast near Nablus. Israel however has refused it permission to excavate in Area C of the Occupied Territories, where some 60 per cent of the West Bank’s archaeology sites are located. Of the roughly 8,000 sites and features identified in the Occupied Territories, Israeli archaeologists have excavated or surveyed 1,200 without permitting Palestinians access to the sites or the accumulated finds. Members of the Institute are unable to teach the archaeology of Jerusalem since neither they nor their students are permitted to visit the city. They also doubt the probity of Israeli archaeological activity, much of which appears to be driven by a desire to find proof of Biblical claims about early Jewish civilization. Their rigid exclusion from sites in the Occupied Territories (to say nothing of 1948 Israel) has provoked suspicion that finds may be moved from one site to another to strengthen Jewish historical claims to the territory, and that evidence of other civilizations is being destroyed.

7. The impact of the Gaza blockade on Palestinian universities

Until Hamas took over sole control of Gaza in June 2007, several thousand students from Gaza attended universities in the West Bank. Israel’s subsequent blockade of Gaza brought an immediate halt to practically all student movement into or out of Gaza. This was especially unfortunate for several categories of students. Gaza students who had begun their studies in the West Bank but were in Gaza when the blockade was imposed were unable to return to complete their degrees ; others in the West Bank were unable to return home in case they were not permitted to leave again. Students at the center operated in Gaza by the Al-Quds Medical School are required to complete their degree at Abu Dis, but since 2007 they have been unable to do so. Israel justifies its eight-year long blockade of Gaza on security grounds. But there can be no justification for denying en bloc permission for Gaza academics and students to teach or study in the West Bank. This is a denial of their human rights which gravely damages the welfare of Gaza and weakens all the universities of Palestine.