|Bashar Abu Shahla, a Civil Engineering student in his final year at Birzeit University was up late studying with a friend for his exams when Israeli soldiers forced open the door of his apartment building at two o’ clock in the morning. The soldiers went directly to Bashar’s room and told him to collect his belongings. They handcuffed and blindfolded him, and took him to a nearby military detention centre along with the three other students from Gaza living in the same block of flats. Three days later, on Sunday 21 November 2004, all four students were illegally ‘deported’ back to the Gaza Strip without being charged with any offence.
Birzeit University’s Right to Education Campaign and Friends of Birzeit University launched an international appeal to bring the four students back to Birzeit to complete their studies. Academics around the world, including Professor Eric Hobsbawm, NATFHE, a British lecturers’ union, and the National Tertiary Education Union in Australia, wrote to the Israeli military authorities demanding the immediate return of the students to Birzeit and the right of all Palestinian students to freely pursue their higher education.
Education under Occupation
In spite of the severe difficulties facing education under occupation, a high percentage of Palestinians go on to study in higher education. There are currently 124,000 students enrolled at eleven Palestinian universities, five university colleges and twenty-five community colleges across the West Bank and Gaza. Over one third of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are at school or in further and higher education. In a 2003 survey, sixty percent of Palestinians aged between ten and twenty-four years old stated that their first concern was their education.
|Roadbock between Ramallah and Birzeit University. Photo: Yasser Darwish
Palestinian universities are an integral part of the Palestinian community, reaching out beyond their ivory towers with many centres and programmes for community development. Birzeit University is internationally renowned not only for its high academic standards, but also its active commitment to the development of wider Palestinian society, reflected in its range of academic and community programmes including a project in mental health and counselling at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, post-graduate courses in Women’s Studies, and Community and Public Health, and a new faculty of Law and Public Administration.
Palestinians have long regarded education as a means of resilience and survival under military occupation and in exile. But just as Palestinians recognize education as the cornerstone of development and nation building, Israel has apparently followed much the same logic in reverse, with schools and universities suffering military attacks and obstruction of access.
Blocking the Road to Education
Since October 2000, Israel has made it virtually impossible for Palestinians to move between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Students from Gaza enrolled in West Bank universities have been forced to study ‘illegally’, or to drop out of university entirely. Those who choose to stay cannot go home and Bashar Abu Shahla, like all Gaza students in the West Bank, had not seen his family in four years, while another of the deported students could not even go home when his father died. These students are among the last Gaza students still studying in the West Bank. In 2000, there were over three hundred Gaza students studying at Birzeit University, today there are only thirty-nine. Due to an Israeli travel ban on Gaza Palestinians aged between 18 and 35, a further one-and-a-half thousand Gaza students have been prevented from travelling to their universities abroad.
Students in the West Bank are also prevented from reaching their universities due to frequent closure of cities, hundreds of military roadblocks and the construction of the illegal wall inside the West Bank. There has been a particularly steep decline in new students coming to Birzeit University from the north West Bank, reflecting the high impact of Israel’s debilitating policies of collective punishment in those areas, with the number of new students coming from Jenin declining from one hundred students in 1999 to zero in 2003. The fear is that if these trends continue unabated, Palestinian universities will gradually become more localized, undermining their vital and progressive role in Palestinian society as institutions of national pride and importance.
Birzeit University itself was sealed off by the Israeli Army for two-and-a-half years until December 2003, and is still subject to arbitrary roadblocks which block access to students and faculty. In response, Birzeit University set up the Right to Education Campaign to reach out to academics, students and campaigners worldwide to support the right to education in Palestine, and to lobby institutions, governments and the Israeli authorities to guarantee access for all Palestinians to their schools and universities and an end to military attacks on education.
The Wall on Campus
At the end of 2003, Al Quds University in Jerusalem ran an international campaign to stop the proposed construction of the Wall through the middle of the university campus and the confiscation of one third of its grounds. Subsequently the eight metre high concrete wall was moved to just outside the entrance of Al Quds University in Abu Dis, a suburb of East Jerusalem, cutting the University off from the city, along with thirty-six percent of its students.
While the Wall has grave implications for Al Quds University as a whole, the Nursing Department has been particularly affected. Since its establishment as Palestine’s first department for nursing studies in 1979, Al Quds nursing students completed their clinical practice at the major Palestinian hospitals in Jerusalem. With the construction of the Wall around Abu Dis, the journey to Jerusalem for students and faculty from the West Bank has now become almost impossible, resulting in the Nursing Department reluctantly moving its clinical practice to Ramallah hospitals last year. This has also had a serious impact on the hospitals in East Jerusalem, which have now lost a major source for their intake of student nurses.
Education under Fire
The attacks and military obstruction of education are a lens through which to see the impact of the Israeli occupation and illegal policies of collective punishment on Palestinian society as a whole. The ongoing process of cantonization and ghettoization of Palestinians by the Wall and hundreds of military checkpoints and roadblocks that divide and encircle Palestinian cities, towns and villages, together with relentless closures and curfews, make all aspects of Palestinian daily life a struggle. It is also apparent that Palestinian education is being directly targeted.
In the Gaza Strip last year, four primary school children were shot at their desks inside their classrooms, with two young schoolgirls killed within weeks of each other. “Schools should be havens of peace”, declared UNRWA’s Secretary-General, Peter Hansen, “the most basic rights of the child – to life – are now being violated almost every day.” Birzeit University reports one to two incidents a week of Israeli soldiers either blocking access to the University, harassing students and staff at the University’s entrance gates, or firing tear gas and rubber bullets onto the campus. In March 2004, a teacher training college in the Gaza Strip was completely demolished, while Hebron University and the Palestine Polytechnic University were closed by military order for eight months in 2003, reminiscent of the first Intifada when kindergartens, schools and universities all over the West Bank and Gaza were closed by military order and education effectively became ‘illegal’.
Palestinian students have long been targets of the Israeli occupation and are regularly subjected to intimidation, violent assault and arrest by Israeli soldiers, on their way to and from school and university, in the classroom, and inside their homes. A week after the four Birzeit students were deported to Gaza, around twenty-five Israeli Army jeeps and Armoured Personnel Carriers drove into the town of Birzeit in the middle of the night. For four hours Israeli soldiers went door-to-door, entering every house, flat and dormitory in the area, rounding up students, demanding their identity cards, taking down their telephone numbers, and even photographing them. “I was photographed like a criminal”, one student said, describing how he had to hold a placard in front of him, bearing his ID number and his name written across it in Hebrew.
Supporting the Right to Education
Birzeit University has a long history of building international links, which crucially help the University to counter the impact of the Israeli occupation on its students, faculty and employees, and the institution itself. In 2004, Bergen University in Norway celebrated the tenth anniversary of its twinning agreement with Birzeit University. On the basis of this agreement, Birzeit received a grant to carry out an ongoing joint research project, the ‘Lower Jordan River Basin Project’, while Birzeit’s Institute for Community and Public Health pursued research into non-communicable diseases. As well as faculty and departmental links, student unions are also taking the initiative to develop links with Birzeit University. Last year, Liverpool University Guild of Students passed a motion to link with Birzeit University Student Council, while a national Campus Solidarity Campaign has been established by a group of Spanish university student councils to support Palestinian universities through student-initiated projects and exchange.
On 23rd January 2005, SOAS Palestine Society and Friends of Birzeit University will launch a new photo exhibition on the Wall’s impact on education with a lecture by Dr Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian Member of the Israeli Knesset and former Birzeit University professor. The exhibition, which includes photographs by Birzeit University students, will be available for use by other groups in the UK, including student groups and PSC branches. Later in the year, Friends of Birzeit University plan to host speakers from Birzeit University and the Right to Education Campaign for a tour of British cities and universities.
The Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University is building an international coalition, encouraging trade unions, political and social movements and education institutions around the world to affiliate to the Campaign and to support the right to education in Palestine, through lobbying and awareness-raising activities, as well as developing new links for academic and cultural exchange. In the Campaign film, ‘A Caged Bird’s Song’, which follows Birzeit students in their daily struggle to reach university and continue their education, Carmela Armanious-Omari, a Vice President of Birzeit University, underlines the vital importance of international support. She says: “It makes an impact on students and teachers, feeling that we’re not alone and people around the world know about us and that we deserve to live like other people do…Silence I would say is more painful than the bullets of occupation.”
Helen Murray is coordinator of the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University and Dan Richards is coordinator of Friends of Birzeit University in the UK.
The Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University is an international campaign with an informative website. Find out the facts, receive a regular information bulletin and help build support in Britain to defend the fundamental human right to education in occupied Palestine. If you would like to receive the bi-monthly Right to Education information bulletin please email firstname.lastname@example.org with SUBSCRIBE in the subject line.