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‘…if there is any hope for the future it is in such national institution as Birzeit which under tremendous pressures and remarkable odds still functions, often brilliantly and always sensibly.’
– Edward Said
‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world’
– Nelson Mandela
Birzeit University has a long, turbulent history of incredible growth and impressive strength in adversity. It offers an essential tool in any repressed state: education.
The road to today’s Birzeit has been littered with obstacles, both physical and invisible. The institution developed from an elementary girls’ school established in 1923, into a co-educational high school in 1930, an intermediate college in 1942 and eventually awarded its first bachelor degrees in 1976. This history of growth has run parallel to Palestine’s shifting contexts, through the British Mandate, Jordanian rule, Israeli military occupation and through to the Palestinian National Authority.
The period of Israel’s military occupation of Palestine that resulted from the 1967 war was one of the most difficult in Bizeit’s history, but also one of positive transition and growth into the University we see today. During this period Israel targeted academic institutions and students as a means of repressing the Palestinian spirit of resistance. Israel legitimised the repression of higher education activity by viewing universities breeding grounds for terrorists. However it was the real functions of the universities – inspiring young Palestinians and equipping them with the skills necessary to run an independent government and economy – that the Israeli authorities feared.
A variety of repressive and intimidatory tactics were systematically enforced. The President of Birzeit College (later University) Hanna Nasir was illegally deported in 1974 but remained active from abroad. Military order 854 put higher education institutions under the rule of the Israeli governor. University staff were told they would be forced to sign the so called ‘loyalty oath’ that disowned the PLO. Strategies such as photocopying the offending clause out of the ‘oath’, along with strong international pressure and general refusal to comply with 854 meant that the University could keep some autonomy over their own affairs. When, in 1982, it became apparent to the military authorities that the order could not be implemented, it was frozen.
Education under siege and the Surda road block
Between 1973 and 1992 Birzeit was closed 15 times. The longest of these closures was the period of the first Intifada when Palestine education was effectively illegalized by Israel. Birzeit was closed for almost four years. No students could graduate. Faculty members were barred from using their libraries and laboratories for research. The financial burden this placed on the already strained university budgets was immense. Indirectly, the closure affected thousands of families whose livelihood depended on the provision of services to students such as food, lodging and transport.
Against the odds Birzeit University refused to accept the criminalization of education and held ‘underground’ classes in homes, offices, community centres, mosques and churches. These classes were frequently raided by the Israeli Army and any students and teachers found in attendance were arrested. Students were even arrested for carrying books as this was considered evidence that they were on their way to an ‘illegal class’.
The second Intifada once again gave Israel the opportunity to seriously disrupt education using the justification of ‘security’. The military closed the Ramallah – Birzeit road between 2001 and 2003, strangling daily life and essentially putting Birzeit under siege. Known as the ‘Surda Roadblock’, the military bulldozed the main road, dug trenches, placed concrete blocks and piled up mounds of dirt to create a roadblock that only accepted pedestrian traffic, forcing people to walk through the checkpoint from anywhere between a few metres and two kilometres.
Large numbers of students and staff, eager to participate in University life, made the journey most days and often found themselves turned around and sent home. The roadblock cut off the university from Ramallah, the transport hub as well as the main service and commercial area. The obstruction caused by the Surda Roadblock made daily life a struggle for the university.
The situation today
Today there are still a wide range of oppressive tactics used against the university and the higher education system as a whole in Palestine. By controlling the borders, Israel can deny work visas to foreign academics or block international students from coming to study. In further attempts to fragment Palestinian society, Gazans find it very difficult to come to study due to the difficulty in attaining permits. Since 2000 the number of students from Gaza has dropped from 400 to now only 5. Students also face the danger of being detained; currently there are 78 student prisoners from Birzeit Univeristy. These are just to name a few of the tactics used by Israel to continue their repression of Palestinian higher education.
Birzeit University is an icon of the Palestinian national movement and has shaped political activism in many ways. ‘The lesson of more than eight decades in the life of the institution’, explains long standing faculty member Ramzi Ruhan, ‘is that very hurdle can be overcome with a determined will and sound judgement’. The symbol of the University is the olive tree, thriving under the harshest of conditions and encapsulating the ‘Spirit of Birzeit’; that the will to learn, educate and continue to exist can win out under the hardest circumstances. Universities in Palestine are not just seen as educational institutions, but as symbols of independence, survival and hope.