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Trenches, Concrete Blocks, Tear Gas and Live Ammunition
Since early March 2001, academic life on the Birzeit University campus in Birzeit, 20 kilometers north of Jerusalem in the West Bank, has been severely disrupted. Since March 2002, in the wake of the large-scale invasion by the Israeli army into the West Bank, the campus has become virtually inaccessible to the vast majority of its over 5000 students and 700 faculty and administrative staff. The disruption has been the result of Israeli military actions taken on the road connecting the city of Ramallah to Birzeit and 33 villages in the area. These actions have centered on a stretch of road near the village of Surda, and have consisted in the digging of trenches, the placement of concrete blocks, and periodic piling of dirt mounds to prevent access. A permanent army presence has been established on a hill overlooking this stretch of the road, and all vehicular traffic has been banned. All people, including the disabled, the elderly, and children, must walk distances varying from a few meters to two kilometers (depending on the decisions of the army at any one time) on foot between dirt mounds and trenches. On many occasions and when soldiers at the checkpoint have decided that there should be no movement on the road, the army has shot live ammunition, tear gas, and sound bombs at people to disperse them from the checkpoint. These actions have escalated since April 2002, and have been taking place on a daily basis during June 2002. On some occasions, those who have decided to circumvent the checkpoint and walk through the surrounding agricultural fields and hills have been shot at, and at least one person has died as a result of wounds sustained while trying to get around the checkpoint in this manner.
A Never Ending Semester
The most immediate impact of the placement of this permanent checkpoint on the Birzeit road has been the severe disruption of three semesters and one summer session, beginning with the spring semester of the academic year 2000-2001. The current academic year, which should have ended in early June, has been extended indefinitely, especially in view of the near-total ban on the movement of people through the checkpoint in the last three weeks. Students and staff, eager to resume studies, have been trying to reach the campus on a daily basis; the long waits to cross the checkpoint, or the wasted trips when it has been closed, have meant the loss of valuable time, not to mention increased financial burdens. Among the victims of this situation are the several hundred students in their last semester of study at the university. Many of them have made plans to study abroad or work after their graduation. Now these plans must be postponed indefinitely, causing great financial hardship for those students whose families had relied on them to begin working and contributing to family finances during the current difficult economic circumstances in the Palestinian territory.
Not One Checkpoint But Many
Members of the Birzeit University community come from all parts of the West Bank. Many currently reside in the Ramallah-Jerusalem area, and thus must cross the checkpoint on a daily basis. Other students live in surrounding villages and towns, and must cross other checkpoints before reaching the one on the Birzeit road. The notorious Qalandiya checkpoint (between Ramallah and the northern suburbs of Jerusalem) has been a source of great hardship for those coming from the south of Ramallah. Very often students and staff arrive in Ramallah after having surmounted the Qalandiya checkpoint only to find that they cannot gain access to the campus in Birzeit. Most Birzeit University students are commuters. However, the current restrictions on free movement have forced many students to rent rooms and apartments in the town of Birzeit, which is a great burden on families whose livelihoods have already been severely compromised or destroyed as a result of the incursions and the closure.
The Demise of Academic Life
An additional consequence of the restrictions on access to the university is the severe crisis faced by those departments in need of repair work on computers, laboratory equipment, and infrastructure. The delivery of books, new equipment, and a myriad of other regularly ordered goods and services is on hold.
One of the most damaging consequences of the road closure has been the near-cessation of all normal extracurricular activities at the university. Over the years, Birzeit University has become a center for intellectual activity, and has hosted a multitude of events attracting the Palestinian community at large; events such as conferences and public lectures, art exhibits, film festivals, sports competitions, book exhibits, and concerts have been a feature of campus life for many years. Due to the severe conditions on the road to the university, at present all such activities have been halted, although the University has striven over the past twenty months to continue academic and cultural exchange, for example hosting an international conference at Birzeit in February 2001 and organizing numerous seminars and workshops for students, faculty and the community, whether in specific skills or on issues of public concern. Loss of this kind cannot be measured in monetary terms, but is great nevertheless since it negates the very meaning of a university, which should be a place where the free exchange of ideas can take place and where the conditions for intellectual growth are at an optimum.
It is of utmost importance that there should be immediate intervention and action on the part of all supporters of freedom of access to education. Open access to Birzeit University now!