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Right to Education Campaign, Birzeit University, 18 May 2006
Gaza is home to 1m people under the age of 30, but has only two universities providing its young people with the vital education and skills that help a person to grow and contribute to the future of his or her own community. Given the severe economic and social conditions in Gaza, these institutions are stretched to capacity and cannot provide adequate courses in medicine or training programs for occupational therapy, and other important fields of public health care.
Given the oppressive mental and physical living conditions in Gaza, which are exacerbated by appalling economic indicators – 68% live in poverty and 40-60% are unemployed (UN-OCHA) – and the imminent humanitarian crisis; the need for Gazans to have access to education is critical.
There is currently only one certified occupational therapist working in Gaza and some 24,000 residents with disabilities who are in dire need for this kind of treatment. If Gazan students are not allowed to reach Bethlehem University to study and become occupational therapists, not only will their rights to education and freedom of movement be denied, the disabled people in Gaza will also be effectively deprived of their right to adequate health care.
The Gazan students’ requests to cross to Bethlehem have been rejected since 2003, despite the fact that (for most of them) the army does not even claim they pose any specific security threat whatsoever. Paragraph 48 of the petition outlines the logic of the excuse used by the state of Israel:
“The ban on travel by students is based on a presumption that a student seeking to travel to the West Bank…constitutes a security threat. […] So long as [the military commander] fails to conduct an individual examination of the personal circumstances of each student seeking to travel between Gaza and the West Bank, that presumption is perpetuated, and it becomes irrefutable.”
Another purpose of the vague and overwhelming use of Israel’s ‘security’ argument is to discourage young Gazans from wanting to study and work towards a better future. The student petitioner, Ms. Huda Abu Roos, explains the psychological struggle she faces in keeping her hopes up believing in her right to an education:
“Sometimes, I feel like my attempt to study is hopeless, and I don’t have the strength to continue. But my great love for the field of occupational therapy and the practical result of my studies; helping people in need, help me maintain hope.”
Towards the end of 2005, the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, together with two other NGOs, filed a petition at the Israeli High Court in defense of 10 Gazan students who sought to study occupational therapy at Bethlehem University.
In 2006, the state of Israel responded to the petition in court and refused the student’s passage to the West Bank, comparing the relationship between Gaza and the West Bank to that of Israel and Syria.
This comparison reveals Israeli policy of total control and isolation of the Gaza strip despite its numerous legal obligations. As well as refusing to fulfill its humanitarian responsibilities to the residents of Gaza, Israel is denying these students their right to education and even more gravely, preventing Gazans from future access to these clinical services.
The State of Israel argues that it owes no duties to Gaza residents, despite its obligations as a de facto occupying power under International Law (even after the so-called ‘disengagement’ in October 2005, given the facts on the ground show Israel still behaves as an occupying power), its legal agreements under the Oslo Accords to recognize Gaza and the West Bank as ‘a single territorial’ and other pledges such as that in its own ‘disengagement’ plan, where Israel professed it would uphold its duty to facilitate humanitarian aid and economic development post ‘disengagement’.
While Gazan students continue to be denied access to education, please answer their call for international solidarity and speak out about their plight at your local university or community centre. The petition to the Israeli High Court includes a clear message from the Gazan students to the outside world:
“We call on anyone who is listening, who believes in freedom of movement and the right to education, to help us reach our studies; and to help the disabled Gaza residents who need the services we will learn to provide.”
You can also write to your government representative and request for them to put pressure on the state of Israel to uphold its basic legal obligations.
For more information, please see the recent press releases by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme on their website.