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Although the 1993 interim Oslo Accords define the West Bank and Gaza as “one single territorial unit,” Israel’s lingering Second Intifada security policies have created a clear policy of intentional separation.
Among the chief victims of Israel’s separation policy and subsequent blockade of the Gaza Strip has been academic relations between the coastal enclave and the West Bank.
Up until 1999, academic traffic within occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) was relatively unrestricted, with over 1,000 students from Gaza studying in West Bank universities every year.
However, after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, Israeli authorities implemented a complete ban on all academic travel between the two territories. Subsequently, only three (US-funded) students from Gaza have been lucky enough to make the trip and complete their studies in the West Bank.
As a matter of fact, there has not been free movement between the West Bank and Gaza since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the territories. However, limitations on travel were severely increased in 2000.
A compressed 16 category list, compiled by the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT – a unit in Israel’s Ministry of Defense charged with coordinating civilian issues between the Government of Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces, the Palestinian Authority, diplomats and international organizations), now governs who is eligible to travel from the Gaza Strip into the West Bank.
Those fortunate enough to gain entry into what COGAT refers to as Judea and Samaria (the biblical term Israeli Authorities use for the West Bank) include Christians wishing to visit holy sites during the holidays (but not their Muslim counterparts), senior merchants, collaborators (labeled ‘threatened parties’), the seriously ill and Palestinian soccer players. Students from Gaza, of any echelon, do not make the list.
The right to education in West Bank obstructed by Israeli High Court
Recently, a group of five academically exceptional women from Gaza attempted to break Israel’s de facto academic partition, petitioning the Israeli High Court of Justice (with the help of Gisha, an Israeli Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, and Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights) to permit their travel into the West Bank in order to finish out their masters degrees at Birzeit University, arguably the most respected university in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt).
Andaleeb (46), Amal (42), Suhair (37), and Azza (49), three of whom are mothers and all who hold senior positions in various civil society organizations within the Gaza Strip, began their MA degrees together in 1999 at Birzeit University. Andaleeb, Amal and Suhair entered into the Gender, Law and Development program while Azza pursued Democracy and Human Rights.
Unfortunately, after finishing half of their total credit hours, the group’s studies were cut short owing to the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Since the Second Intifada and Israel’s subsequent ban on student travel the group of four women have been unable to return to Birzeit to complete their degrees.
The fifth petitioner, 18 year-old Loujain, has only ever visited the West Bank once in her life: for one day when she was six years old. At the top of her class in the Vatican funded Holy Family High School, Loujain scored a 98% average in her matriculation exams last year. Wanting to follow in her mother’s footsteps, Loujain applied and was accepted in the law program at Birzeit University.
Upon receiving the five women’s petition back in May of 2012, Israel’s High Court of Justice (HJC) instructed the state of Israel to review its policy regarding the ban of academic travel between Gaza and the West Bank; however, the policy review was ordered for only four of the five women. Petitioner number five, Loujain, was rejected flat out. Her 18 years of age places her within Israel’s “risk profile,” a category used for anyone (read: any Palestinian) aged 16 – 35, and therefore brands her as a “general threat” to the Israeli state. For the time being, Loujain will have to give up her dream of studying at her mother’s alma mater.
The four older petitioners, being above the “risk profile” age and without any criminal/security record, believed that perhaps the state would accept the HCJ’s suggestion and make an exception to its blanket ban on academic travel.
After the Israeli state refused the HJC order to reconsider its policy, another hearing was held in August 2012. The second HJC panel of three judges “issued a formal order,” directing the state to preform a policy review, in what Sari Bashi, the Executive Director of Gisha, claims was “a precursor for compelling the state to let the students travel.”
The state refused, once again, to review its policy vis-à-vis academic travel between Gaza and the West Bank, so a third and final hearing was held in late September 2012. The three-judge panel was split two to one over the appeal, with two judges ruling against the petitioners appeal for their cases to be evaluated as individuals in exception to Israel’s present policy of separation.
“At the end of the day,” says Bashi, “seven out of the nine HJC justices were sympathetic to our case. It took just two negative opinions to bring the case to a close.”
Misleading Security Concerns
Tens of similar appeals have been submitted to the HJC over the last decade but only three students have succeeded (most likely because they were part of a US backed study program). Sari Bashi, indicates that over the last several years the number of applicants has slowed to almost nil, as most people view the petitions to be rather futile.
Under international law, a Palestinian resident has the right to travel within the Palestinian territory and choose his or her place of residence as he or she pleases, be it in Gaza or the West Bank. Israel’s only legal objection to the students’ appeal should be if the study necessitates travel through Israeli territory.
However, there are ways around traveling through Israeli territory in order to access the West Bank from Gaza. At least one of the recent five petitioners was willing to travel to Birzeit via Egypt and Jordan yet her appeal was still denied. Such a ruling shows that despite Israel’s deceptive focus on ‘security concerns’, in practice, its separation policy is far more extensive.
The Israeli government considers the entirety of the West Bank to be off limits to citizens of Gaza, effectively partitioning two parts of one, internationally recognized, geographical entity and collectively punishing the 1.5 million residents of Gaza.
Additionally, both the HJC’s September ruling a similar ruling in 2007 (Hamdan vs. Southern Military Commanders) argue against student travel on the grounds that West Bank universities are “greenhouses for breeding terrorists.” The ruling goes on to argue that Israel has ground to reject any “foreign enemy” entry into its territory, in which it includes the entirety of the West Bank.
“These [the five Gazan students] are residents of a foreign entity. The petitioners would not argue that a Canadian resident is entitled to “ordinary” civil rights in the USA other than by agreement between the two countries,” reads Justice E. Rubinstein’s written verdict from the September 2012 ruling.
But many argue that Israeli fears are of an entirely different character.
The real fear of the Israeli system is that residents of Gaza may potentially “move their ‘center of life’ to the West Bank, find work there, have children and settle down,” said Amira Hass in her Haaretz column last year.
This bogus fear, Hass argues is “equivalent to fearing that residents of Ashkelon may settle down in Tel Aviv or Haifa.”
Either owing to potential Hamas affiliations or a desire to keep the Palestinian leadership fragmented, Israeli policies place a clear emphasis on separating the two territories and discontinuing any and all ties that may lead to the future reunification of the two territories. ]
The purported Israeli fear of universities being ‘hotbeds for terrorism,’ may in reality be a cover for its fear of the potential strengthening of friendships and romantic relationships that are so commonly found in universities across the world.
In Israel’s eyes, Gaza needs to be maintained as a dumping ground for prisoners and any other persona non grata it wishes to deport from the West Bank. The free flow of students would only serve to muddy the increasingly sanitized waters of Palestinian Authority controlled West Bank.
Regardless of whether it is in Israeli interest to do so, its separation policies and unilateral assertion of control over the West Bank are contrary to international law.
“Israel has an obligation under international law to allow Palestinians freedom of movement throughout the entirety of the territories and not to treat the West Bank as an extension of Israel because its not,” says Sari Bashi. “It is occupied territory.”