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Two members of the Ithaca community discussed the barriers to higher education in Palestine yesterday. The lecture titled, “Caged Birds Sing: Defending the Right to Education in Palestine,” held in Goldwin Smith Hall, was sponsored by the Students Acting for Justice and Equality in Palestine (SAJEP).
Prof. Beth Harris, politics, Ithaca College, discussed the importance of helping Palestinians to achieve higher education. Calling higher education a “fundamental right,” Harris said the right to education is a critical resource for Palestinians that seek to govern their own nation, manage their resources and create leadership for a peaceful future. There are currently 11 Palestinian universities, five university colleges and 25 community colleges that serve about 123,600 students, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education. However, many Palestinian students face a daily struggle when attempting to attend their university. Roadblocks and checkpoints imposed by Israeli soldiers can leave students waiting in line for hours just to reach campus. Restrictions in movement between Gaza and the West Bank also make it difficult for Palestinian students to travel between their homes and their universities.
The speakers also said that the Israeli government has sought to intervene in the Palestinian educational process through limitations on building expansions, taxes and forced entry into academic institutions. Palestinian universities also face a lack of financial resources, causing students to drop out because they cannot afford tuition. Other countries are hesitant to offer aid to universities, Harris said, because they view Palestine as a prison and “don’t want to invest in a prison knowing that things will likely get destroyed.”
As a member of the Israeli Coalition Against House Demolition, a joint Israeli-Palestinian campaign to end the destruction of Palestinian homes, Harris traveled to Palestine in 1997. She returned in 2000 with the Faculty for Israel-Palestinian Peace to research the impact of the conflict on higher education.
While visiting Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, Harris witnessed firsthand the financial and security problems that plague Palestinian universities. Although Al-Quds is home to nearly 6,000 students, it has less than 1,000 books in its library. In addition, the Israeli barrier designed to curb terrorism cuts through Al-Quds, affecting the mobility of students.
A Jew herself, Harris believes it is important for other Jews to speak out against the injustices committed against innocent Palestinians without feeling as if they are being unfaithful to Israel.
“Sometimes people feel as if we are betraying Israel and being anti-Semitic when we bring Palestinian issues to the forefront,” she said. “We have to resist this temptation. The security and future of Israel depends on peace, security and justice for both sides.”
Offering an even more direct perspective on the barriers to higher education in Palestine, Muna Aghawani grad spoke on her experience as a student at Birzeit University in Palestine from 1996-2000. Aghawani emphasized the necessity of education, saying, “Especially in Palestine, it is easy to lose your material possessions. Education is the only thing you can keep.”
Aghawani also reinforced Harris’s statements about the difficulty of attending a university, particularly for women. Because of random checkpoints along the roads leading to the university and the possibility of violence, parents often do not want their children to attend school. Aghawani said many of her friends stayed home from school due to violence and never returned.
“The number of students you lose who can’t go to school is heartbreaking,” she said. As a Palestinian student, Aghawani said she often felt isolated from the rest of academia. Research opportunities were limited, as funds were scarce.
“People want to learn but they are really frustrated not to have resources,” she said. “Students graduating now [from Palestinian universities] may be inadequately prepared because they didn’t have proper resources.”