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The right to occupied Paleeducation is a fundamental human right – one not often honoured in the stinian Territories, where thousands of students are blockaded by the Israeli authorities who refuse them the right to freedom of movement.
Rami Abdu, who last month succeeded in crossing the Rafah border to take up his PhD in finance at Manchester Metropolitan University, is one such victim. “I got a full scholarship to Manchester one and a half years ago. I tried to cross the border four times and I sent messages to human rights groups, but like many students I was unsuccessful.
“As the offer was only valid for a short period, I lost my scholarship. I reapplied to Manchester amongst other universities this year and after waiting for four days without sleeping at the border, I have become one of the lucky ones able to take up my place in England.
“I’m married with three daughters, and I was forced to leave them in Palestine. I know that I won’t see them again until after I have completed my studies in three or four year’s time. This is an unimaginable feeling.”
Mr Abdu is one of few students that have been fortunate enough to take up places in higher education abroad. Gisha Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement is an Israeli human rights group lobbying on behalf of Palestinian students against the closure policy. The executive director, Sari Bashi claims that as universities in Gaza offer only undergraduate degrees, close to 1,000 students attempt to leave the Palestine territories to pursue higher education every year, and this year only about a third of them were allowed out. Moreover, Gisha estimates that there are hundreds of students trapped in the OPT that after having returned for the holidays, have been prevented from leaving to recommence courses at foreign universities.
However, pressure from world leaders over the ban, led to Israeli officials earlier this year to declare that they would allow a few students who hold “recognized scholarships” seeking access to educational institutions in “friendly countries” to leave Gaza. Mr Bashi also commented that, “By letting out a few people, Israel has been able to deflect attention from the hundreds of students and 1.5 million people still trapped in Gaza. Punishing innocent civilians for the behaviour of political leaders violates international prohibitions, and qualifies as collective punishment.”
Indeed, article 13 section (c) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) 1966, states “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education”. This was ratified by Israel in 1999.
As Mr Abdu describes, these committments are not being met. “More than 1,200 students can’t reach their universities, with many having won scholarships at foreign universities. These students have their hopes and ambitions for the future, not just for themselves but for the future of Palestine, hopes that the Israeli authorities continually destroy.
“These students are the future leaders of Palestine; many are post-grads whose degrees are not offered in Palestine, who want to help solve the problems our country faces, for example, with regard to poverty, medical and educational issues. It is necessary for us to receive a higher level of training and expertise not available in Gaza.”
Furthermore, Mr Abdu alleges that the Israeli authorities egregiously violate the human rights of prospective students “by not allowing us to leave, imprisoning us, subjecting us to examination, torture and bribery and sieging some students who do manage to get out. The Israeli government send false information and security tags to the country of destination, so that upon arrival they have their visas revoked and are sent back, I know these students and they have no political agenda, as is the case with the US Fulbright scholar who upon arrival in Washington was denied entry.”
Mr Abdu concluded: “I cannot describe the feeling of turmoil, and the effect these actions have on students, and their families. The plight of students highlights the wider Palestinian problem of Israeli occupation and the everyday suffering Palestinians endure that has intensified over the past two years.”
Israeli prime minister-elect Tzipi Livni – foreign minister under Ehud Olmert – summed up Israel’s official position in a letter on July 7: “The policy of not permitting exit abroad for students from Gaza is part of the Security Cabinet decision from October 19, 2007 which defined Gaza as a hostile entity and placed restrictions on the borders for passage of goods and movement of people… except for humanitarian cases.” Israel declared Gaza a “hostile entity” after they failed to overthrow the elected government in an attempted coup, assisted by US-trained Fatah fighters during summer 2007.
The Israeli occupation has not only circumscribed students seeking access to education externally, but restricted movement within Gaza itself, which has resulted in students’ education being significantly compromised. Anan Quzmar, organiser of Action Palestine, left An-Najah university in Nablus to study in the UK due to the occupation.
Mr Quzmar told The Journal: “An-Najah is the biggest university in the Palestinian territories, and can cater for almost 17,000 students, but the education of Palestinians, due to Israeli occupation, is awful.
“Students are subjected to daily checkpoints, roadblocks and arbitrary detention. The dean of affairs at An-Najah has estimated that approximately 100 students and six members of staff are in jail. Many lecturers and students have been denied entry and have difficulty in entering the Nablus region where the university is located; five lecturers have had to stop teaching because of this.”
In addition to reports from the Palestinian Red Crescent that 42 students were killed between 2000 and 2005, Action Palestine alleges that many students are subjected to abuse and violence by the Israeli military if detained at checkpoints.
The case of Qasem, 19, a student at An-Najah National University, is one example documented by Action Palestine. Qasem and a group of friends were stopped at a checkpoint by Israeli soldiers, and assaulted.
“…the soldier, laughing at his ability to bear pain, then took a piece of glass and broke it. He took Qasem’s arm and began to cut into it a Star of David. When Qasem struggled to break free the captain beat his legs and held his arm still. Qasem was released but he was not permitted to pass through the checkpoint, but instead he had to take the back roads. He still bears the scar today,” states Action Palestine’s report.
There has been widespread support for an academic boycott of Israel in the UK. In May, at the University and College Union (UCU) annual conference lecturers voted overwhelmingly to call on colleagues to “consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions, and to discuss the occupation with individuals and institutions concerned, including Israeli colleagues with whom they are collaborating.” The UCU is now facing legal action if it doesnÂ’t retract its decision.
The government, however, believe the boycott is damaging to the peace process in the Middle East. A spokesperson for the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) said: “The Government is completely opposed to any form of academic boycott of Israel, which will harm rather than help moves towards peace and reconciliation in the middle-east.”
Despite Israel’s alleged treatment of students in the occupied territories, the government have moved towards improving links with Israel. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Omert launched the British Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership (BIRAX) in July 2008. BIRAX, developed by the British Council and Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) will receive 700,000 pounds of funding over five years and is intended to strengthen academic collaboration between Britain and Israel.
Many academics have expressed outrage at this scheme, and have declared they will continue to protest against the government’s endorsement of Israel. Professor Jonathan Rosenhead, Emeritus Professor of Operational Research at the London School of Economics and member of British Committee for the Universities of Palestine told The Journal: “BIRAX is a disgrace.
“It was cobbled together by the UK government in order to ‘demonstrate’ solidarity with Israeli universities faced with the movement for a boycott by academics in the UK and internationally. Our governments and political classes are locked in an unholy embrace with Israel, despite its four-decades long illegal occupation of so much of Palestine.
“The Palestinian students trapped in Gaza are one particularly vivid example of these policies – vindictively prevented from pursuing their studies as part of the Israeli siege. It is up to civil society to express its revulsion, and create an international climate of opinion in which our governments are forced to bring pressure on Israel to withdraw.
“Academics can do this in an unusually direct way, as so much academic ‘trade’ is international in nature. Non-academics also have opportunities to contribute to the pressure – through the boycott of consumer goods, and the cultural boycott. And as we do this, we give heart to the Palestinians in their dreadful situation.”