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Why boycotts make sense to many

Palestinian Universities and Everyday Life under Occupation

Written by Right2Edu BZU  •  Friday, 30.10.2015, 09:24

Palestinian Universities and Everyday Life under Occupation

Why boycotts make sense to many.
By Kamala Visweswaran


On my last night in the old city of Jerusalem, I enter through the Flower’s Gate and walk through a busy market, past boys chasing each other on narrow streets, clusters of old men visiting in shop doorways, women leaning out of upper windows. The fading afternoon light amplifies the social relations of a neighborhood bound by intimate conversation and cheerful laughter. Just before I reach the Muslim cemetery, however, teenagers loitering a block away from the Lion’s Gate fling an empty glass bottle in front of a car backing out of a narrow driveway. As the glass shatters next to me, I glance back and see a youth holding the neck of a bottle, jagged face up, another fully intact bottle in his left hand. I step aside, but I am not in danger—the youth’s attention is focused on the car.


No words are exchanged, but it is clear that the driver of the car cannot advance without risking further broken glass and punctured tires; he is forced to continue backing up slowly until he reaches Lion’s Gate Road. I guess that this car’s driver is one of those who has gained (directly or inadvertently) from the ongoing demolition of Palestinian homes in the old city, because the house he has pulled away from looks like new construction. Buildings of new stone in the old city typically denote Israeli construction—usually on the lots of demolished Palestinian homes.[1] Most of the oldest buildings, of stone of historic and archeological value—that famed Jerusalem stone—has been reduced to rubble and replaced by newly quarried rock carrying the same name, which is also exported abroad.


Elsewhere in East Jerusalem that night, settlers would vandalize or set afire seven cars with Palestinian license plates. The following morning, I learn that yet another demolition had been scheduled in the Abu Dis village and that some of the Al-Quds University students my faculty colleagues and I had seen joyously celebrating the successful conclusion of their first round of exams days earlier had been tear-gassed while protesting and denied entry to campus to sit for their final exams.


In Jerusalem, as in other parts of the West Bank and Gaza, the struggle over space is a daily one.


In May 2013, I was part of an American faculty group that visited Palestinian universities on the West Bank. As we learned then, the residents of Abu Dis in East Jerusalem refer to it as “no-man’s-land.” The Oslo agreement divides the West Bank—the territory that along with Gaza is supposed to constitute the Palestinian state—into three zones. Israel controls all of Zone C, or 60 percent of the land in the West Bank, while Zone A, with 18 percent of the land, is controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Abu Dis sits in Zone B, which makes up 22 percent of the West Bank, where the PA has civilian authority but Israel retains military authority and control of security.


A major car theft ring operates in Abu Dis, but the Israeli security agencies seem to have turned a blind eye to organized crime. Abu Dis is a ghetto and its population is captive, in large part because of the wall that runs around the perimeter of Al-Quds University but also cuts off the residents of Abu Dis from their work in Jerusalem.


Although Abu Dis is scant kilometers from East Jerusalem, long lines and an elaborate network of checkpoints mean that it can take students and faculty at Al-Quds two hours to get to Jerusalem, where many have relatives, and the same amount of time to return. The Al-Quds campus in Abu Dis is separated from some of its offices in the old city and from its historic Hind al-Husseini Girls College in Sheikh Jarrah; about thirteen thousand students go through checkpoints to get to Al-Quds University. One colleague’s wife has a blue ID connoting Israeli citizenship[2] and the coveted yellow license plate denoting residence in Israel or Jerusalem.[3] She and their children will go through the checkpoint separately; my colleague with a green West Bank ID will travel in a separate car with green Palestinian license plates and into a different queue where it may take hours to clear the checkpoint—if he has a proper permit.


Most of the time my colleague is separated from his family. He cannot live with them in Jerusalem because Israel’s permit system will not allow any Palestinian from the West Bank permanent residence,[4] and permits are notoriously hard to get, even if one is trying urgently to access a hospital or sites of religious worship.[5] My colleague’s family can visit him in the West Bank, but if they live with him they will lose their family home in Jerusalem and forfeit Israeli citizenship.[6]


We heard multiple versions of this story of families split apart by the wrong color ID from the Palestinian academics and others we met.


A talented MA student I met at Birzeit University has been separated from her young children and parents in Gaza since it was blockaded by Israeli defense forces in 2007. She cannot claim her children to bring them to the West Bank where she lives and studies. And once she reenters Gaza with her orange ID, she, like 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, will be trapped there and not allowed to return to the West Bank.[7] According to a joint report by the Israeli human rights groups Hamoked and B’Tselem, this situation arises because Israel has blocked updates to its population registry since 2000, making it virtually impossible for Palestinians to move or update their places of residence.[8] Our faculty group could not visit Gaza; Israel, for over a decade, has blocked students from Gaza from studying in the West Bank, in Israel, or anywhere else abroad. A few cases of students appealing to study abroad or in the West Bank have been decided by Israel’s high court; most were denied. We heard of such a case at Bethlehem University, where one student, Bethany Azzam, who had been stopped at a checkpoint with a Gaza ID in 2009, was deported two months before she was due to graduate and was prevented from returning to the West Bank to finish her degree. Her case was taken up by the Israeli human rights organization Gisha, but, despite an absence of security charges against her, the court denied her appeal.[9]


Palestinians pass through a complex series of checkpoints on a daily basis. While some checkpoints were closed when our faculty seminar visited, temporary checkpoints come up routinely, without notice, and delay Palestinians trying to get to work. A faculty member in the law school at Al-Quds said it took him up to three hours each way to get to the university from his home in Hebron—a trip that took our bus with the yellow license plate only an hour on specially built bypass roads intended for use by Israeli citizens.[10] Some Palestinian academics are not allowed to travel outside of the West Bank at all, like one brilliant young instructor at a women’s studies program who had spent several years in prison. Those Palestinians who wish to travel abroad must leave from and return to the West Bank through Jordan. Palestinian Americans with US passports and Palestinian IDs are likewise obliged to travel to and from the West Bank through Jordan.[11] Only Palestinians with Israeli passports or blue IDs connoting residency in Jerusalem are allowed to fly in and out of Tel Aviv; one such well-traveled colleague told me of being humiliated and aggressively strip-searched in Ben Gurion Airport on her way to a conference abroad. A young American colleague who teaches at Al-Quds University told me of being routinely strip-searched when she goes through checkpoints.


Other universities in the West Bank that we visited—Birzeit University, Bethlehem University, Hebron University, and An-Najah University (Nablus)—had new facilities and state-of-the-art equipment. At Hebron University, an enterprising young Palestinian student in the new media lab had taught herself Hebrew in order to read the news in Israeli papers, which she then translated into Arabic for a popular radio show broadcast throughout the West Bank. Despite the new buildings and dedicated activity, however, faculty at all the universities we visited reported a feeling of isolation—not only was travel for Palestinian academics restricted and expensive, but faculty exchanges were also difficult to arrange. Visiting international academics could rarely get permission to stay beyond two or three months, which made teaching a class for a semester or long-term academic partnerships virtually impossible.


According to the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, up to 40 percent of Palestinian men have been detained or have spent some time in prison.[12] The occupation has produced an unbalanced gender ratio at all Palestinian universities we visited, where about 60 percent of recent graduates are women, though women make up perhaps only 20 percent of the faculty.[13] The president of An-Najah University, Rami Hamdallah, whom we met just before he was selected to lead the PA, had recently named women faculty to key administrative positions in units like the School of Medicine.[14] But all faculty we met struggled with high teaching loads, course cancellation, and disruptions; at the time of our visit, many at Birzeit University were on strike in solidarity with Al-Quds University faculty who had not been paid for several months by the PA, in part because Israel had once again held up its tax transfers.[15] Palestinian universities were under siege from a range of forces that stemmed directly or indirectly from the occupation. Al-Quds University, in particular, struggled with conditions that seemed to crystallize the impact of the occupation on higher education in the West Bank.


From 2012 to 2014, there were thirty-one Israeli military incidents on Al-Quds University’s main campus. During these incidents, 2,473 people were injured, 5,121 tear-gas canisters and bullets were fired, and 276 people were interrogated by Israeli intelligence. In the 2013–14 academic year alone, 640 classes were canceled, and twelve thousand students were evacuated from the campus on three different occasions. Sixty students were arrested and detained for their political affiliations and on-campus activities.[16]


While Bethlehem University has a small memorial to students killed in the first intifada, Al-Quds University has an entire museum dedicated to current political prisoners, some surprisingly young, and many of them students, as our guide explained. To date, over 190 Al-Quds University students have been placed in indefinite administrative detention by Israel; some have been detained for up to thirteen years, with the majority being held with no official charges.[17] Unlike other universities in the West Bank, which sat in beautiful suburban areas, much of Al-Quds University was surrounded by the wall and urban decay.


On visiting one of the modest research institutes at Al-Quds University, I could see an unfinished mosaic restoration project whose funds from a European donor country had run out. I could see, too, that it had no facilities for storing materials from recent research near Jericho—one of the earliest and most important sites of civilizational settlement. In the cramped lab, two tables were spread thick with sorted potsherds and osteological remains awaiting classification; a jumble of bones sat in large paper sacks in the rear corner of the room. My colleague had, however, managed to have DNA from the materials analyzed by a genetics lab in the medical faculty. There was no university-run transportation, so we took a taxi one way and a mini-bus to return—the one-hour round trip in midday heat left me exhausted, and I couldn’t imagine that this professor, who also faces a daily two-hour commute from Bethlehem (one that should take just twenty minutes by car) and has considerable teaching responsibilities, manages to get there very often.


The DNA taken from this human fossil material contained evidence of perhaps the earliest transmission of human tuberculosis. This is an important finding about the history of early human settlement, but conference travel for Palestinian academics is often difficult, if not impossible; there are no resources available for this professor to present his findings at scientific forums. Fossilized plant remains from the site on outmoded slides had yet to be analyzed because the lab lacks the equipment to prepare them for digitalization that could allow for outside evaluation.


This professor is one of a handful of Palestinian academics who have been trained in an Israeli university, but it took him ten years to finish his PhD as a result of the difficulty in traveling from the West Bank into East Jerusalem on a daily basis. He is bitter about the international funding Israeli universities receive that require them to take in a token handful of Palestinian students like him in exchange for large collaborative grants while leaving the structure of the occupation intact, including the inherently discriminatory policies of Israeli universities. According to one recent study, while Palestinian citizens of Israel constitute more than 20 percent of the country’s population, only 9.5 percent of BA students, 4.8 percent of MA students, 3.2 percent of PhD students, and a mere 1 percent of the academic staff in Israeli academic institutions are Palestinians. Palestinian applicants are three times more likely to be rejected by Israeli academic institutions than are Jewish applicants.[18]


I spoke to two Palestinian faculty members with Israeli citizenship who are among the few who teach in Israeli academic institutions. While they sometimes find sensitive colleagues, and even ones opposed to the occupation, they are emphatic about the discriminatory policies of the universities that employ them; they, like their counterparts in the West Bank, are strongly in favor of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In fact, not a single faculty member or student we met was opposed to the boycott; indeed, any conversation on academic topics was never far from the subject of ending the occupation, since it negatively suffuses every aspect of Palestinian life. Palestinian faculty members I spoke to raised the boycott issue spontaneously, without prompting from members of our seminar. They did so in part because, aside from the inequities that result from the structure of the occupation on higher education in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli academic institutions are embedded in Israel’s military structure and security industry and also profit from, or participate in, illegal[19] land grabs and demolitions.[20]


Take, for instance, the military affiliations of Israel’s premier academic institution, the Hebrew University, founded in 1925. Since 1969, the Israeli Army’s Command and Staff College (PUM), the main institute for training officers and command staff, has also had an academic side, first under the charge of Tel Aviv University and later under the Hebrew University. In addition to PUM, the Israeli army has other military colleges that, as of 2005, are also under the academic auspices of the Hebrew University and are supposed to be built inside the Hebrew University campus.[21]


It is important to understand that the expansion of the Hebrew University into East Jerusalem neighborhoods is partly driven by plans to expand military training there. Yuri Keller further explains HU’s complicity with Israel’s illegal settlements,

Hebrew University has become an accomplice in building in settlements on Palestinian lands. Its Mount Scopus campus is situated inside the Green Line, but bordering on Palestinian land in virtually all directions. Since the 1970s, the university has attempted to oust nine Palestinian families who live in nearby lands in order to expand its campus. Hebrew University has already built on lands belonging to the Palestinian villages of Lifta, al-Issawiya, and Wadi al-Joz. In 2004 the university began expansion onto another area that belongs to Palestinians, in order to build parking lots, offices and student housing. A big part of the Hebrew University’s student housing is located on French Hill, a settlement neighborhood of Jerusalem. This student housing area also serves the Bezalel Art Academy.[22]

At the time of our faculty group visit, demolitions resulting from Hebrew University pressure on the Jerusalem municipality to evict Palestinian residents of the neighboring Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood (where the women’s college of Al-Quds University is located) were ongoing. Some years ago, about eight hundred HU faculty and students protested the university’s expansion into Sheikh Jarrah; other HU faculty have also written policy documents advising against the expansion of the university in Sheikh Jarrah and other Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.[23] One colleague at the Hebrew University who spent several weeks documenting the effects of the university’s expansion into the Silwan neighborhood, which displaced dozens of families, said she rarely had time to attend to work in her field because, as one of the few Hebrew-speaking Palestinians in the area around the old city, she is often called on to serve as an advocate for neighborhoods facing or undergoing demolition. Sadly, the studies and documentation of the Hebrew University expansion have had little effect; those who are most vocal have been targeted and harassed by extremist groups in Israel. Some argue that an academic boycott of Israeli institutions would hurt the principled faculty who oppose the occupation, but the opposite may also be true: an academic boycott would support those principled Israeli and Palestinian academics who oppose the occupation but who, without international support, are more readily isolated and rendered vulnerable in their home institutions.


The AAUP opposes all academic boycotts on principle as part of its long-standing commitment to the free exchange of ideas. We all know, however, that boycotts are a tested means of ethical, nonviolent social action that have been used successfully in the US civil rights movement and in India, South Africa, and other parts of the world. Indeed, the AAUP supported economic divestment from South Africa, a form of boycott. The academic boycott of Israeli universities and research organizations is an institutional one and does not target individual Israeli academics, who in any case face no restrictions on travel to the United States for conferences and other forums.


Israeli universities engage in discriminatory practices and are complicit in the military’s routine violation of the human rights and academic freedom of Palestinian faculty and students. If such violations occurred on US university campuses, they would not be tolerated. Indeed, the AAUP censures institutions for violations of its 1940 Statement on Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure,[24] a document that has been endorsed by more than 240 professional associations, including the American Anthropological Association (AAA), of which I am a member. The AAA itself, in keeping with federal antidiscrimination law, has monitored universities for gender discrimination in employment and advancement, and it requires that prospective employers seeking to advertise with the AAA include a statement of nondiscrimination with respect to sexual orientation and expression.[25] The boycott of Israeli academic institutions is an extension of these basic nondiscrimination principles, an affirmation of the Palestinian right to academic freedom, and a refusal to compromise on Palestinian human rights.



I thank Cynthia Franklin, Bob Ross, Sunaina Maira, and Rhoda Kanaaneh for their comments and feedback.



[1] According to Human Rights Watch, “Israel has sponsored the development of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem, even in houses from which Palestinian residents are evicted, while strictly limiting Palestinian building and development, including by demolishing homes. [. . .] Palestinian homes and buildings that are not constructed in accordance with an approved Israeli plan are not eligible for building permits and are subject to demolition. When Palestinians construct, repair, or renovate homes, mosques, schools, medical clinics, animal pens, electricity poles, water pipes, wells, and cisterns without prior Israeli authorization—which is often impossible to obtain—the Israeli Civil Administration distributes “stop work” orders and may then authorize demolition. From 2000 to 2007, Israeli authorities rejected more than 94 percent of Palestinian building permit requests in Area C; according to government statistics, for every building permit application granted to Palestinians by the Israeli authorities during this period, 18 Palestinian structures were demolished and demolition orders were issued for 55 more.” See Human Rights Watch, Separate and Unequal: Israel’s Discriminatory Treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, December 2010, 10-11,

[2] For an introduction to the Israeli ID system, see Helga Tawil-Souri, “Colored Identity: The Politics and Materiality of ID Cards in Palestine/Israel,” Social Text 107, Summer 2011,

[4] According to a 2013 report by the American Friends Service Committee: “In 2002 Israel also frozen [sic] the family reunification process through which Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza could gain Jerusalem residency rights if they married a Palestinian from Jerusalem.  The Military Order that put in place this freeze was transformed into ‘The Nationality and Entry into Israeli Law’ in 2003.  This law makes it nearly impossible for Palestinian [sic] from the occupied Palestinian territory who are the spouses of Palestinian Jerusalemites (or Palestinian-Israelis) to gain citizenship.  The effect of this law is thatPalestinians from Jerusalem who marry Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza must move out of Jerusalem if they wish to live with their spouse, but if they move they risk losing their Jerusalem residency rights.” See the American Friends Service Committee website,

[6] “Since 1967 over 14,000 Palestinians have had their residency rights in the city revoked. According to Israeli law the residency right of Palestinian Jerusalemites can be revoked if they leave Israel for a period of 7 years, if they gain permanent residency status in another country, if they gain citizenship status in another country, if they are declared a threat to national security, or if their center of life (job, home, etc.) as defined by the Israeli government is not in the city.  Students studying abroad, individuals who leave Israel to pursue work opportunities, and Jerusalemites who gain employment in the West Bank have all had their Permanent Resident status revoked.  Losing Permanent Resident status means losing their right to visit or live in Jerusalem. These same restrictions do not apply to Jewish Israeli residents of Jerusalem.” See American Friends Service Committee website,

[7] See “Forget About Him, He’s Not Here: Israel’s Control of Palestinian Residency in the West Bank and Gaza,” Human Rights Watch, February 5, 2012,

[8] “In 2000, after the second intifada broke out, Israel suspended all updates to its copy of the registry regarding changes of address from Gaza to the West Bank. Since then, Gaza residents who have moved to the West Bank have been unable to update their home address in the registry. Yet even prior to the suspension of updates, Israel did not always automatically approve changing a Gaza address to a West Bank one. According to Israeli estimates, there are some 19,000 adults and 2,500 minors currently living in the West Bank, whose home address is listed as the Gaza Strip in the Israeli copy of the Palestinian population registry.” See “So Near and Yet So Far: Implications of Israeli-Imposed Seclusion of Gaza Strip on Palestinians’ Right to Family Life,” Joint Report by Hamoked and B’Tselem, January 2014, 12

[9] See Kevin Flower, “Deported Palestinian Student Can’t Return,” CNN, December 9, 2009,; Lawahez Jabari, NBC News(blog), December 14, 2009,… and Bethlehem University website,

[10] “In February 2014, there were 65.12 kilometers of roads in the West Bank that Israel had classified for the sole, or practically sole, use of Israelis, first and foremost of settlers. Israel also prohibits Palestinians from even crossing some of these roads with vehicles, thereby restricting their access to nearby roads that they are ostensibly not prohibited from using. In these cases, Palestinians travelers have to get out of the vehicle, cross the road on foot, and find an alternative mode of transportation on the other side. In addition, Palestinian motor traffic is prohibited on 6.72 kilometers of internal roads in downtown Hebron. Some sections are off-limits to Palestinian pedestrian traffic as well.” See B’Tselem website,

[11] See website of the Consulate General of the United States, Jerusalem,

[14] He resigned several weeks later.

[15] Israel has a long history of suspending, or threatening to suspend its tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority (as much as two-thirds of the PA budget) as per Oslo. See “Israel Withholds Palestinian Cash Transfer,” Al Jazeera, May 1, 2011,.; Barak Ravid, “Israel’s ‘Freeze on PA Funds’? Pure Spin,” Haaretz, April 13, 2014;; and “Regional Reaction to Palestine’s UNESCO Bid,” Middle East Policy Council website,

[16] See Kamilah Moore, “Israeli attacks on Al Quds University give new meaning to ‘academic freedom,’” Mondoweiss (blog), November 17, 2014,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Yuri Yacob Keller, “Academic Boycott of Israel and the Complicity of Israeli Academic

Institutions in Occupation of Palestinian Territories,” Economy of the Occupation,Socioeconomic Bulletin, No 23, Alternative Information Center (AIC), October 2009,.p.16.

[19] Illegal by international standards, that is.

[20] See Yitzhak Reiter and Lior Lehrs, “The Sheikh Jarrah Affair: The Strategic Implications of Jewish Settlement in an Arab Neighborhood in East Jerusalem,” The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies Series, no. 404 (2010), 29 and 32-35,

[21] Keller, 17.

[22] Keller, p. 19. See also Saswan Ramahi, “Israeli Settlement Policy in Occupied Jerusalem”Middle East Monitor Report, April 2013, 5-8,….

[23] Reiter and Lehrs.

[24] See the American Association of University Professors website,

[25] See American Anthropological Association website, See

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