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On the 17th of December 2008, Dr. Heinz Fischer, the President of Austria visited Birzeit University accompanied by a delegation of about 100 people, including the Austrian Minister of Education, the Minister of Defence and a number of government officials and academics. The President was received by BZU President, Dr. Nabeel Kassis, BZU Vice-Presidents, as well as the Governor of Ramallah and Bireh, Dr. Said Abu-Ali.
The Austrian delegation, in addition to Palestinian Minsiter of Tourism and Antiquities, Mrs. Kholood Da’eybis and a number of members of faculty and students of Birzeit University gathered in Kamal Nasser Hall for a presentation, first from the President of BZU who gave a welcoming speech in which he emphasised the importance of the visit as a show of support to BZU and to Palestinian higher education.
Dr. Kassis overviewed the history of BZU and how it was first established as a girls’ school, later developing into a mixed school, then a secondary school, then a college, until finally it became the first Palestinian University.
Then a group of student activists from the R2E Campaign presented on the Right to Education in Palestine. Semma Qur’an, a business student, introduced the right to education as a fundamental human right, enshrined in a number of international legal instruments. She also spoke about the obstacles the university faced due to the Occupation since it was founded in the 1970s, including 15 closures, the longest of which lasted four years from 1988 – 1992. Mai Tahboob, a law student then gave details of the physical barriers to access faced by students, including the Wall and Israeli military checkpoints. As a student who travels to Birzeit from Jerusalem daily, Mai has to spend between one to three hours at Qalandiya checkpoint on her way to university – a journey which would normally take half an hour turns into one of a minimum of two hours.
Salah Talhami, a business student, then spoke of a student who has waited more than 13 years to obtain his right to reside in the West Bank and is still waiting – this student faces two option daily given to him by the Israeli occupation – either a prison sentence or a 10,0000 shekel fine plus 1 shekel for every day he has ‘overstayed’ OR deportation where his children would also be permanently denied entry to the oPt. (See http://right2edu.birzeit.edu/news/article657 for full details of his story).
Rawan Dagher, a finance student then spoke about Israeil immigration controls and how they have the effect of infringing upon the academic freedom of Palestinian universities through isolating them and preventing exchange with international academics and students.
Semma Quran gave details of the military court systems, explaining how those established by Israel in the occupied territories are unjust and biased. She also spoke of the Birzeit Universitiy students and faculty currently detained inside Israeli jails, including those who are prisoners of conscience and those under administrative detention.
Finally Omar Qassis, a sociology student and ex-detainee spoke about his experience of arrest by the Israeli army – from being detained, to the interrogation procedure, to being given an administrative detention order and finally serving time in a prison in the Negev inside Israel. (For details of his case, click here or here)
The President of Austria thanked the students, and expressed his appreciation of their informative presentation, stressing the need for the European Union (EU) to play a role in assisting students to obtain their fundamental right to education.