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Conal Urquhart reports from Bir Zeit University on the West Bank, where moves to discuss an academic boycott of Israel have been welcomed.
Lisa Taraki, dean of graduate studies at Bir Zeit University, is puzzled by the uproar caused by the University and College Union’s decision to discuss a boycott of Israeli academics.
“There has been a great hue and cry about the academic freedom of Israelis as if the academic freedom of Palestinians is of no consequence. The Israelis are not interested in academic freedom, they are interested in the protection of their own privileges,” she said.
She has taught at the institution for 30 years and cannot remember a time when Israel did anything but try to suppress Palestinian education.
“We have been under siege for more than 30 years. In spite of this we have managed to build a credible institution,” she said.
Bir Zeit was founded as a girls’ school in 1924, but started offering degrees 50 years later. The university’s students became regular protesters against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the small peaceful countryside campus was often showered with stones and sprayed with tear gas as the army tried to crack down on peaceful dissent.
Ms Taraki said that until the 1990s, the university was regularly closed by military order. “Bir Zeit was always a target for the army.
“There would be a demonstration against the occupation, the army would come and there would be clashes. They would close the university, for a few weeks, a few months and on one occasion four years. The president was exiled for 19 years because the army accused him of inciting students,” she said.
“When the university was closed we did our best to continue. We held classes in Ramallah and Jerusalem. Thousands of students were arrested or put under town arrest or house arrest. So we would try and teach them in their homes or towns. For some, degrees took 10 years to complete.”
Bir Zeit sits on a hill above terraced valleys full of olive trees, outside Ramallah. It is much smaller than its Israeli counterparts but it has a similar buzz on its public spaces as students move between lectures or eat lunch in the sun.
The air of normality is deceptive. Many students have to spend more than half their day travelling to ensure they do not miss classes, and at every checkpoint there is the possibility, particularly for male students, that they will be randomly arrested.
“I have postgraduate students from Hebron. They leave their homes at 8am to get here in time for a 2pm class. The class finishes at 5pm and they get home around 10pm. The journey should only be one hour each way,” said Ms Taraki.
Undergraduates stay close to the university if they can, which adds an extra financial burden, but most students are restricted to going to the university closest to them. Students from Gaza are banned from going to the West Bank although there are many subjects that are not taught at Gazan universities.
“Bir Zeit used to have a very diverse student body with students from all over the West Bank and Gaza. Now most students come from the immediate area. This means the national character of the university is compromised. We do not want it be a local institution,” said Ms Taraki.
The restriction on movement means that universities cannot act as cultural centres as the majority of the population do not have the time and freedom to travel from one city to the next to hear a lecture or see a film. Even short journeys of 40 minutes require a special permit from the Israeli army, which can take hours to acquire.
As a result of the wars of 1948 and 1967 and 40 years of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, there is a large Palestinian diaspora all over the world. Many of the buildings in these areas were funded by expatriate Palestinians and the diaspora is a potential pool of students and teachers for Bir Zeit.
However, Israel is reluctant to allow expatriate Palestinians to return if only for a short time.
Many are denied entry at the airport, while others are restricted to a three-month tourist visa, which can only be renewed by leaving and re-entering Israel – at which point they could be denied entry.
An annual course at Bir Zeit for expatriate Palestinians in Palestinian culture and Arabic is normally attended by only half the students who subscribed for the course because of Israeli border restrictions.
Omar Qassis, a 22-year-old sociology student, said that the main problem for him was movement and the threat of arrest.
“Thirteen of my friends have been arrested. I was locked up for ten days after I was arrested at a checkpoint on the way to my final exams in 2005. I was told I was a suspect but nothing else,” he said. “On the fourth day, I was brought to court where the judge was told they had nothing against me but they wanted to detain me while they continued their checks. I was then released on the tenth day but I had missed my exams and had to do another term.”
The idea of a boycott of Israeli institutions is broadly supported by Palestinians, who are grateful that people in the international community are taking an interest in their plight.
Mira Dabit, 22, a student of psychology and sociology, said: “Everything else has failed. United Nations resolutions. Negotiation. A boycott is a last resort but it gets people talking about our situation and gives the world a chance to find out what is going on.”
Ms Taraki has little time for the complaints from her Israeli counterparts about the prospect of a boycott. “Where have these presidents been for the last three decades when our academic freedom has been trampled on every day? The claim that Israeli academics are at the forefront of disputing government policy is very hollow indeed. There has been a handful of academics who have supported the Palestinians but only a handful,” she said.
The main benefit of a boycott is not that it will provide equality of suffering but that it will provoke debate, she says.
“We are hopeful that during this year of discussion we will be able to speak at British universities and explain how we have been boycotted and besieged for the last 30 years,” said Ms Taraki.