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Right to Education

The Struggle for an Equal Right to Academic Freedom

Written by admin  •  Thursday, 07.07.2011, 15:35

Israeli Army at the gates to the Birzeit University on September 3rd 2002. Photo: Yasser Darwish

Struggles by Palestinian scholars for academic freedom and equal rights are inextricably linked to Israel’s decades-long, belligerent occupation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza. Most recently, this brutality by the Israeli occupation was blatantly exposed during Israel’s lethal assault on the Gaza Strip, mainly in densely-populated civilian areas, from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009.

The 22 day assault on Gaza took the lives of more than 1,400 Palestinians, at least 85 per cent of whom were civilians, including 313 children[1]. This assault, termed by the Israeli forces as ‘Operation Cast Lead’, garnered wide condemnation from the international community. In particular, a number of international human rights organizations including Amnesty International,[2] Human Rights Watch[3] and United Nations agencies[4] issued reports detailing Israel’s violations of the laws of war and international humanitarian law. There were also numerous allegations of war crimes, including the unlawful targeting of civilians, the use of white phosphorous bombs in densely populated areas, and the targeting of civilian institutions, including academic institutions.

The term ‘scholasticide’ has been coined to describe the systematic destruction by Israeli forces of centres of education. The Ministry of Education and the Islamic University of Gaza were bombed, and schools across the Gaza Strip were attacked, including two United Nations schools that were being used as temporary civilian shelters, causing extensive damage and many injuries and deaths.[5]

These attacks on civilians and buildings, including educational institutions, should not be seen as isolated occurrences. Rather, the attacks reflect a systematic policy by Israel to target the Palestinian education system, persisting throughout the history of the occupation. Palestinians have historically strived for education as an end in itself, but also as a means of survival and peaceful resistance against military occupation, dispossession and exile.

When the first Palestinian universities emerged in the 1970s, their vision was not only to provide opportunities for higher education, but also to support and develop a learned Palestinian society as an intrinsic part of the national struggle for liberation. This potential of education as a tool of liberation made it an easy target for the Israeli military establishment. Attacks against education have come in the form of closure of institutions, denial of access to education, the killing and injuring of students and teachers, arrests and deportations, and the destruction of academic institutions.

Israeli Attacks on Education Starting in 1967, the Israel occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip resulted in severe travel restrictions. This denied Palestinians the right to travel to pursue higher education in neighbouring Arab countries or further abroad. These restrictions spurred the emergence of a number of universities in the Occupied Territories, including Hebron (1971), Bethlehem (1973), Birzeit (1973), Al Najah (1977) and the Islamic University (1978).

However, almost immediately after their establishment, these Palestinian institutions of higher education came under attack by the Israeli occupation. For example, in 1973, just as Birzeit was nearing completion as a fully-fledged university, the Israeli authorities closed down the campus by military order; a measure that was repeated on several other occasions. A year later, in 1974, the president of Birzeit University, Dr. Hanna Nasir, was arrested by the Israeli authorities and deported to Lebanon. Dr. Nasir continued to preside over the University in exile for nineteen years. Upon returning to Birzeit in 1993 he stated:

It has been my personal belief for many years that the key to the liberation of Palestine can be found in higher education.…The close relationship between academic freedom, human rights, and the right to self-determination remains the crucible in which Palestinian higher education must develop and thrive.[6]

Within weeks of the start of the first Intifada in December 1987, Israel closed down all six Palestinian universities, 13 colleges and five training centres. On 2 February 1988, the Israeli Army ordered the closure of all 1,194 schools in the West Bank until further notice. Less than a year later, the kindergartens were also closed down by military order. Despite these disturbances, the effort to maintain continuity in the education system persisted. For example, Palestinian education went underground with classes being held in churches, mosques and living rooms. However, the Israeli army frequently raided these makeshift classes, arresting those in attendance. On 19 April 1989, The Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli police had ‘uncovered a network of illegal classes held by West Bank universities at private high schools in East Jerusalem’.[7]

All six universities mentioned earlier remained closed under military order for four years. As always, the Israeli justification was ‘security’. The authorities argued that schools and universities were sites of student demonstrations and unrest, so therefore all educational institutions had to be closed down. This security rationale was invoked time and again by Israel, despite its illegal use as a form of collective punishment, and more so, its wholesale violation of the human right to education provided under international law. In fact, Israeli military and security officials defended the bombing of the Islamic University in Gaza on 29 December 2009 by stating that ‘universities historically have been breeding grounds for radical thought, free speech and protest’.[8]

In addition to the attacks and closures of academic institutions, Israel continuously violates Palestinian academic freedom by impeding access to academic institutions and isolating the entire Palestinian academic community. First, Palestinian students from Gaza have been denied permission to travel abroad to continue their education, even when awarded international scholarships. Second, Gaza students have been denied permission to travel to the West Bank to study since 2005. Due to the existence of several hundred checkpoints and closures and the Israeli separation wall, it has become increasingly difficult for Palestinian students living in one area of the West Bank to travel to another area of the West Bank to attend university.

Furthermore, Palestinian citizens and residents of Israel are threatened with withdrawal of their residence rights in Israel if they are found in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, prohibiting them from studying at Palestinian universities. At the same time, Palestinian citizens of Israel who choose to study at Israeli universities face numerous discriminatory practices including being denied scholarships, housing opportunities or admission to certain programmes based on failure to serve in the military.[9]

Beyond aspiring students, Palestinian academics are also regularly denied the right to travel abroad to attend conferences or to carry out joint projects with international institutions. International academics are routinely denied visas and, as such, are unable to travel to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to attend conferences, give lectures, or teach at these institutions. Foreign passport holders of Palestinian and non-Palestinian origin living in Palestinian territories and working at Palestinian universities are often denied re-entry visas or threatened with deportation. The

Palestinian Response In 2002, Birzeit University launched the Right to Education Campaign[10] to monitor and document Israeli violations of academic freedom. The Campaign called:

…on trade unions, educational institutions, social and political movements [in Palestine] and around the world to support the right to education in Palestine by [among other things] lobbying governments to pressure the government of Israel to adhere to its legal obligations to end attacks on civilian infrastructure and to allow unimpeded access for all Palestinians to their educational institutions.[11]

In May of 2002, Birzeit University faculty and staff went a step further, issuing a statement which acknowledged a number of boycott initiatives taking place in Europe and the United States, and appealing:

to the international academic community to…suspend ties with Israeli academic institutions, boycott academic conferences held in Israel, and urge their institutions to withdraw any investments they have in Israeli companies and corporations.[12]

Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott Inspired by international initiatives and building on the strategy of boycott within the Palestinian struggle, Palestinian academics, intellectuals and cultural workers launched the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) in July 2004. PACBI’s statement of principles asserted:

Israeli academic institutions (mostly state controlled) and the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed directly to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying the [various forms of Israeli] oppression, or have been complicit in them through their silence.

PACBI called on ‘colleagues in the international community to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid’ through a number of means. These include abstaining from collaboration and joint projects, to advocating for boycott and directly supporting Palestinian institutions without requiring an Israeli partner.[13] This demand was intended to uphold the position of the Palestinian Council for Higher Education, comprised of all presidents of Palestinian universities, to abstain from carrying out ‘technical and scientific cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli universities’ until Israel ended its occupation.[14]

The systematic attempts to destroy Palestinian academic and cultural institutions,[15] the complicity of Israel’s academic institutions in the atrocities carried out by Israel[16] and the misguided, but high regard given to the Israeli academic establishment, made the call for an academic and cultural boycott especially significant. PACBI’s statement was met with widespread support among the Palestinian academic community and was endorsed by nearly 60 academic, cultural and other civil society federations, unions and organizations, including the Federation of Unions of Palestinian Universities’ Professors and Employees and the Palestinian NGO Network in the West Bank.

Academic Boycott, Constructive Engagement and Academic Freedom Internationally, a fierce debate ensued around the call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. The two main opposition arguments have been that boycotts prohibit ‘constructive engagement’ and undermine academic freedom.

The ‘constructive engagement’ argument contends that an academic boycott targets intellectuals who are likely to be the most progressive and supportive of Palestinian rights. It is based on the assumption that, in general, academics and intellectuals tend to be the most sympathetic to the struggle of the oppressed. However, in the case of Israel, this is simply not true. With the exception of a tiny, yet crucial, minority, Israeli academics are supportive of their state’s oppression and are complicit in, or at the very least silent about, it. A study published by the joint Israeli-Palestinian NGO, the Alternative Information Center states:

Israeli academic institutions have not opted to take a neutral, apolitical position toward the Israeli occupation but to fully support the Israeli security forces and policies toward the Palestinians, despite the serious suspicions of crimes and atrocities hovering over them.[17]

Further proponents of the boycott contend that there is an inherent bias in the academic freedom argument in that it regards only the academic freedom of Israelis as being worthy. The fact that Palestinians are denied basic rights as well as academic freedom under Israel’s military occupation is ignored.[18]

Professor Haider Eid, Associate Professor of Postcolonial and Postmodern Literature at Gaza’s al-Aqsa University and a member of PACBI, states:

The same argument was used against the academic, cultural and sports boycott of South Africa. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan talked about ‘constructive engagement’ as a way to defend their diplomatic ties with South Africa. Some academics and athletes echoed these same arguments. But they forget that they were trying to make an abnormal situation into a normal one…I have no problem with the exchange of academic ideas. But I myself am an academic. I have been invited to five conferences over the last year, but I have not been allowed by the Israelis to leave Gaza. Why should there be such preoccupation about the freedom of exchange of ideas with Israeli institutions when Israel itself denies such exchange to Palestinians in all spheres of life?[19]

This double standard is evidenced in the fact that those who have vehemently opposed academic boycott campaigns because they undermine Israeli academic freedom, have failed to decry any of the Israeli violations of Palestinian academic rights. For example, Israeli academics Neve Gordon and Jeff Halper have noted:

[n]ot one of the nearly 450 presidents of American colleges and universities who prominently denounced an effort by British academics to boycott Israeli universities in September 2007 have raised their voice in opposition to Israel’s bombardment of the Islamic University of Gaza [in December 2008].[20]

Growing realization of the need to place pressure on Israel in order to end its violations of academic and other freedoms of Palestinians has propelled a number of international academic boycott campaigns in Europe, the United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia. Even within Israel, Palestinian and Jewish citizens have joined the movement stating: We are deeply concerned about the potentially irreversible damage inflicted on Palestinians by both the Israeli brutal occupation and international policies and have come to the conclusion that the occupation will end only when its cost for Israelis, its elites in particular, outweighs the benefits.[21]

The UN Special Rapporteur and Professor of International Law at the University of Princeton, Richard Falk, agrees: the Palestinians have been winning this second non-military war. Such a war fought on a global political battlefield is what eventually and unexpectedly undermined the apartheid regime in South Africa, and has become much more threatening to the Israeli sense of security than has armed Palestinian resistance.[22] The growth of the academic boycott movement, as part of the larger boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel,[23] may be attributed to a heightened awareness of both the brutality of the Israeli occupation and the impunity that Israel has historically enjoyed despite its flagrant violations of international law. The boycott movement provides an empowering, non-violent and principled means for civil society to actively hold Israeli institutions, be they economic, cultural or academic, accountable for their complicity in Israel’s egregious policies and actions. It is true that academic boycotts may impede the academic freedoms of some Israeli academics. However, a failure to act would continue to allow for the perpetuation of Israel’s extensive violations of Palestinian academic rights and other human rights, while also providing continued impunity that will embolden Israel to carry out graver violations than those we have witnessed thus far.

This article is partly based on the paper ‘The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Palestine’, by Riham Barghouti and Helen Murray, presented at the UNESCO Academic Freedom Conference – Problems and Challenges in Arab and African Countries, 10-11 September 2005, Alexandria, Egypt [ downloads/pdfs/AcademicFreedomPaper.pdf]

[1] Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (2009), Press Release on March 12, 2009, Ref: 36/2009. Last checked on 8 February 2011 at:

[2] Amnesty International (2009), Israel/Gaza: Operation “Cast Lead”: 22 days of death and destruction, London, Index Number: MDE 15/015/2009. Last checked on 8 February 2011 at:

[3] HRW (2009), ‘Complete coverage of Israel/Gaza: Israel – Gaza Conflict, December 2008 – January 2009, New York: Human Rights Watch. Last checked on 8 February 2011 at:

[4] Human Rights Council (2009), Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza (“The Goldstone Commission”), Submitted to the General Assembly of the United Nations on 25 September 2009, Ref: A/HRC/12/48. Last checked on 8 February 2011 at:

[5] In Gaza, the schools are dying too. See: Ameera Ahmad and Ed Vulliamy (2009), Guardian, January 10, 2009. Last checked on 8 February 2011 at:

[6] Dr. Hanna Nasir (1993), ‘Letter from the President’, Birzeit University.

[7] Cited by Stanley Cohen (1989), ‘Education as Crime’, The Jerusalem Post, 18 May 1989.

[8] Stephanie Freid (2009), ‘Bombing of the University: Strategic Target or War Crime’, Fox News, December 30, 2009. Last checked on 8 February 2011 at:,2933,474084,00.html#ixzz1CYeDTkrt

[9] Open Letter to the Board of Governors of Trondheim University, Abnaa Al Balad, November 9, 2009, last accessed on 4 February 2011 at The letter also addressed the indoctrination process of Israeli public schools where “curriculum contains very little, if any at all, of Palestinian history and culture as it aims to erase our historical memory and promote the official policy line”. For a report on Israel’s discriminatory education practices see: Human Rights Watch (2001), Second Class: Discrimination Against Palestinian Arab Children in Israel’s Schools, last accessed on 4 February 2011 at

[10] Right to Education Campaign, Website last accessed on 4 February 2011 at:

[11] Right to Education Campaign Statement of Aims and International Call to Action, last accessed on 4 February 2011 at

[12] A copy of the appeal with the preliminary signatures can be found at (last checked on 8 February 2011):, last accessed on 4 February 2011.

[13] In October 2009 (revised in August 2010), PACBI published guidelines to assist members of the international community who were interested in supporting the academic boycott of Israel, last checked on 8 February 2011 at:

[14] This decision was originally taken in the 1990s in response to the Israeli closures of Palestinian universities and was most recently reiterated in 2006.

[15] Further information available on the website of the BDS Movement. Last checked on 8 February 2011 at:

[16] [16] The extent of complicity by Israeli academic institutions goes beyond the scope of this article, but is addressed in a report by the Alternative Information Center (2009), Academic Boycott of Israel and the Complicity of Israeli Academic Institutions in Occupation, last accessed on 4 February 2011 at:

[17] Uri Yacobi Keller (2009), The Economy of Occupation: Academic Boycott of Israel, Jerusalem/Beit Sahour: Alternative Information Center. Last checked on 8 February 2011 at:

[18] Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki (2005), ‘Freedom Vs Academic Freedom’, Palestine Monitor, 6 June 2005

[19] Eric Ruder (2009) A New Movement Against Israel’s Apartheid, Socialist Worker, Issue 691. Last checked on 8 February 2011 at:

[20] Neve Gordon and Jeff Halper (2008), Where is the academic outrage over the bombing of a university in Gaza?, The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 30, 2008.

[21] See the Israeli website of Boycott!, Supporting the Palestinian Call for BDS From Within, Last checked on 8 February 2011 at:

[22] Richard Falk (2009), ‘The Goldstone Report and the Battle for Legitimacy’, Electronic Intifada, 22 September 2009. Last checked on 8 February 2011 at:

[23] Palestinians issued a comprehensive call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel on July 9, 2005 that has triggered worldwide initiatives. To see the call and examples of BDS initiatives see (last checked on 8 February 2011):

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