Challenging Bullets, Not Boycotts: Education Under Occupation in Palestine

“God Kristian, I can’t even remember how many times my school closed this semester,” Amanda Mansara, a Palestinian university student wrote to me in January 2014.

When Amanda and I met in the West Bank last September, she was supposed to be starting her second year at Al Quds University, but her classes were canceled. Her school was closed because the Israeli military had been firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at students on campus every day during the first week of the semester. So Amanda and I passed the hours when she should have been learning in a downtown Ramallah cafe working on a crossword, playing cards, drinking tea and smoking hookah with her friends. Days later when I saw her again, the campus was still closed. It took two full weeks before the Israeli army stopped attacking the university, but even this peace was short-lived: Just over a month later, Al Quds had to close again following a military raid on Abu Dis, the adjacent town. And less than a month after that, students commuting from Abu Dis were among 40 injured by rubber bullets from the Israeli military.

When these attacks occur, Amanda said, the Student Body Council suspends all classes and, if bullets are included, evacuates campus through the back door. Amanda and her peers do not get to make up this lost time.

“Our university has been on constant attack this semester,” she said to me. “WE NEED whatever support we can get.”

The troubles that Al Quds and other Palestinian universities face have never been mentioned by those who have been loudly attacking the American Studies Association and other institutions that recently voted to support the academic boycott of Israel. As reactionary legislatures in New YorkIllinois and Maryland and the US House of Representatives have considered bills to deny public funding to institutions like the ASA for supporting the boycott, the need for critical support of Palestinians’ academic freedom becomes paramount. These bills and university administrators’ claims that the boycott limits the “academic freedom” of Israelis are distracting and disingenuous to the experiences of people on the ground in Palestine, experiences which paint a very clear picture of academic freedom under attack – from kindergarten all the way through college.

The University Under Occupation

Earlier in September 2013, I had spent an afternoon at Birzeit University meeting with Sundos Hammad, a recent graduate and the coordinator of the Right to Education Campaign (R2E). Sundos said that Birzeit has been closed by Israeli military order over 15 times throughout its history. The longest stretch lasted four-and-a-half years. Students have also faced restriction of movement and imprisonment. The occupation has compromised education for generations of Palestinians. Resisting this oppression, students at Birzeit launched R2E in 1988, which today calls for student and faculty unions and other institutions to affirm the right of Palestinian students and academics to pursue an education free from Israeli occupation. By last September, the campus was preparing for closure again – not from a military threat – but from students striking against tuition hikes.

The strikes happen regularly, as Birzeit relies on student tuition to cover up to 60 percent of its operating costs. Neither families nor the Palestinian government can afford these costs. The World Bank estimates that the occupation has cost the West Bank economy $3.4 billion, while unemployment in the West Bank is 20 percent across the territory but as high as 44 percent among youth. The Palestinian Authority, which is expected to provide a certain amount of the budget, has been hindered by reductions in foreign aid and Israel withholding Palestinian tax revenuesas political punishment. PA budget cuts reduced contributions to Birzeit from $2 million in 2008 to $120,000 last year. Universities across the West Bank and Gaza are in financial crisis.

Beyond financial woes, Sundos highlighted how the infrastructure of Israel’s occupation limits Birzeit and other universities through its control of borders and entry and its checkpoints inside the West Bank. While visiting faculty and students at Birzeit receive a three-month visa upon entry to Israel, the Israeli border control frequently denies visa renewals to academics, disrupting course-work in the middle of the semester. Sundos said this tends to discourage academics in the Palestinian shatat (diaspora) from becoming involved with the university, which limits academic discourse available on campus. “The meaning of the university is to have universal thoughts on everything. And we don’t have that,” Sundos said.

“Stephanie” is an American citizen of Palestinian descent who experienced this process herself. She asked that I use a pseudonym given current legal affairs concerning her entry into Israel.

Stephanie and I met during our two-week delegation to Israel and Palestine withInterfaith Peace Builders (IFPB) in August 2013, two weeks before she began a semester studying Arabic at Birzeit. Though Birzeit schedules international classes to fit within Israel’s three-month visa period, because Stephanie had arrived in Israel two weeks early, she had to leave to renew her visa before the semester ended. Stephanie was denied re-entry at the border.

“The only reason they gave was ‘security reasons,'” she said.

Stephanie is now working with Human Rights Watch, the Palestinian Right to Entercampaign and an Israeli lawyer to determine whether she can enter Palestine and visit her family again.

In January, Israel held six members of an academic delegation to Palestine led by San Francisco State professor Rabab Abulhadi at the Jordanian border for ten hours. The delegation reported that “[One] delegate was told explicitly not to pursue research on colonial gender violence.”

Such restrictions and intimidation, combined with military checkpoints in between Palestinian cities and Israel’s restriction on students traveling between Gaza and the West Bank, have led Palestinian universities to become local or national institutions, rather than international ones, Sundos said. This is in contrast to the international partnerships Israeli universities like The Technion and Hebrew University enjoy.

Stephanie commented on how this affects where international students study in the region.

“There are so many headaches of daily life linked to the occupation that it doesn’t surprise me that there are so many well-intentioned students who wind up studying in Israeli universities,” she said.

Sundos was also sure to connect her compromised education to its larger context: “The occupation is the disease and what’s happening in Palestine are the symptoms.”

Education Beyond the University

University education does not exist in a vacuum, and so before looking at academic freedom for those in the highest levels of learning we must also examine primary and secondary education. The entire structure of Israel’s occupation, siege and discrimination against non-Jews in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel all prohibit any true access to education.

During my delegation, we met with people in a Jahalin Bedouin village in the Jordan Valley, a part of the West Bank that Israel’s deputy foreign minister has said Israel will not give up under a two-state solution. In the 1980s, the Israeli military declared the land to be a closed military zone under its control (as 60 percent of land in the West Bank is classified) and the residents of the Khan al-Ahmar village found their water, electricity and even road access cut off. Eid Abu Khamis, one of the villagers, focused the majority of his conversation on education.

Until a few years ago, children had to travel between 18 and 20 kilometers to school in Jericho or Azariya. Because the PA still had not provided the buses they promised in the late 1990s, students had to walk, Eid said. Due to the distance, families would not send their daughters and some of their sons would live at school for the week. Some parents discovered their children would hide near home rather than attend classes; others grieved for children either killed or handicapped by vehicles during their travel. The village soon decided to build its own school, which now holds 110 pupils and has an Israeli relocation order against it since the village is unrecognized. Eid called this a war crime.

“Education is a human right – only here is it forbidden,” he said.

Just over the hill from where we sat with Eid was Maale Adumim, a massive Israeli settlement with running water and electricity, an Israeli-approved school, and even an Ace Hardware store. Three members of the Knesset live in the settlement, Eid said, as well as the former ambassador to the US and the administrator of the Allenby Bridge to Jordan, where Stephanie was later denied entry.

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