Students in more than 30 Western universities have been raising awareness of the challenges that prevent many Palestinian students from getting the education they desire.
During the Right 2 Education (R2E) week in November, and after it, students on many Western campuses reached out to Palestinian students though videoconferences and held educational activities on their own campuses.
R2E was founded in 1988 as a grassroots movement, run by four major West Bank universities to raise awareness of some of the major barriers to education that Palestinian students face.
Speakers at the events highlighted such challenges as restricted access to campuses, violence, and political detentions. “The nature of living under military occupation has meant that Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem are not able to enjoy a stable education system,” said an R2E statement. The campaign says that the restrictions are a violation of Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the universal right to education.
“Life is already full of daily interruptions under occupation,” said 23-year-old Tarek Ahram, a law student at al-Quds university in Abu Dis, Jerusalem. “Even during the ‘good times’ it’s still very difficult to engage in a fulfilled university education.”
A junior at al-Quds University says he has passed through Israeli checkpoints every day of his university career, where he was searched. Although he was rarely stopped for more than 15 minutes at a time, the student, who did not want his name used, never knew when he would be called in for additional interrogation. “I was once questioned by the head Israeli intelligence officer in the region on my way to classes,” he said. “When he was satisfied that I was not engaged politically, he offered me to work as an informant on activist students.”
Checkpoints, and other restrictions such as curfew and university shutdowns due to violence have affected 13,064 students in the first half of 2013, according to the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, an advocacy group of the World Council of Churches that focuses on bringing Westerners to Palestine to experience first-hand life under the occupation.
The most extreme difficulties are faced by students from Gaza face who try to study in the West Bank, where the more well-regarded universities are. The Israeli authorities allow students to apply for permits, but they almost never grant them. “It was easier for me to come pursue my post-graduate degree in London, than it was to attempt to study in the West Bank,” said Rana Baker, who graduated in 2011 from the Islamic University in Gaza. Baker said Israeli authorities told her they could not issue her a permit because it was not an urgent matter.
A newly built science building in Baker’s university was bombed during “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008, when Israeli forces mounted a full-scale attack on Gaza killing 1,417 civilians (926 non-combatants including 313 children) in response to rockets fired into Israel, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. According to B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the death toll from that attack was 1,389.
Universities like Birzeit University in the West Bank do not include any students from Gaza as of 2008, after the last Gazan graduated. “Everyone from Gaza decided it’s just not worth it, despite the difference in quality of education being very high,” said Anan Mohammed, a lawyer who worked for three years in student affairs in Birzeit. R2E says that no new permit has been issued to Gazan students to study in the West Bank 2006.
The Israeli government usually justifies restricting access to and from Gaza by claiming it is a response to rocket fire and a security measure for the protection of the state.
Mohammed’s student-affairs department at Birzeit employed a full-time lawyer just to help free students from political detention. Israeli law allows for administrative detentions without prosecution, usually for up to six-months, according to B’Tselem. Tarek, a 24-year-old student at Birzeit University, was detained for four back-to-back six-month terms without ever being charged. “They pretended I’d be reassessed for investigation, but they never actually asked anything that could lead to my release,” said Tarek, who didn’t want his full name used for fear of re-imprisonment.
He has yet to graduate, despite being enrolled for seven years now, due in part to his imprisonment. The number of detainees held without prosecution has gone down lately, however. According to B’Tselem. the figure was at 140 by October 2013, compared to between 150-500 between 2008 and 2013.
“Students would be targeted by Israeli authorities for belonging to political parties, and nothing else,” Mohammed said. According to R2E, 480 Birzeit University students have been incarcerated since November 2003. Currently, 80 are held in Israeli prisons, and more than half of them—42 students—have yet to be formally found guilty on any charge.
The Israeli government invokes Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which allows states to engage in arbitrary detentions when “they face a public emergency threatening the life of the nation.”
Many students, of course, are never directly affected by the occupation. Students in Birzeit are in the relatively calmer and more affluent Palestinian city of Ramallah, despite all of the turmoil many of their students face. “It still feels that Israeli violations in general are meant to subjugate and divide Palestinians while assimilating others,” said Linah Alsaafin, who just graduated from Birzeit University. Alsaafin believes that restricting movement between the West Bank and Gaza is increasing tension among Palestinians. “It’s keeping Palestinian students from getting together and being unified. The whole situation is mentally oppressive.”