The Israeli authorities increasingly are refusing to issue work permits for foreign academics who work in Palestinian universities in the occupied West Bank, education officials and human rights organizations say. Some 32 foreign and Palestinian professors and lecturers with foreign passports working at eight Palestinian universities have been subjected to Israeli restrictions on visas to enter or stay in the Palestinian territories, according to a study published last year by the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education.
Professors, university officials and human rights activists have protested that Israel’s seemingly arbitrary actions over the past three years are aimed at harming Palestinian academic life.
“Blocking our right to engage international academics is part of an ongoing effort by the Israeli occupation to marginalize Palestinian institutions of higher education,” Birzeit University’s president, Abdullatif Abuhijleh, said in a statement issued by the university and two human-rights organizations. “The latest escalation in visa restrictions is just one in a longstanding and systematic Israeli policy of undermining the independence and viability of Palestinian higher-education institutions,” he added.
There are about 50 licensed higher-education institutions in the West Bank and Gaza, including universities and colleges, with more than 216,000 students.
Rana Barakat, an assistant professor of history and contemporary Arab studies at Birzeit University who holds U.S. citizenship, believes that the Israeli restrictions are deliberately harmful to academic institutions. “This is one of the many measures used by the Israelis to further marginalize the Palestinian education life,” she said. “This is a clear violation of academic freedom and a means of further hampering the work of the university.”
Barakat received a fellowship to serve as an Arcapita visiting professor at Columbia University, in New York, in the second semester of 2019, but this opportunity turned into a dilemma. She has been seeking to extend her residency visa in Palestine for the past 18 months, so far without luck.
“I am afraid that I will not be allowed to return to Birzeit University if I leave before I can extend my current residency visa,” she said, noting that the Israeli authorities refused to extend her visa without giving any reasons.
Barakat is not alone in facing such treatment. Her colleague Roger Heacock, a professor of history at Birzeit for 35 years, and his wife, Laura Wick, a health researcher, had to leave the country last year. After the couple traveled on a short trip abroad while having valid work visas, the Israeli immigration officers gave them tourist visas, valid for only three weeks, upon their return. They were told that the visas could be renewed at the Israeli military coordination office in Ramallah. However, that never happened and the couple’s request was not answered.
They left, Heacock said, because their stay was illegal, which would make it easier for the Israeli authorities to accuse them of violating procedures. “These measures are aimed at obstructing the work of Palestinian universities and preventing their progress and success,” he said.