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New Israeli Restrictions on Foreign Scholars at Palestinian Universities Stir Outrage

Israel recently announced new restrictions on the entry of foreign academics and students to universities in the Palestinian Territories, stirring anger among Palestinian scholars and education leaders.

Academics and human-rights officials have complained for years about Israeli policies that restrict Palestinian universities’ abilities to recruit and retain foreign professors and lecturers.

On March 8, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli Defence Ministry had published a new set of procedures to further restrict the number of foreign professors and students allowed to enter, work, and study at Palestinian universities.

The decision, which is scheduled to take effect in May, caps the number of permits granted to foreign lecturers each year at 100. It also limits the number of visas for foreign students to 150 a year.

In addition, the new regulations will require foreign students to hold an interview at their country’s Israeli embassy before heading to the Palestinian territories. Moreover, the duration of visas for students and lecturers will be for one year only.

‘Tightening the Screws’ 

Palestinian academics and education officials were quick to condemn the Israeli decision.

Basri Saleh, under secretary of the Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, said the Israeli government was arbitrarily “tightening the screws on everyone who tries to enter Palestine for various reasons, including the academy.” The new Israeli restrictions will “force many professors and academics who worked for many years in Palestinian universities to leave,” Saleh said in televised remarks reported by Al-Quds newspaper.

Birzeit University issued a statement rejecting the new procedures and calling on “all academic institutions and human rights organizations” to join it in condemning “this clear violation of international law.”

“We are deprived of hiring foreign teachers at our universities, contrary to the established rights of all universities in the world.”

Mona Matar
Assistant vice president for academic affairs at Bethlehem University

In a phone call, Ghassan Al-Khatib, vice president of Birzeit University, told Al-Fanar Media that the decision would limit universities’ ability to benefit from the expertise of foreign scholars, including Palestinians who earned degrees abroad but do not have citizenship. “This will isolate Palestine’s higher-education institutions from the global academic life,” he said.

He added that only universities should be entrusted with determining their needs for specialisations or the number of foreign teachers. “West Bank universities rely mainly on academic competencies from abroad in their study programs due to the continuous emigration of Palestinian academics,” he explained.

Mona Matar, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Bethlehem University, said she believed the decision was intended to target Palestinians who live abroad and lack documents that allow them to enter their country.

“The new Israeli decision is a renewal of a previous decision to ban the entry of foreign teachers and students to the Palestinian territories,” she told Al-Fanar Media. “We are deprived of hiring foreign teachers at our universities, contrary to the established rights of all universities in the world.”

Loss of Partnerships and Funds

West Bank universities fear the impact of such restrictions on academic partnerships with regional and international universities, as well as student exchanges and programmes for foreign students.

Imad Ahmad Barghouthi, a professor of astrophysics at Al-Quds University, told Al-Fanar Media that the decision will force international institutions to quit funding research projects in Palestinian universities, as institutions like the European Union require the presence of European partners in West Bank university programmes to allocate funding for them, or to provide scholarships.

Barghouthi earned his doctorate at Utah State University in the United States and has taught at and worked with many international institutions, including the Swedish Institute for Space Physics, the Paris Observatory, the German University of Magdeburg, and NASA, the U.S. space agency.

Based on his international experience, Barghouthi said he was fully aware of the impact of the Israeli decision.

The biggest problem, he said, is the uncertainty facing the dual academic programs at Al-Quds University. Such programs grant degrees from two universities and require the continuous presence of foreign academics.

The Israeli decision “amounts to a decree to isolate Palestinian educational institutions from the outside world and curtail their educational impact.”

Imad Barghouthi
A professor of astrophysics at Al-Quds University

Barghouthi also pointed out that previous Israeli restrictions on foreign academics’ entry to Palestine, and granting them a three-month tourist visa, caused the suspension of an academic cooperation program he helped organise between the Department of Physics at Al-Quds University and NASA.

Formalising the existing Israeli restrictions, he said, “makes it more difficult to change decisions, makes it impossible to circumvent them, and reinforces the idea that outside world’s cooperation with West Bank universities is impossible.”

Language Programmes May Close

At Birzeit University, the decision may force about nine language programs taught by foreign academics to close, according to Al-Khatib, the vice president.  It could also force the university to suspend its Palestinian Arab Studies Program, for foreign students who want to learn Arabic and increase their understanding of the Palestinian and Arab situation.

According to Al-Khatib, Birzeit University usually employs about 40 foreign academics, and has 60 international students. The current restrictions have forced a number of foreign academics to leave, he added.

Ahmed Azzam is one of those who had to take a leave from Birzeit University in August and resigned from his position as an advisor to the Palestinian prime minister. That was after he was forced to live for seven years away from his family due to the occupation authorities’ refusal to grant his wife a visa to enter the Palestinian territories.

Azzam, who is currently a professor of international relations at Qatar University, told Al-Fanar Media that the previous Israeli restrictions on the movement of foreign academics prevented him from carrying out his academic mission at Birzeit University.

The restrictions prevented at least 10 percent of foreign students from enrolling in the Palestinian Arab Studies Program, which he led between 2012 and 2014, he said. Moreover, British, Japanese and European universities cancelled their contracts with the programme “because entry visas are not guaranteed”.

The new restrictions “will accelerate the transformation of Palestine’s higher education into a limited local education, isolated even from the Palestinian community itself,” he added.

Seeking Diplomatic Support

Amid such concerns, Palestinian institutions launching campaigns to explain the repercussions of the decision and prevent its official activation. They called on Western governments, international academic institutions, and foreign ambassadors in the Palestinian territories to condemn the decision as a violation of the right to education stipulated by numerous international conventions.

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Al-Khatib said the hope was that communicating with foreign embassies and university partners would create a front to put more pressure on Israel to reverse the decision.

Similarly, Barghouthi called for a petition campaign to collect signatures of influential Western academics in Europe and the United States to oppose the Israeli restrictions and support the rights of Palestinian universities.

The Israeli decision, he said, “amounts to a decree to isolate Palestinian educational institutions from the outside world and curtail their educational impact.”

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