Higher-education institutions in the Palestinian territories face multiple challenges in their efforts to advance Palestine’s research capacity, scholars say. While some academics attribute this failure to restrictions imposed by Israel, others point to other reasons.
The task is “very difficult and complex,” Yousef Najajreh, a researcher who studies anti-cancer drugs, said during a recent webinar organised by Scientists for Palestine, an organisation that aims to promote the integration of the Palestinian Territories into the international scientific community.
Najajreh, who is a former dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy at Al-Quds University, added: “We are faced with all sorts of problems, starting from the lack of a culture of teamwork, the lack of financial resources, a shortage of infrastructure, transportation, and difficulties in sending samples abroad. As you know, we are a semi-state and not an independent one.”
Najajreh noted that Palestine has more than 50 higher-education institutions, including 17 private universities. That’s a high number for a country of five million people, he said. Yet despite this, there has been no significant knowledge production or leap in research since the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority, he said.
Dwindling Interest in Natural Sciences
According to Najajreh, there were over 200,000 students in Palestinian universities last year, but only 7,000 students, mostly female, were studying natural sciences and mathematics. In contrast, 29,000 students were studying to become teachers, 21,000 students were studying arts, 10,000 were studying social sciences, 59,000 were studying business administration and law, and 47,000 were studying medicine and other health disciplines.
“The problems facing scientific research in Palestine have not changed for twenty years. We have ideas, but we lack funding and a budget for research.”Yousef Najajreh
A Palestinian anticancer drug researcher
In a few years, he said, “nobody will be studying natural sciences, and mathematics will soon disappear in Palestine.” The departments of mathematics and natural sciences at Bethlehem University will be closed, he said, and there is no demand for those disciplines at Al-Quds University.
It is difficult to persuade students to study natural sciences amid the lack of sufficient research funding or suitable job opportunities, Najajreh said. “The problems facing scientific research in Palestine have not changed for twenty years,” he added. “We have ideas, but we lack funding and a budget for research. This will not happen under the Israeli occupation authority.”
Violence on Palestinian Campuses
David Kattenburg, a lecturer in microbiology and a member of Scientists for Palestine, moderated the forum. He noted recent news reports about violent raids on Palestinian campuses by Israeli security forces and wondered about how international human-rights law applied to such actions.
Michael Lynk, who was the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Palestine until last month, responded: “This unfortunately is one of the many stories that regularly cross my desk with respect to the operation of universities and institutions of higher education. The Israeli forces frequently raid Palestinian universities in the West Bank. Some students have stopped their classes, and university facilities have been destroyed.”
Palestinian university professors and students are suffering, Lynk said, and schoolteachers also face restrictions on movement, harassment, and imprisonment. “The vast bulk of university funding, which comes from international sources, is unsteady and unreliable,” he said.
Hardships for Students
For her part, Nardeen Nasser, a chemical engineer who teaches chemistry at a secondary school in Bethlehem, said that about 1.8 million Palestinians live inside Israel, which makes their education subject to the jurisdiction of the Israeli authorities.
However, only 53 percent of Palestinian students can enroll in Israeli public schools, she said, while the remaining 47 percent have to attend schools affiliated with the Palestinian Authority. “Moreover, the Israeli authorities do not allow them to build schools, hospitals, or homes inside Israeli-controlled areas in the West Bank,” she added.
“We have a lot of creative students, but their dreams are squashed under in the current situation we live in.”Nardeen Nasser
A chemical engineer who teaches in a Palestinian school
Nasser, who studied chemical engineering at Aston University, in the United Kingdom, said that students who commute to Palestinian schools have to contend with multiple checkpoints and road closures. “The older the student, the more difficult his life becomes as he represents a threat to the Israeli government,” she said. “This eventually leads young students to drop out.”
In a study she conducted, Nasser found that 99 percent of Palestinians continue their studies through the fourth grade, but only 63 percent continue through the twelfth grade “due to security checkpoints and restrictions on students.”
She added that the quality of education at that schools run by the Palestinian Authority suffers because of overcrowding and poor infrastructure.
Lack of Laboratories and Materials
Although she works in a private school, Nasser also faces daily difficulties related to the unavailability of laboratories, for financial reasons or because they are not allowed to have the materials they need.
“This affects children’s mental health significantly. We have a lot of creative students, but their dreams are squashed under in the situation we live in,” she said. “Since they know there is a 40 percent unemployment rate, they cannot follow their dreams, and rather they think about what can get them a stable job in their future.”
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On her personal experience, she said that she studied chemical engineering, driven by a passion for research and working in a factory or laboratory. While she enjoyed teaching, she said it was not her dream. “I was content with schoolwork due to the distance between my residence and research facilities and the need to travel daily through checkpoints,” she said.
On the same point, Najajreh explained that he cannot attend a conference at any university that requires him to cross checkpoints. “Travelling outside Palestine is a big problem added to restricting foreign academics’ access to Palestinian universities,” he said.
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