Report on the effects of the Intifada on Palestinian higher education
The purpose of this report is to highlight the problems facing universities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the start of the Al Aqsa Intifada in September 2000. It examines the human and financial cost of the conflict on higher education, and the implications of these factors on Palestinian society. The report was produced to document the situation on the ground and uses case studies from Birzeit, Bethlehem and An Najah National Universities. The FoBZU Co-ordinator has compiled the information in this report using first hand reports from Palestinian academics and students, recent written documents from organisations such as Save the Children and Al Haq, and feedback from FoBZU visits to the region, the last of which took place in May 2001.
Occupation and the Al Aqsa Intifada
Since 1967 Israel has illegally occupied the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Following the signing of the Declaration of Principles in Oslo in 1993 (known as the Oslo Accords), the Israeli state incrementally ceded security control over fragments of the territories to the Palestinian Authority (PA), under an internationally sponsored peace process. This process has allowed for a continuing Israeli occupation, implemented and maintained through Israeli settlements, their connecting by-pass road system, and a system of closures. Closures have allowed the Israeli military to obstruct or stop movement between Palestinian and Israeli areas. Closures also restrict or prevent movement of people and trade between the West Bank and Gaza and Israel, Jordan and Egypt.
In September 2000, a provocative visit by the Likud opposition leader, Ariel Sharon to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem sparked a Palestinian uprising (Al Aqsa Intifiada) against the Israeli leadership and occupation, which continues to this day. On 8 October 2000, Israel government imposed severe restrictions on movement for Palestinians, coupled with internal and external closures on all Palestinian territories.
2. Palestinian Higher education and international law
Education has been an important aspect of civil society for many Palestinians, and, as such, according to UNRWA (1999), Palestinians are amongst the most educated in the Middle East. However, the imposition of roadblocks, curfews, checkpoints and regular intimidation by the Israeli forces, which has hindered all Palestinians from traveling throughout the West Bank and between and within the Gaza Strip, has taken its toll on education.
Since 1948, Palestinians have frequently been denied basic rights to freedom of movement and access to education by the Israeli government. For almost 30 years, (since the establishment of the first Palestinian university, Birzeit in 1972) Palestinian staff and students have had difficulty in reaching their universities, which has had an adverse effect on the running and delivery of university education.
Under international law everyone has the right to an education. Article 13 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), clearly states that, "the States Parties to the present Convention recognize the right of everyone to education". Furthermore, article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) stipulates, "everyone has the right to an education … and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit." The Israeli government has signed and ratified these covenants and thereby making it legally subject to the rules and regulations of these treaties.
Collective punishments are illegal under international law. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War states: "No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation, or of terrorism are prohibited."
Reasons for the obstructions placed on Palestinian universities
According to Sarah Graham Brown (1984), Israeli officials view the universities with considerable hostility, arguing that they are 'hotbeds of support for the PLO' and as such are either a nuisance or a threat.
In recent months, Palestinian have struggled to make sense of the Israeli imposed roadblocks, curfews and checkpoints, which are having such a damaging effect on Palestinian universities. Many academics are confused as to the reasoning for these actions.
Albert Aghazarian, Director of Public Relations at Birzeit University, could find no reason for the destruction of the Ramallah - Birzeit road on the 7 March 2001. He stated:
"There have been no recent clashes or demonstrations in the area. Furthermore, there have been no shootings reported from any of the 25 villages at Israeli solders or settlers. There are no genuine security or military reasons for taking these measures. The total siege is being imposed as a repressive form of collective punishment, which is prohibited by international humanitarian law:" (FoBZU Newsletter, Spring 2001)
3. Military closures and restrictions on movement
Since the start of the Al Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been placed under further siege by the Israeli military, sealing off the two areas and preventing Palestinians from moving between Palestinian cities and villages. For staff and students in the West Bank these restrictions have severely hampered university life. Where travel has been possible the journeys have often been long, arduous and costly.
Safe Passage' for Gaza Students
The restriction on freedom of movement for Palestinians is nothing new for Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. From 1991, Israel imposed an extended closure on the Occupied Territories which prevented all Palestinians from entering Israel without a permit. Up until 1999 the Israeli authorities reinforced this restriction by systematically denying students from the Gaza Strip the right to enter and reside in the West Bank - making it close to impossible for them to attend the university of their choice.
On 5 October 1999, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation signed an agreement for a 'safe passage' between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For Gaza Strip and West Bank students it was hoped that this agreement would guarantee complete academic freedom and freedom of movement, allowing them the choice to study at either West Bank or Gaza Strip universities. Unfortunately, the protocol stated that students (especially male students) fit the profile of 'security threats' to the State of Israel, as the majority are single and under 35. This therefore incurred further restrictions for Gazan students, in terms of obtaining a permit and traveling along the safe passage.
Today, with the problems in the region, the safe passage is closed, preventing all Gazan students from attending West Bank universities to complete their studies, and for many Gazan students trapped in the West Bank, unable to return to their homes in the Gaza Strip.
At present, there are 182 Gazan students at Birzeit University, who since the start of the Intifada have been unable to return to their families in the Gaza Strip. Many of these students do not have the appropriate papers necessary for their residence in the West Bank, and therefore, according to Birzeit University, this makes them vulnerable to all types of arbitrary abuses by the Israeli soldiers that are positioned at checkpoints leading up to the university.
Restrictions of movement within the Gaza Strip
In addition, students have also not been able to move between the northern and southern regions of the Gaza Strip due to the internal closure and division of the Gaza Strip. According to Al Haq, approximately 14,000 university students have been unable to attend classes in universities in Gaza city due to this closure.
Restrictions of movement in the West Bank
Since the start of the Intifada, the main obstacle to the day to day running of West Bank universities has been the regular travel restrictions and road closures imposed by the Israeli government. There are 145 checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with 103 in the West Bank and 42 in the Gaza Strip.
According to Bethlehem University's President Vice-Chancellor, Brother Vincent Malham FSC, "particularly vexing are the continuing arbitrary decisions made at the Israeli checkpoints as to who may cross into Bethlehem. It is never certain from one day to the next which teachers and students will be affected."
Similarly at Birzeit University, the Israeli checkpoint on the Ramallah - Birzeit road is causing regular delays for staff and student trying to reach the university. A five kilometre journey from Ramallah to Birzeit University is now taking anything up to one hour and 30 minutes, as opposed to the usual 15 - 20 minutes.
4. Impact of current restrictions on university life
The Palestinian educational process was almost completely halted at the start of the Intifada due to the road closures and restrictions of movement imposed by the Israeli government. Birzeit, Bethlehem and An Najah National University struggled to remain open and, as a result of these sanctions, were forced to suspend classes in September and October. When classes were able to resume in late October, to ease the ongoing obstacles that road closure, shooting and curfews placed on commuters, classes at Birzeit were shortened to allow students and faculty staff time to reach their homes in other parts of the West Bank before dark. To partially compensate for the shortened workday some courses have been convened on weekends and holidays.
To ensure faculty attendance and to partially alleviate the situation, some Palestinian universities have been providing accommodation for faculty staff struggling to travel daily from their homes to the university. This has been the case at Birzeit and An Najah National University. In one case, Birzeit and An Najah National University swapped a staff member in order to overcome the difficulties in commuting.
In addition, since November 2000 some faculty departments at An Najah National university have begun putting lectures on the university website, making it easier for those with internet access at home or in their towns and villages, to keep up with their studies on days when they are prevented from reaching the university..
Case study: Maha, Micheline and Najwan, from Bethlehem University
Maha, Micheline and Najwan are undergraduate students at Bethlehem University. The situation at the university on the day of the interview with these students was unsettling - shooting from the area around Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem could be heard clearly from the main campus and for safety reasons the university had made the decision to suspend afternoon classes.
The three students explained the daily difficulties they faced in reaching the university. For Najwan, a 20 year old, second year Diploma student in Hotel management, travel to Bethlehem University since the start of the Intifada has been fraught with difficulties. Najwan lives with her family in Ramallah and commutes to Bethlehem University each day. During the Al Aqsa initifada, a normal 30 minute journey from Ramallah to Bethlehem university has been taking between 1 - 1½ hours. In order to get to the university she has to go through two checkpoints and, due to the closure of the main Israeli checkpoint into the town of Bethlehem, she has been forced to walk along a dirt track for approximately 10-15 minutes to reach the taxi that will take her to the university. This route is situated close to an Israeli settlement, and Najwan explained that walking along this path is quite dangerous at times, as the Israeli settlers have been known shoot at Palestinians using this route.
Maha, 18 and a first year BA student in Hotel Management, and Micheline, 21, a third year student in BA Business Administration, have been facing similar delays. Maha and Micheline live in Jerusalem and since the start of the Intifada a usual 10 minute journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem university is taking 45 minutes. They explained that the main problem was the difficulty in getting through the Israeli checkpoints.
For all three students the travel restrictions, delays and dangers involved in reaching the university have taken a toll on their studies. It was coming up to exam time during my visit and all three students explained how they were suffering from an inability to concentrate properly on revision because of the stresses of getting to the university, and the general anxieties associated with the conflict. When I asked how they coped with the situation they said it was very difficult, and that because everyone around them was suffering in the same way it was hard talking about their problems with friends and family.
5. Issue of safety
According to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, civilians in a situation of war are entitled to receive protection from conflict. However, since the start of the Al Aqsa Intifada cases have been reported of civilians having been killed without provocation by Israeli forces and Israeli settlers. University students have, in some cases, been the tragic victims of these violations. According to Palestinian Human Rights organisation, Al Haq, up until November 2000, Israeli Forces have killed ten students and one university employee. Three of the students were from al-Azhar University in Gaza, one was an employee of the Islamic University in Gaza, four were students in the al-Quds Open University, and three were students at An Najah National University. Many of those wounded have sustained serious injuries that have required their hospitalization abroad.
The involvement of Palestinian students in demonstrations and stone throwing against the Israeli forces has been considerably less than in the previous Intifada. However, according to Al-Haq, where Palestinian students have been involved in violence against the Israeli forces the response has been unjustifiable. Israeli forces have used live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets, plastic bullets, and grenades to quell protests by unarmed students. Al Haq states that even if students are taking part in demonstrations, their only weapons are stones, and often the Israeli forces are out of throwing range.
Al Haq argues that the Israeli Forces and the Israeli settlers have gone beyond what can be considered reasonable or proportionate responses in their use of lethal weapons against unarmed school students, and have thus violated international norms governing the behavior of law enforcement officials. Article 2 of the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials reads, "In performance of their duty, law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons".
Case study: Birzeit university and An Najah National university
Over the past few months Birzeit University has reported cases whereby students have been the victims of unprovoked attacks by Israeli soldiers. According to Birzeit, on the 13 June, following the closure of the checkpoint on the Birzeit- Ramallah road, Palestinians attempting to cross on foot, were shot at by the Israeli forces using rubber-coated steel bullets, sound bombs and tear-gas canisters and were forced to traverse the rocky valley, randomly being shot at by the occupation forces.
6. Intimidation and harassment of staff and students
In reaching the universities many staff and students have reported cases of intimidation and harassment by Israeli forces. Hiba, a 20-year-old BA student from An Najah National University explained that she knew of a female student that had been forced to stand out in the midday sun by Israeli soldiers for a long period of time as a means of humiliation and intimidation.
Case study: Basil, 23, works in Computer Centre, graduate of BZU
Interrogation at Israeli checkpoints has been a regular occurrence for many Palestinians. Basil, a 23 year old, graduate of Birzeit University, and employee of the Computer Centre at Birzeit was stopped at the Israeli checkpoint on the Ramallah-Birzeit road in May this year. Upon checking Basil's ID he was promptly asked what the purpose of his journey was. After explaining that he was going to work, at Birzeit Computer Centre the Israeli soldier asked him to step out of the taxi and make his way towards the parked Israeli jeep a few metres away.
After 15 minutes, Basil made his way back to the taxi. When I asked him what they had asked him he explained that there was an Israeli soldier in the vehicle that knew about computers and wanted to test his technical knowledge on the subject. According to Basil, being stopped at checkpoints in this way was a regular occurrence.
7. Effects of Israeli intimidation and harassment on the mental well-being of Palestinian staff and students
Above and beyond the academic problems faced by students, the impact of the current Intifada has had an adverse effect on student's well being. Students and staff have been reported to be suffering from physical symptoms, such as nightmares; sleep disturbances, constant fatigue, and unusual headaches as a result of the conflict.
A recent study carried out by Birzeit University (November 2000) further supports these findings. The Community and Public Health Institute's report on the impact of the current Uprising (Intifada) on the Mental Health of Undergraduate Students at Birzeit, showed that a significant number of students had been negatively affected by recent events and that students were showing a great variety of symptoms generally seen as indicators of stress.
Case study: Bethlehem university
Bethlehem University has reported that since the end of September 2000, the physical and psychological pressure on both staff and students has been considerable. Many of the university's staff from Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour have had their homes damaged or destroyed by Israeli machine gunfire or tank shells. According to Brother Vincent Malham, FSC, President -Vice Chancellor of the university, 'many staff and students are traumatized at night as they lie in fear of the next Israeli barrage.'
8. Financial situation and the effect on higher education
Since the start of the Al Aqsa Intifada many universities have suffered severe financial difficulties. This has largely been due to several factors. Firstly, the delay in the university class timetable caused by the inability of staff and students to reach the university, leading to the subsequent postponement of classes. This has meant that whilst the university has not been able to run at full capacity, the running costs of the university remain the same. Secondly, the financial situation in the region and consequently high unemployment has made it difficult for students to be able to pay tuition fees on time. In addition, damage incurred by universities as a result of the conflict has been a large drain on the university's financial resources.
Case study: An Najah, Birzeit, Bethlehem
An Najah University reported that their agricultural college was hit in November last year. The Director for International Relations, Nasser Tibi, explained that whilst the college was not totally destroyed the attack prevented the agricultural faculty from harvesting their fields for several months. Although the college has since been able to resume activities, the cost of restoring the college has placed a considerable drain on the university's finances. Indirectly this has led to temporary cuts in other areas of the university's running costs. In May this year, for the first time since the Intifada, staff were only received 60 per cent of their salaries. Dr. Tibi anticipated this being the same for the following month.
At An-Najah University, the summer course was delayed by 2 weeks prohibiting some staff and students from accepting summer scholarships abroad. Staff and students are under a great deal of stress due to the present conflict, which severely affects their concentration, performance, physical and mental health.
Case study: Ibtisam and Nisreen
Ibtisam, second year, English, from Qattanah near Jerusalem, and Nisreen, Business studies, second year. Both Ibtisam and Nisreen's fathers are labourers who before the conflict had regular jobs in Israel. Since September last year both their fathers have been working one day in ten, and earning ten per cent less per day than was the case before the Intifada. The family income has therefore reduced dramatically making it very difficult for their fathers to support their families of eight children. Despite this both families insist that their daughters continue their studies at Birzeit, even though travel for both girls from their homes in Qattanah near Jerusalem is more problematic than ever, and the transport costs by service taxis has doubled.
Nisreen and Ibtisam have received a scholarship from FoBZU's Adela Every Scholarship fund, which will cover their tuition and registration fees for the duration of their studies. The scholarships have made a big difference to Ibtisam and Nisreen's ability to continue studying at Birzeit.
Ibtisam and Nisreen are fortunate to some extent in that they have financial support in order for them to be able to continue their studies. However, for the vast majority of students the current financial situation in the region poses a real question mark over the issue of whether or not they will be able to afford to complete their degrees.
Universities such as Birzeit and An Najah National University have tried to get around the problem of student tuition fees and have set up a student loan scheme. At An Najah, nearly fifty per cent of the students suffering from financial hardship have received a loan. The loans are only for one semester after which the students need to reapply again. There is no interest on the loans and students are not expected to begin paying back the loans, at approximately 18 Jordanian dinars per month, until two years after graduation.
However, there are many students that struggle to continue their studies. Micheline from Bethlehem University explained that there are students at her university that have been forced to drop out of their studies due lack of funds.
9. Future for Palestinian graduates and the impact on Palestinian society
With the current situation as it is in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it is difficult to be optimistic about the development of the region in the short term and the career prospects for Palestinian graduates looks bleak. Unemployment is currently at 50 per cent and jobs within the West Bank and Gaza Strip are often poorly paid in comparison to the same jobs in Israel and Europe. In addition, there is little job security and travel restrictions throughout the region make commuting a problem.
Hanan Ashrawi, former Birzeit academic, former Palestinian Minister for Higher Education and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, (June 2001) believes that there will be a 'brain drain' in Palestine, as Palestinian graduates seek employment abroad. This seemed to be the case when speaking to one graduate from Birzeit. However, it was also evident that for some Palestinian students leaving Palestine was not an option or a desire.
Case study: Basil, 23, works in Computer Centre, graduate of BZU
Basil, is 23 and works in the Computer Centre at Birzeit University. He graduated in Computer studies at Birzeit last year. Basil is concerned about the future of Palestine and his career opportunities in the west Bank.
Basil described how he was just a teenager during the first Intifada, and since then attempts had been made to build the infrastructure and civil society in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He explained that since the start of this Intifada the effort that had been made to develop Palestinian society was being eroded. He felt that 'the Israeli governments procedures to stop the Intifada, by destroying the Palestinian infrastructure, isolating and preventing Palestinians from working in Israel, is destroying the Palestinian dream of there ever being an independent Palestinian state'.
Basil was also concerned about his position at Birzeit. He explained that the staff in the Computer centre were struggling to secure funding for their projects, which was placing a financial strain on the Centre and its activities. Basil had been warned of possible staff redundancies in the near future if funding is not secured. Basil has made a decision to leave Palestine and move to either Canada or Australia if the situation does not improve in the next 2 - 3 months.
Case study: Gabi
Gabi, 26, is a recent graduate in accountancy at Al Quds University. Gabi is working part-time at a hotel receptionist in Ramallah. Since graduating he has spent a considerable amount of time searching for accountancy work. He is not optimistic about finding work in this field despite his qualifications. He explained that there is a considerable competition for accountancy positions, most of which are being secured by those with Masters degrees. Gabi does not have the money to do a Masters, and currently struggles to meet the basic costs of food and rent.
Case study: Hiba
Hiba, 20, is currently in her final year at An Najah National University, studying for a BA in Banking and Finance. She hopes to graduate in August 2001. Hiba is a hardworking and intelligent student who has been guaranteed a scholarship from An Najah National University to study for a PhD in Italy. Hiba is determined to return to Palestine, to help the development of her country.
It is evident from this report that the current Intifada is having a detrimental effect on Palestinian education. The tightening of travel restrictions by the Israeli forces as a result of the occupation, coupled with the intimidation and violence perpetrated by the Israeli forces against civilian Palestinian students and staff is having a negative affect on the development of Palestinian universities, its staff and students.
The longer-term prospects for co-existence between two peoples in one land are largely threatened by such treatment. Already one generation of Palestinians have lost out on a proper education, and many of those that have been fortunate to receive a university education see brighter employment prospects and better standards of living abroad. The future outlook for Palestinians will depend upon a dynamic educated workforce that will be instrumental in the political, economic and social development of a Palestinian state. At present, with regular disruptions to university classes and ongoing funding constraints at Palestinian universities the future looks bleak for many young people.
What is urgently needed is for the Israeli government to recognize and uphold the rights of the Palestinian people. The Palestinians are entitled to access to education, protection from violence and freedom of movement, as stipulated under international law. It is therefore vital that the Israeli government acts now, with pressure and support from the international community.
Friends of Birzeit University calls on:
a. The Israeli authorities to:
i) Fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian law, in particular the Fourth Geneva Convention,
ii) Put an end to the policy of closures that has such a devastating impact on the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including their right to education.
b. The International Community to:
i) Urge the Israeli authorities to end all military and other measures that have a negative impact on Palestinian education (which includes structural damage, closings, impaired access, etc.) and the education of Palestinian students;
ii) Call on State Parties to take all feasible measures to ensure protection, respect, and fulfilment of the rights of all Palestinian people.
Acknowledgments: FoBZU are grateful to those people that assisted the Co-ordinator in compiling this report.