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The Attack on Palestinian Universities

The brutality of Israeli occupation isn't limited to wars. It also includes constant assault on Palestinians' access to basic necessities like higher education.

Students seen before the class starts at the gymnastics room at Al-Quds University on March 24, 2014 in Abu-Dis, West Bank. Ilia Yefimovich / Getty

Israel’s efforts to cripple higher education in occupied Palestine continued relentlessly in 2018, with Israeli universities acting as key tools of the occupation. The systematic punishment inflicted on Palestinian academics and students didn’t attract anything like the global attention of Gazans’ March of Return, but it deserves to be documented and organized against for what it is: a slow, sadistic crushing of learning, and a stifling of the life opportunities it provides. A selection of the manifestations of this “scholasticide,” all drawn from local reports, is cataloged in this article, along with some brief indications of Israeli universities’ collaboration in it. This suggests the full violence of Israel’s siege on higher education in Palestine — and the urgent necessity of an effective response on the part of people of good conscience around the world, including those who work in universities.

Universities in the West Bank and Gaza are key incubators and hubs of resistance, and major channels of Palestinians’ aspirations for freedom and justice. As such, they are methodically obstructed by Israel. Israel’s entire post-1967 regime can, in fact, be reasonably considered as a massive, militarized attack on Palestinians’ access to education: the low average age in the West Bank and Gaza — 46 and 61 percent of people respectively are under eighteen — means that young people who should be in school or further study disproportionately pay the price of Israeli oppression.

Students are also in the front line of Palestinian resistance: prominent in 2018’s Great Return March, whether as originators or casualties; and accounting for more than a quarter of civilian deaths during Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza. Gazans have still not recovered from that war, in which numerous university buildings were damaged or destroyed, and almost four thousand students (66 percent) at one university — Al Azhar — lost their homes. The scars left on Gazan students are a graphic illustration of the deeper reality of Palestine as a whole: the progressive amputation of universities is central to Israel’s intentions.

Engulfed as they are by a hostile military power, education throws Palestinians a lifeline: despite Israel’s efforts to sever it, it is one of the few things the populations of Gaza and the West Bank have left. Learning can be disrupted, but it can’t be stolen, demolished, or imprisoned — so it’s no surprise that despite Israel’s ongoing blockade of universities, Palestine has, by international standards, a high rate of participation in tertiary education.

In 2018, universities were raided and closed, and their buildings were ransacked; staff and students were regularly tear-gassed, shot with live ammunition, and summarily arrested. Students were killed. When police rounded up French high school students in December and forced them to kneel with their hands behind their necks, there was a public outcry. For Palestinian students, confrontations with heavily armed IDF troops are regular, and often deadly.

2018: A Year of Scholasticide

2017 had ended violently in Palestinian higher education. In December, students were repeatedly attacked by Israeli soldiers with teargas and rubber-coated steel rounds while protesting at the Tulkarm campus of the Palestine Technical University against the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem (the Palestine Technical University’s campus in the al-Arroub refugee camp north of Hebron was also attacked). The IDF raided the Abu Dis campus of Al-Quds University east of Jerusalem, prompting clashes with local residents. Three hundred exhibits being prepared for an exhibition at a campus museum presenting the experiences of Palestinian prisoners were destroyed, removed, or damaged, along with hundreds of books. The same day (December 14), the Birzeit campus north of Ramallah was also raided, with banners and other student material seized.

2018 opened in the same key. On January 15, the Al-Quds Open University student Ahmad Abd al-Jaber Muhammad Salim, secretary of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) student bloc, was killed by the IDF in Jayyous. On March 4, Israeli forces fired rubber-coated steel bullets and teargas canisters on students of the Palestine Technical University in Hebron. The university’s director was reported as saying that Israeli troops deliberately provoke students “through their almost daily presence at the university’s entrance; and the searching and interrogating of students, which provokes clashes.” On March 6, a twenty-year-old Jenin university student was abducted by the IDF. On March 8, armed Israeli soldiers disguised as students made a violent intrusion onto the Birzeit campus — the fifth in two years — and kidnapped the head of the Student Council, Omar al-Kiswani, who was pinned to the ground outside the Student Council building; live rounds were fired.

In the first month of Kiswani’s detention at the al-Maskobiyya interrogation center in Jerusalem, he endured interrogations that lasted for eighteen to twenty hours a day, was prevented from sleeping and banned from seeing his lawyer for twenty-five days. A student march protesting against Kiswani’s kidnapping was attacked with live ammunition several days later: at least eight students were injured, one of them seriously.

On April 23, the IDF shut down two schools, a vocational college, and an area around the Abu Dis campus of Al-Quds in order to seal holes that had been drilled in the separation wall. The following day, the Dean of Students at Bethlehem University, Mahmoud Hammad, was arrested. On April 25, Ibtihal Khader Ibreiwish, a twenty-year-old student at the Al-Arroub Branch of the Palestine Technical University (Kadoorie), was abducted by the IDF as she left the campus. The day after, Israeli soldiers sealed the campus entrances, preventing staff and students from entering it, and wounding four of them.

On July 11, Ghassan Thouqan, a lecturer at Najah National University in Nablus, was arrested. On July 15, Israel indefinitely closed the Hind Al-Husseini College in Sheikh Jarrah in occupied Jerusalem, banned a conference there, and detained fifteen participants. On September 5, Israeli forces sealed off the Abu Dis campus of Al-Quds university. Dozens of students suffered from teargas inhalation. On September 20, a Palestinian student, Ola Marshoud, was finally released after seven months’ detention.

On October 2, two university students were shot and injured with rubber-coated steel bullets, and many others suffered from teargas inhalation in an attack by the IDF on students demonstrating against the nation-state law and the planned demolition of the Khan al-Ahmar Bedouin community. On November 19, the new head of the Birzeit Student Council, Yehya Rabie, was taken into custody, joining sixty other Birzeit students in Israeli prisons, often without charge or arrest. On December 5, Israel announced that it would no longer recognize social-work qualifications from Al-Quds university, effectively voiding that degree of its professional utility. On December 12, the IDF ransacked a number of faculties and offices at the al-Quds Abu Dis campus. On December 23, Israeli troops again sealed the gates of the Al-Arroub branch of the Palestine Technical University (Kadoorie), and prevented the students from entering or leaving it.

The White-Anting of Palestinian Higher Education

Universities in Palestine weren’t just attacked physically in 2018: more than anything else, they were undermined structurally. The throttled economies of Gaza and the West Bank can’t reliably generate the tuition fees which constitute between 60 and 80 percent of the budget of Palestine’s chronically underfunded universities. Administrative violence through punitive Israeli taxation and the withholding of building permits places severe restrictions on universities’ ability to function normally, let alone engage in much-needed expansion; censorship and delays in supply of essential books, journals, and equipment is all part of the formula of Israeli educational apartheid.

In 2018 as in every other year, the West Bank occupation and the blockade of Gaza inherently constituted monumental obstacles to young Palestinians’ access to school and university. Checkpoints turn the trip to and from campus into a humiliating ordeal, and significantly reduce the proportion of the day in which classes can be held. The IDF often vexatiously sets a checkpoint up outside the main gate of the Abu Dis campus of Al-Quds university, especially at exam times; checkpoint or not, the campus is under continual surveillance. Even when the checkpoints are crossed, campus closures orchestrated by the IDF can prevent classes being held.

The arbitrary conditions Israel imposes severely disrupt recruitment of foreign-trained staff — a necessity, given that PhD programs are currently offered in only three Palestinian institutions. Zionists complain about the highly circumscribed violation of academic freedom that the academic boycott imposes on a small handful of Israeli academic officials — a violation that those officials could immediately end by stepping down from their leadership positions. Yet, in a stunning violation of Palestinian academics and students’ own academic freedom, the restrictions Israel places on travel into and out of Palestine constitute an irrevocable and far more severe educational boycott of Palestinians, straight-jacketing universities in local enclaves when they are desperate to develop international contacts.

In the 2017–18 academic year alone, denial or delay of work visas for foreign staff affected scores of lecturers; in the two years to 2018, as many as half of the sixty-four foreign academic and other staff members employed by nine Palestinian universities were reported to have been affected by visa denial or restriction. Just at Birzeit, fifteen academic staff members had their visa requests refused or significantly delayed. One English literature academic was forced to leave the country outright, as was a history academic who had worked at the university for the past four decades. Trying to circumvent or adapt to this blockade of foreign staff is a continual drain on university resources. And it comes on top of the regular arrest and detention of those staff who are in place. 2018’s haul of examples was nothing exceptional: some high-profile precedents in the recent past include Al-Quds University astrophysicist Imad Barghouthi, who served over six months’ administrative detention, without charge or trial, in 2016, and An-Najah University physics professor Essam al-Ashqar, who was detained for almost a year in 2016–17.

A Road to Freedom

In trying to slowly crush universities, Israel’s aim is to smother Palestinian self-determination and consolidate its ongoing Nakba of the indigenous population. But from the outset, resisting the occupation has been central to Palestinian universities’ mission. In the words of the long-term acting president of Birzeit University, Gabi Baramki, the ambition of the founders of Palestinian universities was to build “a road to freedom.”

The very existence of Palestinian universities is itself a consequence of Israel’s takeover of Gaza and the West Bank. Before 1967, Palestinian students usually studied in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, or Europe; in Palestine itself, at most only two years of tertiary education could be undertaken. After the Six Day War, Israel started obstructing Palestinian students’ travel and often detained Palestinians returning from abroad: as a result, domestic institutions in the occupied territories became increasingly necessary. “Having a university was crucial if we were to resist the occupation,” Baramki wrote in his 2010 memoir Peaceful Resistance. “We would produce well-educated, confident graduates, proud of their Palestinian national identity and eager to contribute to the development of their homeland. Moreover, university life would create a haven for the practice of democracy in a situation of political oppression.”

The nation-building ambitions of Palestinian higher education have remained constant in its almost five-decade history. In the face of the attempted Zionist erasure of Palestine, “the transmission and preservation of Palestinian history, heritage and culture” in the service of national liberation was a fundamental aim of the PLO, which funded universities, and of the universities themselves. Conviction of an “indissoluble link” between education and emancipation drove university founders; the first director of the Council for Higher Education in the West Bank and Gaza spoke of universities’ mission as guiding Palestinian society’s “metamorphosis from a colonial to an independent community with as little disorder and dislocation as possible.” “Patriotic” considerations fall among Birzeit university’s responsibilities, a recent annual report states. “What kind of people will the Palestinian graduates be,” asked the Al Fajr newspaper on February 20, 1987, “if they are not allowed to think and express their own and their people’s political aspirations?” Failure to foster students’ political development would be a serious dereliction of universities’ duty. This is exactly Israel’s aim.

Israeli Universities: Tools of the Occupation

Israeli universities locked in their status as key tools of the occupation in 2018, supplying the infrastructure, both political and ideological, of their state’s bloody anti-Palestinianism. The University of Haifa announced that it would now be responsible for IDF officer-training, with the President of the university expressing his pleasure that the “University of Haifa [would be] responsible for the academic education of the Israel Defense Forces’ core of command for the coming years.” Whereas several Israeli universities voluntarily disrupted classes or otherwise supported protests against domestic violence, all universities are structurally integrated into Israel’s permanent war effort, and nothing remotely near such levels of institutional support for the Palestinian cause has ever been shown: at best, student pro-peace activity is tolerated; at worst, it is suppressed. BDS is regularly fought.

In October 2018, the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, notorious for theorizing the “Dahiya doctrine” of disproportionate military force, published a proposal for dealing with what it called the “Palestinian threat.” The plan, predicated on a unilateral move to “serve Israeli interests,” recommends completion of the separation wall, “ongoing construction in settlement blocs and their definition as essential to Israel in any future situation,” refusal of Palestinian refugees’ right of return, and retention of IDF freedom of action throughout the West Bank — in other words, the consolidation of Israeli apartheid, presented as compatible with the aim of a “just” Israeli state.

Even more shockingly, a paper released in November by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University argued that only “a fourth massive round of fighting against Hamas” would make Hamas realize “that the pain to be suffered is so great, and the chance of eliminating the Jewish state so slim, as to render further violence pointless.” “Now, alas,” the paper concluded, “is the time for war.”

These are not the ravings of isolated war criminals: they come validated by the full institutional prestige of the universities that solicit their murderous ideas, disseminate them, and endorse their warmongering with their official logos.

Israel touts itself as a society of educational high achievement with, it boasts, more PhDs per capita than anywhere else. The dark underside is the educational agony it inflicts on Palestinians, at whose expense Israeli educational achievement comes. Current university students are not, of course, the sole victims of educational dispossession at Israeli hands: future ones are too. The Palestinian Ministry of Education’s annual report for 2017 concludes that 80,279 Palestinian children and 4,929 teachers and staff were “attacked” by Israeli settlers or soldiers in that year.

BDS Against the Educational Siege

2018 did not just add further entries in the long chronicle of Israel’s destruction of Palestinians’ educational future. It was also a year in which Palestinian academics repeatedly called for their international colleagues’ solidarity through BDS. In January, Birzeit University staff called on supporters of Palestine “to intensify your efforts in boycotting Israel and its academic institutions till it ends its violations of the human rights of the Palestinians.” In October, the Palestinian Union of Social Workers and Psychologists became the latest body to affirm the original call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, when it appealed to colleagues to boycott the 2019 conference of the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, slated for Tel Aviv, “in the name of the freedom, justice, and dignity of every Palestinian.”

In its present form, the call for an institutional academic boycott of Israel was first made in 2005. Almost fifteen years later, it is anything but a museum-piece; rather, it’s the focal point of Palestinians’ plan for self-determination. For university workers who want to do something to support Palestinians’ aspirations for justice, responding to the boycott call, exactly as Palestinians have asked them, is the clear best strategy. If there is a more effective tactic than BDS for obtaining Palestinian rights, or one that Israel fears more, no one has heard of it.

At the start of 2019, Palestine’s longest-serving prisoner, Karim Younis, will have been in Israeli jails for thirty-six years. Younis was arrested as a student in 1983 after he allegedly attacked an Israeli soldier in the occupied Golan Heights. As academics around the world are increasingly understanding, showing practical solidarity to Palestinians by boycotting Israeli universities is not just the best way of exerting pressure for a just peace. It is also the best way to ensure that the lifelong educational deprivation Younis has suffered is not generalized to the entire Palestinian people, and that 2018’s litany of violence in the occupied territories is not repeated on campus after campus, year after year.