Academic Freedom in Palestine

'The University Will Remain Closed'

By Abu Salma
September 1990; pages 12-13; Volume 2, No. 1

"Every one has the right to education ... higher education shall be accessible to all on the basis of merit."

- The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26

To a UT student, it would perhaps be welcome news: "The Universities Will Remain Closed." But for some 17,000 Palestinian students in the Occupied Territories, it's a condition they will have to endure for a third consecutive year. Palestinian schools and universities were closed shortly after the breakout of the Intifada in December of 1987.

The Israeli Civil Administrator, carrying out the orders of the military, closed all Palestinian educational institutions (including, eventually, kindergartens), thus beginning a new era of Israeli harassment against education. Schools and universities were subjected to military harassment in the past, but the level of brutality and the singling out of education as a target for this brutality are the direct results of the Israeli effort to further supress the will for self-determination on the part of the Palestinian people.

Officially the Israeli Civil Administration, as of mid July 1989, has allowed the reopening of the schools. Most schools, however, remain the targets of individual or local closing orders. The five major universities will remain closed until further notice. As of today, only the Health Professions and the Sciences Departments of al-Quds University were allowed to reopen (largely due to international efforts). The Israeli Administration claimed that this was only a test, and the remaining departments and universities would follow only if no further "disturbances" occurred. In the past the shooting and killing of a Palestinian student by Israeli soldiers was considered adequate reason to close the universities. Thus, many Palestinians are skeptical about the results of this test.

Target: The Students

The Israeli crackdown on education in the Occupied Territories is no coincidence. The occupation strictly limits the opportunities open to Palestians. As a result, going to school has become a very important venue as both an identity symbol and a career option. One in every five Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is a student, a fact that reflects the integral role students play in the community, both demographically and socially. Students are in the forefront of the resistance movement, a resistance that is usually portrayed by the Western media in terms of stone throwing. However, in reality it penetrates deep into every aspect of the life of the community. Students are involved in all kind of popular committees, such as production cooperatives, health care, popular education as well as the Unified Leadership of the Uprising.

The Israeli Military thus made students the primary targets for its brutality: detention, beatings, prisons without due judicial process, deportations and the demolition of the family home for the actions of one of its members. The most significant expression of this brutality, however, was the closure of all educational institutions which serve the Palestinian community. All of these measures violate international and local law.

Faculty and staff are also targets of these same tactics, especially if they were active within their community. The story of Dr. Hazboun provides a case in point. (see sidebar.)

The Closed Universities

There are five major Palestinian universities and several colleges in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Most of these institutions were established after the 1967 war as a result of the inaccessibility to Jordanian and other Arab and International universities. The Israeli authorities pride themselves in having allowed the establishment of universities in the West Bank and Gaza. The reality, however, Israel has never provided financial support to universities in the Occupied Terrorities - in fact, not even the taxes collected in the West Bank and Gaza go to supporting Palestinian institutions of higher education. Perhaps the only way Palestinian taxes find their way back to the terrorities is through tear gas and bullets. Palestinian universities are completely dependant on tuition money and donations. This fact alone can help explain the severity of a prolonged closure of these institutions.

Closing the universities is not a new form of harassment against the Palestinian academic community. For instance, Birzeit University has not had a single uninterrupted academic year since its establishment in 1974. However, the prolonged closure of the universities since the beginning of the Intifada poses an even greater burden on both the financial and academic levels - a burden intensifies with every month that passes.

On the financial side, the universities have lost all their income from tuition. And, because of the deteroriating economic conditions under the occupation, the Palestinian universities (unlike UT) don't resort to shifting their economic troubles to their students. However, the institutions are still paying salaries for their faculty and staff as well as the inevitable taxes levied by the Israeli Administration. The indirect costs are harder to determine: chemicals expriring in the laboratories, periodicals collecting dust on the shelves, electronic equipment not being properly maintained, lost income from research money, the list goes on and on.

The academic loss to the universities is even greater. Palestinian universities are all accredited institutions tied by academic agreements with international universities. The closure of Birzeit University, for instance, halted all their joint scientific research programs with Amsterdam university. All major conferences had to be cancelled; opportunities for lectures by distinguished guest scholars were missed; and many exchange programs were postponed. In addition, keeping up with current research publications is almost impossible without a library.

On the local level, universities have lost many local community-oriented research projects. For example, the long-term agricultural experiments on the environmental impact of pesticides were "lost," much to the frustration of the professors, who were conducting them, and the farmers, who were waiting for the results.

Popular Education

Popular Uprising

As soon as it became apparent that the closure of the universities and schools was going to be indefinite, the Unified Leadership of the Uprising asserted the need for the continuation of the educational processes in the form of Popular Education. Students and teachers would meet in small tutorial settings, and the learning would take place in underground classes. This process has had its limitations, however. In addition to being psychologically straining, only non lab-requiring courses could be taught. Also, teachers have had a difficult time providing reading materials for their students: some librarians risk their lives to smuggle reading materials from the sealed libraries. Yet, despite all the hardship, the universities managed to graduate hundreds of students through the program of Popular Education.

Popular Education involves topics other than academic ones. Literacy and other community service classes are offered through Popular Education. As early as August 1988, the Israeli Administration, in yet another effort to punish the people of the Intifada, banned all forms of popular committees including Popular Education. Teachers involved in underground classes were arrested, interrogated and tortured, and then detained for at least six months, usually without any formal charges. Students were also arrested and detained for participating in Popular Education "illegal" classes. Evidence of such participation can be as simple as carrying books in the street.

Popular education is still taking place despite all the obstacles, even in prisons and detention camps. Many illiterate detainees learn to read and write from other fellow detainees. Foreign languages are another popular subject to learn in jail.

Criminalization of Education

The first orders to close the universities were delivered separately to each university. Afterwords, the orders to keep all institutions of higher education closed were issued in single communiques. Later the Civil (read: military) orders were offered orally. The collective nature of the closure of the educational institutions indicates that the real aim of the Israeli authorities was not to curb disturbances, but rather to criminalize education itself as a form of collective punishment against the Intifada. Further evidence is provided by the following facts: even small off campus classes or study groups were considered "illegal"; Israeli soldiers while searching the buildings of the closed universities were looking for evidence of ta' lim (Arabic for teaching); young people were arrested in the streets for carrying books; and the claim that Palestinian schools are inciting terrorist acts can be especially refuted by the fact that the orders to close schools included kindergartens!

The closure of the Palestinian educational institutions is an effort on the part of the Israeli occupation to de-educate the new Palestinian generation; and to pressure them, through the denial of the right to education, to stop their struggle for self determination.

Israeli academics have, only marginally and on an individual basis, come out in support of the Palestinian academics. However, with international support a lot of pressure has been put on the Israeli authorities to reopen the universities. Moreover, the reopening has to come, as professor Azmi Bishara (philosophy, Birzeit) has pointed out, with "international guarantees that the universities will remain open and free from Israeli interference in their internal affairs." The American academic community should join the international campaign to reopn Palestinian universities, if for no other reason than the fact that academic freedom is the foundation for all academic and education pursuits, and ultimately must be held dear as an expression of democracy.

If you would like more information on the campaign for academic freedom in the West Bank and Gaza, please write to:

The Coalition for Fair Education
[defunct address redacted]