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Palestinians’ right to education is under seige

Palestinians’ right to education is under siege
from Australians for Palestine, 11 May 2007

Introduction

The Palestinians have always placed a high value on education. Long before Israel was created, the Palestinians had excellent schools and an impressive list of intellectuals who had taken out degrees in Arab universities and the hallowed halls of learning in the West. When a national university was eventually established in Birzeit, it was soon recognized as the premier Palestinian university, but it was not long before the full weight of Israel’s occupation brought down on it intermittent months-long closures and restrictions that still threaten its existence today. Other Palestinian universities also face continual punitive action from the Israeli military, all deliberately designed to create fear and uncertainty in the students and academics in order to undermine the universities themselves. What is clear is that Palestinian education is being directly targeted. The incidents of lethal military attacks, raids, harassment and forced closures at all levels of education are well documented and occur on a regular basis. Birzeit University reports an average of 1-2 incidents of this nature every week. This puts enormous pressure on Palestinian society because one third of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza are students and education is pivotal in the lives of the majority. For many, education has been a way to resist and survive the occupation. It is a way of creating confidence, realising a person’s full potential and encouraging achievement, initiatives and development that are essential for building a strong, independent and healthy society. That is precisely what Israel seeks to destroy and what 11 Palestinian universities seek to preserve in this year’s “Break the Siege” campaign initiated by Birzeit University.

Financial burdens

The current financial crisis induced by the sanctions imposed last year has now directly hit the universities. Normally, Birzeit University receives USD$1.5 million from the Palestinian Authority (PA) every year, but since the sanctions have been imposed, the university has received only USD$300,000 leaving them USD$1.2 million short. Teaching standards, educational facilities and the working environment have all been badly affected and students whose families are suffering financial hardships are finding it impossible to pay their fees or travel to attend their classes. No longer are universities able to provide support for students in financial difficulties, and in fact, are relying more and more on student fees just to meet the basic budgetary requirements, such as salaries and general maintenance. In the last academic year, Palestine’s national university had allowed students to register and pay their fees in instalments, but when 43% of the students (some 3,000), were unable to pay their fees by the end of the second term, many were not able to continue their studies. If the current conditions continue, the situation will certainly get worse and students who were prepared to navigate Israel’s onerous obstructions to and from university will then simply have no money to travel at all.

Movement restrictions

The other serious problem is the restricted movement in and out of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) for Palestinians and non-Israelis. Just as the money dried up, thousands of foreign passport holders of Palestinian and non- Palestinian origin living or working inside the OPT found themselves unable to enter, re-enter or threatened with deportation even if they have lived in Palestine for years. At least 5 academic and university staff were denied entry to the West Bank last year and numerous international students were turned away at the borders, unable to register or continue their studies in Palestine. Trustees of various university boards have been issued final permits and have been given notice to exit the country. Other universities are grappling with similar cutbacks and restrictions and the overall effect of that will be teaching institutions that will find it impossible to maintain their academic standards and students whose education opportunities will be further diminished. Even more serious, will be the complete breakdown of civil society, since the educated class so necessary for building democratic governing institutions will be completely compromised.

International indifference/Israeli collusion

There has been a blanket of silence on the part of Western academics and intellectuals about “the criminalisation of Palestinian teaching and learning” as Edward Said put it. Equally, Israeli academics have been silent making no demands of their government to allow Palestinian scholars access to international academic networks in the ordinary pursuit of scholarship. Almost all Israeli academics serve in the Army reserves and have, therefore, perpetrated and witnessed the crimes committed by the military. Aside from the few who have spoken up, the rest are colluding with the government. And Westerners, they only help to maintain that system of injustice with every exchange they enjoy with universities and academics in Israel. The irony is that calls for academic boycotts are decried by Israeli and Western academics because they violate academic freedom and punish those who disagree with Israeli policies. There is no such protest for the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and their right to education.

Israel’s breaches and obligations

Israel’s deliberate targeting of Palestinian education violates a number of human rights, especially the right to education.

This is unequivocally stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Also, the Fourth Geneva Convention makes the Occupying Power responsible for ensuring that the people under its control are able to exercise their right to education.

Furthermore, Israel has signed agreements of reciprocity in diplomacy and immigration rules with other countries, and by refusing entry, re-entry and threatening deportation without a legitimate reason, Israel is violating people’s basic rights of access to justice, transparency and state accountability.

Australian action

• DEMAND THAT ISRAEL ALLOW THE TOTAL FREEDOM OF ACCESS TO EDUCATION AND OTHER ACTIVITIES IN PALESTINE

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