As Israel Tightens Entry Rules, Foreign Lecturers at Palestinian Universities Forced to Leave

Short-term tourist visas and refusals to extend them are routine obstacles, but the West Bank’s Birzeit University is now fighting back

Among the many problems at Birzeit University in the West Bank, foreign lecturers’ troubles haven’t received top priority. But as Mudar Kassis, an associate professor in philosophy, puts it, “suddenly I looked around and discovered that my colleagues were being deported.”

He found that their visas aren’t extended and they’re required to leave before the end of the academic year, or they’re not allowed to return for the next year. Some decide not to abandon their students in the middle of the year and are left without a valid visa. In fact they’re imprisoned in the Ramallah enclave. They don’t leave for fear that a soldier at a checkpoint will check their passport will order their deportation.

“A university is like its name – universal,” says Kassis, who also runs Birzeit’s Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights. “It’s important to us that lecturers offer other perspectives and come from different backgrounds, so that students can expand their worldview and develop critical positions. Every university in the world has lecturers from abroad. Their employment is part of its autonomy, and it’s natural that we too have this academic freedom.”

Kassis’ discovery was made possible due to the increasing difficulties, for three years now, to obtain a visa to enter and stay in the Palestinian enclaves. Israel controls entry to the West Bank. Even before the recent worsening, the professors and other foreign citizens were confronted by a vague procedure, red tape and unexplained fluctuations in treatment by the Israeli authorities.

All this took place after lecturers had passed the security vetting. Due to the difficulties, they have been forced to hire lawyers to handle the exhausting correspondence with Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories before every visa extension, or for obtaining a new visa.

Each lecturer and accompanying lawyer – in many cases Lea Tsemel – was alone in conducting the battle for the right to teach at the university he or she chose, as if the problem were an individual one and didn’t stem from Israel’s policy.

Now Birzeit University has decided to deal with the infringement on its academic freedom of choice as an institution. With the help of rights groups Al-Haq and Adalah, it’s demanding that the Israeli authorities respect this freedom and stop piling difficulties on the employment of foreign lecturers at Palestinian universities.

The process began with a letter from attorney Sawsan Zaher of Adalah to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, Military Advocate General Sharon Afek, Interior Minister Arye Dery and COGAT chief Kamil Abu Rokon. The letter was sent on April 30. Zaher deliberately addressed the principle rather than individual cases. She wrote that under the Hague Convention, an occupying force must allow the continuation of normal life, including studies.

“The right of a university under occupation to define itself by realizing its academic freedom, especially regarding decisions to develop and advance its academic standards, is not revoked or suspended due to the occupation, especially when no security considerations justify it,” she wrote, adding that this still applies when the occupation unnaturally lasts for over 52 years.

The attorney general’s office replied that Zaher’s letter had been passed on to Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, who was handling it. Haaretz asked the respondents if, after receiving the letter, they had met or planned to meet to sort out the problems. Haaretz also asked for a response to the claim that the restrictions were intended to harm Palestinian institutions in general and the university in particular.

The army spokesman and Justice Ministry replied only that the request was being handled and would be responded to directly. The Interior Ministry and COGAT said the letter – which was sent by fax – had not reached them. The latter added that it would be addressed once they receive it.

Zaher told Haaretz that the letter had been sent as a preliminary legal step, and if things didn’t change, this would lead to a court petition.

As Zaher stressed in her letter, when foreign lecturers are accepted to Israeli universities, the institution represents them and fills out the paperwork, according to a special rule for B1 researcher/lecturer visas. The first visa is valid for up to two years, with an option to be extended for up to five years or more, with multiple entries permitted. The regulation clearly sets a limit for the length of processing a request.

More than mere foot-dragging

In contrast, even without the worsening of the process, the COGAT regulation for entering the Palestinian enclaves doesn’t distinguish between lecturers and other visitors, and its vagueness allows for great arbitrariness, foot-dragging and a lack of transparency.

The army and the Population and Immigration Authority responded to a Haaretz query by saying that there has not been a change in the entry regulations for the Palestinian enclaves. Over the phone, COGAT gave the same response.

However, the facts on the ground say the opposite, as detailed in a number of Haaretz articles this past year and according to the paper’s interviews with several Birzeit lecturers. They received visas that were shorter than the semester, the visas are extended for periods shorter than the norm or weren’t extended at all, the visas are single-entry, entry to Jerusalem and Israel are forbidden, the time it takes to process the visa or visa renewal drags on for no clear reason, and lecturers are forbidden from leaving and entering via Ben-Gurion International Airport – making their trips abroad more expensive and complicated, especially if they had to go for short conferences or make emergency trips.

Some have also been required to pay tens of thousands of shekels to the Civil Administration as a guarantee they wouldn’t violate their visa conditions. Moreover, all the lecturers are given tourist and not work visas. Thus the population registry chief at the Civil Administration demands of lecturers married to Palestinian residents to resign from their university job in exchange for a visa extension, a demand they refuse.

As of this past Wednesday, nine of 19 foreign lecturers working full-time at Birzeit since 2018 did not have a valid visa. Five of them stayed on in Ramallah. Four left and don’t know if they’ll return to teach this fall. Of the 10 who obtained visas, three received ones shorter than the teaching period in their contract. The other seven are lucky. They’re working for a program funded by the German, Spanish, Italian and U.S. governments, which arranged their visas.

Five of the 13 part-time lecturers didn’t receive a visa; four left and don’t know if they’ll be able to return. One of them stayed. At the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, a part of Birzeit where 19 foreigners lecture, three teachers were denied entry during the 2018-19 academic year, and five were refused a visa extension.

All of the lecturers are experts in their field (such as linguistics, theater, Chinese and ecology) who currently have no replacement in the West Bank. Thus those who were forced to leave in the middle of the year continued with Skype lessons, including cello lessons.

One of the traumatic outcomes of the visa odyssey, even before the current worsening of COGAT policies, was a year delay in the opening of a nursing school at Birzeit. The uncertainty hampers research, relationships with students and the overall mood.

Because of the situation it’s impossible to engage in faculty or student exchange programs with other universities. It also makes lecturers waste precious time navigating the Civil Administration bureaucracy. The difficulties in obtaining a secure visa cause the university to hesitate before picking foreign professors, or it forgoes certain specializations. Also, potential lecturers are deterred from submitting their candidacy.

Solidarity and culture

Many of the foreign lecturers, citizens of Western countries, aren’t really foreigners but rather Palestinians who were born abroad or lost their residency status in the West Bank or Jerusalem because of Israeli policy. They – and non-Palestinian lecturers – keep coming to Palestinian universities for intellectual integrity, rather than attractive material conditions, says Ghassan Khatib of the cultural studies department, who teaches politics and communication. The pay is low; all the universities are in the red because the already modest funding from the Palestinian Authority has been cut in recent years to less than 1 percent of their budget. Some lecturers want to serve their people or show solidarity; for others it’s a new cultural experience.

“Palestinian society in the West Bank suffers from an ongoing brain drain,” Khatib says. “We at Birzeit lose three to five of our best academics every year” to universities abroad.

Kassis adds that emigration waves that Israel has imposed in various ways over the past 70 years have taken away the best minds. Thus it’s not just a matter of seeking fresh perspectives but a need for the knowledge and expertise of guest lecturers from abroad.

Moverover, over the past two decades Birzeit and other universities have become local institutions of the Palestinian enclaves where they’re located; most students at Birzeit, for example, hail from the Ramallah region. Several reasons explain this trend. The fragmentation of the West Bank through military checkpoints and the closing of large territories and roads to the Palestinians have changed the Palestinian perception of space and time. Close distances now seem very distant because of the unnaturally long trip, and besides losing time to checkpoints, families fear their children’s possible dangerous confrontations with the army and settlers. Likewise, most parents have a hard time paying for their children’s dorm room or apartment.

Before 2000, about a third of Birzeit students and many lecturers were from Gaza. Today Israel prohibits their exit to the West Bank – thus a regional social monotony is created that is also foreign to the idea of a university. It only emphasizes the academic and intellectual need for lecturers from abroad, with different experiences, teaching styles and perspectives.

Khatib says university officials have discussed the problem with foreign diplomats. “I told them they should intervene, that there’s no security issue here. They said they report to their foreign ministries. No one promised to raise the issue with their Israeli counterpart,” he said.

“When asked why Israel is doing this, I answer that I can’t find a reason besides the Israeli desire to weaken our institutions and destroy the Palestinian future. When they fight against the quality of the Palestinian academic institution, they’re weakening our future.”