Impediments to education in the occupied Palestinian territories

Edited by Sherna Berger Gluck, Emerita faculty,
California State University, Long Beach

Introduction by Sa’ed Atshan, Visiting Assistant Professor of
Peace and Conflict Studies, Swarthmore College

A publication of the Palestine-Israel
Working Group of
Historians Against the War (HAW)

September 2015

Introduction by Sa’ed Atshan

On October 28, 2009, Berlanty Azzam, a 22-year-old Palestinian Christian from the Gaza Strip, was handcuffed, blindfolded, and deported from the West Bank by Israeli occupation forces. A business student at Bethlehem University in the West Bank at the time, Israeli soldiers sent her back to Gaza because Gaza was the residence listed on her Palestinian identification card. On December 9, 2009, Israel’s High Court, while acknowledging that Berlanty posed no security threat, ruled in favor of the state and army, refusing to allow her to return to Bethlehem in order to complete her education. Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization promoting freedom of movement for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), represented Berlanty in this case. Gisha advocates not only for students but for medical patients, professionals, and other Palestinian civilians devastated by the Israeli occupation and its policies of closure and inhibiting freedom of movement, a basic right under international law.

In a recent post on June 4, 2015, Gisha published an update on their website, reporting that “Hundreds of students from Gaza who are enrolled in universities abroad have already missed the current academic year, and now their studies for next year are in jeopardy, too.” This is a result of the tremendous challenge in securing Israel’s approval to permit Palestinian students to leave Gaza—the densely-populated small strip of land under Israeli siege—in order to arrive at universities abroad. In many cases, these students then lose their scholarships. The United States—known globally as Israel’s largest patron—has also been known for not exerting pressure on Israel to facilitate travel permission for such students, even when it is to the United States. In fact, the American State Department has previously withdrawn American Fulbright Scholarships from Palestinian fellowship recipients after Israel denied their permission to leave the Occupied Territories for the United States.

Berlanty Azzam’s case highlights merely one name and one story that reflect the undermining of Palestinian higher education and the right to education for Palestinians, also a basic human right under international law. Scholars, journalists, and observers familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hear reports of violations of the Palestinian right to education regularly. In Gaza, Israeli bombs destroy schools and universities, and in the West Bank, Israeli settlers and soldiers inflict violence on Palestinian schoolchildren and teachers. Palestinian institutions cannot secure the Israeli visas they require for international faculty. They struggle to secure books and materials for their classrooms and labs from abroad. Students in the West Bank face Israeli military checkpoints while traveling from home to university. Israel targets students who are politically active in their respective student governments and within Palestinian political parties and frequently arrests them. The Israeli military is able to raid universities at will, releasing tear gas and entering campuses with weapons. Faculty and administrators are unable to protect their students from the intimidation and insecurity inflicted by the occupation forces. For high school students, even the ability to secure SAT booklets for a Palestinian testing site in the West Bank cannot be taken for granted. For instance, in 2008, two Palestinian students at Harvard University published an article, “Israel vs. No. 2 Pencils,” expressing their concerns about the cancelation of an SAT exam in the West Bank due to an Israeli hold on the booklets in particular, and attacks on the Palestinian right to education more broadly.

The decades-long Israeli military occupation, with the continuing expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, has had a devastating impact on the Palestinian educational system. Israel’s violations of Palestinian educational infrastructure often have little to do with security and are, instead, part of a larger structural assault on the basic social fabric of Palestinian life. Too many Palestinian students are denied the right to education as Israel violates scholarly freedom in Palestinian universities.

Israeli policy has serious implications for civil society development. A byproduct of Israel’s occupation in the Palestinian Territories is its policy to limit the free development of ideas and knowledge within Palestinian institutions. When universities and schools are bombed, when students and teachers cannot reach their classrooms due to military checkpoints, an apartheid Wall, and U.S.-supplied tear gas, when supplies and books cannot clear Israel’s control of Palestinian mail, when students are taken as prisoners in Israeli jails, and when international lecturers are routinely denied entry to the Occupied Territories by Israel, the odds are stacked against Palestinian students and educators.

Scholarship by Palestinians and on Palestinians is severely restricted as a result of Israel’s violations of academic freedom. While Israeli universities are able to recruit whomever they please, Palestinian institutions are largely unable to avail themselves of the talented diaspora and solidarity communities of academics who seek to teach at Palestinian universities. Moreover, while Israeli scholars are able to conduct research in Israel/Palestine, and their historians have access to archives, Palestinian scholars are severely limited in their access. Palestinian archeologists, for instance, cannot reach most archeological sites in Israel/Palestine. Additionally, Palestinian historians are largely unable to conduct research in Israeli archives or maintain their own archives. In Part III of this pamphlet, historian Joel Beinin references the evidence that Israel has historically looted tens of thousands of Palestinian books and documents. The documentary The Great Book Robbery discusses this in further depth.

Nonetheless, Palestinians remain resilient in building their educational infrastructure, improving literacy rates, and establishing institutions. Yet their academic freedom and basic right to education is severely undermined by the Israeli occupation and they will never realize their full potential while under the control of a colonizing state and military. This is precisely why we see initiatives such as the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University, which sheds light on how Palestinian education has been impacted by Palestinian statelessness and life under foreign military rule. Additionally, Palestinian civil society initiated a call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) in 2005, a nonviolent movement inspired by the South African anti-apartheid boycott and based on international law. It targets institutions, not individuals, complicit in these realities to place pressure on them to end the occupation. This distinction between institutions and individuals is critical. Israelis of conscience from Boycott from Within have also supported the BDS call despite the Israeli state’s attempts to criminalize BDS activism.

The undermining of the Palestinian right to education is certainly relevant to American academics, especially since Israel is the world’s largest recipient of U.S. aid, thereby rendering U.S. taxpayers complicit in violations of Palestinian human rights. U.S. professional academic associations have responded in various ways, with some specific associations endorsing BDS[[In 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies was the first U.S. professional academic association to endorse BDS. This has been followed by resolutions or statements from the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association for Humanist Sociology, the African Literature Association, the National Women’s Studies Association, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies, and the Peace and Justice Studies Association. Other associations may follow suit in future years, with, for instance, over 1,100 anthropologists thus far endorsing BDS.]] while others, such as the Modern Language Association, have debated more limited resolutions such as the following in 2014:

Whereas Israel has denied academics of Palestinian ethnicity entry into the West Bank;
Whereas these restrictions violate international conventions on an occupying power’s obligation to protect the right to education;
Whereas the United States Department of State acknowledges on its Web site that Israel restricts the movements of American citizens of Palestinian descent;
Whereas the denials have disrupted instruction, research, and planning at Palestinian universities;
Whereas the denials have restricted the academic freedom of scholars and teachers who are United States citizens;
Be it resolved that the MLA urge the United States Department of State to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by United States academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.

Inspired by the MLA debate, Historians Against the War (HAW) has initiated a resolution censuring Israel at the upcoming (2016) Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) for its violations of the Palestinian right to education. The resolution can be found in this pamphlet.

By standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people, a nation facing one of the world’s longest military occupations—and a community whose oppression we are directly funding and sustaining as U.S. citizens—our professional academic associations can ensure that history will look kindly upon our community of scholars. By affirming the need to protect the right to education and academic freedom for Palestinians, Israelis, and all Americans here at home, we help shape a more equal and just world, and a more sustainable future.


Part I. Introduction – by Sa’ed Atshan

Part II: The Palestinian Right to Education

A. Palestinian Right to Education Under Siege, 2008-2015 a partial chronology

B. Palestinian Universities Under Occupation: Report of European Delegation, April 2015

C. Nazin Al-Masri: Imagine you are a Palestinian academic or student

Part III: Researching Palestine: Records, Cultural Properties, and the Politics
of Archival Declassification

A. Joel Beinin: Destruction and Appropriation of Palestinian History and Cultural Property: The Responsibilities of Historians
(Paper presented at January 2015 American HIstorical Association Annual Meeting, NYC)

B. Shay Hazkani: Catastrophic thinking: Did Ben-Gurion try to rewrite history?
(originally published in Haaretz)

C. Other resources:

1. Shay Hazkani and Chris Gratien: The Politics of 1948 in Israeli Archives (abstract)
(originally published in: Ottoman History Podcast, No.166, 19 July 2014)

2. Akevot Institute Report on Access to israeli Archives
A report on access to Israeli archives, particularly the State Archive and IDF and Security System Archive. Forthcoming late fall 2015.
Source: Akevot: Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research

Appendix: Historians Against the War Resolution