As the conflict centred on Gaza continues, academics and students in the occupied West Bank, who are facing an intensified campaign of arrests, have appealed to the international community for help to protect the territory’s universities from the full impacts of the war.
Jaser Mohammad Khalil, director of the planning and quality control department at Al-Quds Open University, said: “It is not only universities in Gaza that are suffering from Israeli military attacks but universities located in the West Bank too.”
According to the Palestinian Prisoners Society, as of 21 November, 3,000 Palestinians had been arrested in the West Bank since 7 October. Many of those arrested are academics and students suspected of being involved in political activities.
According to Khalil, the West Bank universities are being subjected to an intensified Israeli campaign to arrest academic cadres and student activists. He said the number of students arrested during the first two weeks of the war was estimated to be no less than 300.
“This campaign has increased in the recent period … On some days the average number of detainees reaches 30-60 … most of them are university students … Military checkpoints search young men’s cellphones and arrest or abuse anyone who carries content supportive of the resistance,” Khalil said.
A number of West Bank universities have announced the deaths of students and academics as a result of Israeli attacks. They include Bethlehem University, Birzeit University and Palestine Technical University – Kadoorie (PTUK).
Israeli troops sent into universities
Two West Bank educational institutions have been entered by Israeli forces. In a 16 November statement, PTUK said: “The Israeli occupation forces stormed the automotive engineering laboratories and workshops (formerly the energy building) at the main headquarters of PTUK, and wreaked havoc on its property.
“This is part of a series of repeated violations carried out by the occupation against Palestine Technical University Kadoorie at its main headquarters in Tulkarm and its branch in Al-Arroub.”
On 8 November, Birzeit University was also entered by Israeli forces, according to a statement which said the university was vandalised and flags and belongings in student residences were confiscated.
On 13 November, law students of Birzeit University in the West Bank issued a statement saying: “the Israel occupying forces have been intensifying their oppression against Palestinians … including persecution, collective punishment, arbitrary killings, mass arrests, and state-backed settler violence”.
Arrests of academics, students
The statement was followed by an announcement from Birzeit University on 20 November concerning the arrest of Dr Hudhaifa Nabil Jabari during a raid on his home in Hebron. Jabari was based in the Accounting Department at the university’s College of Business and Economics.
The day before, the university announced the arrests of Muhammad Zuhair Al-Zuhairi, a student at its Faculty of Law and Public Administration, and his brother, Ibrahim Al-Zuhairi, a graduate of Birzeit’s Media Department.
The statement said Israeli troops who entered the town of Birzeit “blew up the main door of Muhammad and Ibrahim’s house, brutally stormed the house, destroyed its contents, and beat Muhammad and Ibrahim before arresting them”.
On 16 November, Birzeit University had announced the arrest of Ferouz Salameh, a postgraduate female student in the Israeli Studies Programme, from her residence in Birzeit.
Some of those arrested have been released. On 15 November, the Palestinian Prisoners Society issued a press release indicating that the occupation forces had released 17 female university students in Hebron who had been arrested in their homes and who were later summoned to the (Etzion) detention centre.
Student leaders have been the target of arrests. On 9 November a statement by An-Najah National University in Nablus denounced what it called a campaign of arrests launched by the occupation in the West Bank which, it said, had affected “a number of colleagues in the academic body and a number of our students”. Among the students arrested was head of the Student Union Council Omar Sari.
On 24 October, the deanship of student affairs at the University of Bethlehem also announced the arrest of Student Union Council head Moatasim Omar Issa.
“We call on all international and regional human rights institutions… to take urgent action and put pressure on the occupation government to stop its arbitrary practices and attacks on elected Palestinian representative bodies, and to stop persecuting and arresting Palestinian university students,” the statement said.
Restrictions on movement
Yousef-Awwad Daraghmi, director of the international relations office and an associate professor in the Computer Systems Engineering Department at Palestine Technical University – Kadoorie, told University World News that restriction of movement was a key challenge for higher education institutions.
According to Daraghmi, cities are closed most of the time or opened only for a short time. “So students lost the right to study on campus, and several students lost the chance to participate in local events (conferences, contests, workshops) due to the closure of cities.
“Several students lost the chance to participate in international events such as conferences, workshops and student exchange programmes,” he said.
Some students are being deprived of being able to travel to other countries, while others fear being trapped outside the country if Israel closes the Jordanian border.
“Many students require practical training at different levels of study such as engineering and medicine students. This training can be in different cities which are hard to reach nowadays,” Daraghmi said.
“The academic and administrative staff cannot reach campuses most days and if they can, they may not arrive on time due to closures,” he said.
Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem said in a statement that the academic community was under a “stifling siege”.
“While the bombing is intense in Gaza, we in the West Bank, including the residents of East Jerusalem, suffer from a stifling siege that increases the isolation of our Arab societies from each other and divides them into military places closed with cement barriers, iron gates, and military checkpoints, which prevents students from going to their universities and schools, and also exposes them – as all Palestinians – to danger as a result of the violent, criminal acts committed against them by armed settlers and occupation soldiers, the rate of which has increased since 7 October at a rate of no less than eight incidents per day, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,” read the statement.
Universities under threat
The current conflict has exacerbated long standing challenges for West Bank universities, including their financial sustainability.
It was reported by Arab News in March 2023 that about 10,000 Palestinian students living in Israel and studying in Palestinian universities in the West Bank were facing challenges due to the escalation of Israeli army incursions into Palestinian cities, arrests and killings.
The newspaper reported that at least 250 of them had left universities in the West Bank and returned to their places of residence inside Israel.
Khalil said West Bank universities were affected financially by the loss of these fee-paying students.
He said Israel’s restrictions on academic exchanges between Palestinian higher education institutions and other regional and international educational institutions, had also meant difficulties around hosting foreign academic staff.
“Some universities were forced to terminate their contracts with some lecturers of foreign nationalities due to the occupation authorities’ refusal to renew their residence permits,” Khalil told University World News.
He said economic activity and the movement of workers across the Green Line (separating Israel and the West bank) had also dried up during the recent conflict, affecting families’ ability to pay for university fees.
Disruptions to internet services
Khalil said switching to online education had helped to mitigate some of the negative repercussions of the occupation, even before the latest conflict, but Israel’s strategy of shutting down internet services in the occupied territories during conflict meant inevitable disruptions to academic activities.
A report by Access Now, entitled “Palestine unplugged: how Israel disrupts Gaza’s internet” published on 10 November, exposes how Israel controls Palestinians’ internet and telecommunications access, wielding internet shutdowns as “weapons of war to suppress Palestinian voices, as well as coverage of war crimes and atrocities on the ground”.
The report said that as of 31 October, 15 of the 19 providers faced a complete shutdown of their mobile and broadband services which have directly affected an estimated 411,000 people using these providers in Gaza and 34,000 people in the West Bank and the remaining four were each experiencing significant but varying levels of disruption.
“The impact in these cases is partial, as students and academics … are affected by the interruption of … virtual meetings or the inability to submit exams and short tests,” Khalil said.
“In such a case, we deal with emergency cases by recording the meetings and uploading them to the electronic portal,” Khalil said.
Appeals for help
Daraghmi called on global educational organisations to strengthen their cooperation with Palestinian universities via research and other projects to ensure the continuation of Palestinian universities and protect them from the impact of war.
These international organisations include United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, International Students Organization, Universities of the World Network and the International Network of Independent Universities, among others.
“The global education organisations should also work hard to help the Palestinian universities maintain institutional infrastructure. Nowadays, universities in Gaza are under attack. We are afraid that universities in the West Bank may face this situation in the near future,” Daraghmi said.
“The world has to force Israel not to cut electricity or the internet as this disrupts education, research and administrative work at universities,” he added.
Referring to the fact that targeting education institutions if they are not being used for military purposes is a breach of international humanitarian law, Khalil said it was important to strengthen efforts to pursue perpetrators of humanitarian crimes, and strengthen campaigns to boycott institutions that support occupation and settlement policies.
“It is necessary to form an international fund to rebuild the institutions that were damaged, enhance networking and cooperation with Palestinian institutions, and exert pressure on the occupation by lifting the restrictions imposed on institutions of higher education and the academic exchange movement with all international partners,” Khalil said.