Why Israelis Are Now the Majority at This Palestinian University

Skirting Israel’s stringent admissions standards, Arabs now outnumber residents of the territories at the first private Palestinian university in Jenin

Nur Abu Ahmad from Nazareth spent a year trying to achieve a high enough grade on her psychometric (college entrance) exam to enable her to be accepted to an Israeli university. When she gave up in despair, like thousands of young people her age, she set her sights on Palestinian academic institutions in the West Bank.

“I spent days and nights studying for the psychometric,” she says. “In the end, I didn’t have a choice. I finished my degree at the Arab American University in Jenin.”

Mohammed Darwish, from the Israeli Arab community of Jedeida-Makr in the Galilee, studies at AAUJ, too. “With a high matriculation [bagrut] average in a science track, I had hopes to study a profession with a good employment horizon in Israel,” he says. “But I needed a high [psychometric] exam score for almost every major that would offer a chance of finding employment.”

Nur and Mohammed are two of the thousands of Israelis Arabs who are getting their higher education in the West Bank. At a time when the number of students attending universities in Israel is dropping, in general (students are also flocking to private colleges instead), a report from the Palestinian Education Ministry, which Haaretz has obtained, shows that the number of Israelis at the university in Jenin has climbed from 36 to 5,294 in a decade.

An organized transportation system takes students from their homes in the Galilee and Little Triangle area of Arab cities in central Israel to the West Bank. In fact, Israeli Arabs now make up a majority of the student body at AAUJ, the first private Palestinian university. Founded in 2000, the institution is located southeast of Jenin in Area A of the West Bank – i.e., under the Palestinian Authority’s full civil and security control.

Officially, Israelis are prohibited from entering Area A, but the Israel Defense Forces does not enforce the ban when it comes to Arab citizens. The Palestinian Education Ministry report shows about 8,000 Israelis are studying in the West Bank this academic year, 66 percent of them at the university in Jenin. They constitute 55 percent of all students at AAUJ, and their presence is clearly felt in terms of what is studied at the school and in its atmosphere. During a visit there, you may feel for a moment as if you are at some Israeli institution of higher education in a city in the Galilee.

Cheap and safe

AAUJ students say relations with their Palestinian counterparts are warm and friendly, despite the expected academic competition. Many live in apartments owned by Israeli Arabs near the campus, which is surrounded by cafes and restaurants, many of which are also operated by Israelis. Over 2 percent of the full-time employees of the university have Israeli citizenship.

Studies at AAUJ are conducted in English. The tuition varies depending on the academic field and the student’s grades, and usually ranges from 9,000 to 15,000 shekels ($2,600 to $4,300) a year. Two reasons for its popularity among Israeli Arabs are the proximity and accessibility to/from the Little Triangle area, and the extremely cheap rent and transportation.

“I’m renting a two-room apartment and living alone,” says George Sabag, a first-year computer sciences student from the Druze village of Abu Snan in the Galilee. “Housing costs me 650 shekels ($187) a month and that includes housekeeping expenses and internet.”

Abu Ahmad rented rooms in dorms near campus and says it was a safe and positive experience. “As a girl I felt safe both during my studies and in my apartment,” she recalls. “There are security guards walking around the student dormitories at all hours of the day, so I had no problem with walking about alone.”

Hebrew as a deterrent

The Israeli Council for Higher Education estimates that are three main reasons why Arab students opt to study outside of the country: concerns over studying in Hebrew, a fear of the psychometric exam and, specifically, the very high demands for admission to studies in the medical and paramedical professions. Apparently the most important reason that these students apply to AAUJ relate to the conditions for acceptance: a full matriculation certification is enough. There is no demand for the psychometric exam and no pre-admission interviews.

Paramedical disciplines are most in demand among the Israeli Arabs enrolled at AAUJ, with 2,255 students – almost 43 percent of the total. In second place is the nursing school, with 1,599 Israelis. There are fewer studying liberal arts, education and sports – 13 percent; 8 percent are enrolled in dentistry; and a few dozen are studying engineering and information technology, law, business administration and economics. At present 26 Israeli Arabs are pursuing higher degree studies.

The university curriculum does not include fields such as political science and history. Fathi Amor, director of AAUJ’s public relations department, explains that the reason for this is that, “At the Jenin university we teach only subjects for which there is demand in the job market, both in the Palestinian Authority and in Israel.”

In order to compensate for the absence of liberal arts and social sciences, the university offers students electives on current events and society, including some relating to Palestinian issues and other political topics. For example, there is a course entitled “The Palestinian Prisoner Movement,” and another called “Israeli and Zionist Studies,” which deals with the history of the Jewish people and the Zionist movement.

AAUF also offers courses in basic Hebrew to its Palestinian students, teaching them the alphabet and basic conversational skills. Israeli Arab students are not allowed to register for this course, but due to the demand the university recently decided to open a Hebrew course for students who have done completed matriculation, which is taught by an Israeli teacher and is designed to help students cope with the work environment in Israel.

However, Amor stresses, cooperation between AAUJ and Israeli academic institutions is not on the horizon – and that’s non-negotiable. “It’s unacceptable, first of all for ethical reasons,” he says, noting that this is a consensus in the Palestinian Authority and not an individual decision. “There’s a directive. An Israeli university is part of an occupation policy that is living on our land, Palestinian academic institutions are not allowed to cooperate with Israeli institutions.”

The problems that prompt Israeli Arab students to study in the territories also affect them, often in a more difficult way, after they finish their degree and return to the Israeli job market.

Internship woes

“One of the difficulties is that the number of students who study each year is high and not limited to a quota determined in advance, which makes it difficult to find places for them in internships,” says Jamal Kiyal, 27, a fourth-year nursing student. “Many Israeli [Arab] students are forced to do internships in places all over the West Bank and even far from Jenin, despite the promise that the hospitals in Nazareth would absorb us.”

Nur Abu Ahmad says that the challenges in dealing with the Israeli authorities continue even after the internship stage. “Although I’ve completed my studies and at the moment I’m studying for the certification exam – the bureaucracy is still exhausting,” she says. “Getting all the requisite forms from the university, in addition to documentation that assesses the degree from the Israeli Education Ministry, takes a long time.

The Council for Higher Education said that its planning and budgeting committee “operates a ‘holistic’ program to make higher education accessible to Arab society, allocating about 1 billion shekels to it in the context of its multiyear program.”

The CHE added that also within the purview of the multiyear program, the committee is working to improve the absorption of Arab students in academic institutions in Israel, and have those students specialize in as wide a range of fields of study as possible. That way we hope to enable the high-quality integration of Arab society into all aspects of higher education in Israel and into its economy, and as a result to lower their motivation to study elsewhere.”