How long does it typically take university students to get to their morning lectures where you live? It might just be a matter of whether they decide to walk, cycle or take the bus. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for Palestinian students in the West Bank who continue to face incredible difficulties in accessing education because of the movement restrictions of the Israeli occupation.
There are 542 obstacles to movement in the West Bank, including checkpoints and roadblocks. According to the Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, ‘60 Palestinian communities, with a combined population of about 190,000, are still compelled to use detours that are two to five times longer than the direct route to the closest city.’ The impact on Palestinian students has been significant: over half the students at an-Najah University in Nablus must cross checkpoints in order to study, and 91% of students have missed classes as a result of the checkpoints. Even more disturbingly, the majority of students surveyed at an-Najah reported that they were subjected to some form of abuse whilst stopped at checkpoints.
The most infamous checkpoint is Qalandia, which controls Palestinian movement into and out of Jerusalem. Students can often be delayed for one or two hours at Qalandia. This is particularly concerning for students who live in Jerusalem but study at universities in Bethlehem or Birzeit, as they must face the humiliating and lengthy ordeal each day. Students at an-Najah who travel from Hebron or Bethlehem can face up to five checkpoints on each journey.
Checkpoints, as well as a vast network of settler-only roads have contributed to the cantonisation of the West Bank, creating an archipelago of disparate Palestinian universities and communities, with highly restricted freedom of movement. The impact on education has been dramatic, as students often choose to study at their local university rather than face a gruelling daily commute. The localization of Palestinian universities, a clear manifestation of the infrastructure of military occupation, impacts the quality of higher education at Palestinian institutions.
The rights to freedom of movement and education are protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Cultural, Economic and Social Rights, both of which Israel has signed. The Israeli occupation systematically targets Palestinian education through movement restrictions and simultaneously ensures greater access for Jewish-Israeli education in settlements through settler-only roads and other tools of an apartheid system. Thus, Israeli policies that disrupt Palestinian education actively discriminate against Palestinian students and violate international law.
Israel justifies the existence of checkpoints as a necessary security measure, which is also the justification applied to the illegal civilian settlements and the annexation wall. The truth is that Israel is pursuing a deliberate policy of strangling Palestinian education. Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister from 2001 to 2006, has been quoted as saying, ‘Palestinian education and propaganda are more dangerous to Israel than Palestinian weapons.’
Israel’s violation of international law regarding freedom of movement and education is not only confined to the checkpoint regime in the West Bank. The policy of separating Gaza and the West Bank has led to a decline in students from Gaza attending West Bank universities. In 2000, 350 students from Gaza studied at Birzeit University near Ramallah, by 2005 this number had fallen to 35, and today no students from Gaza are able to attend Birzeit because of Israel’s closure policy.
Israel also restricts education by denying visas to foreign academics who wish to teach at Palestinian universities. Approximately a third of academics at Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge are foreign; indeed, universities have long recognized visiting academics as a critical component of institutional internationalization. This is unavailable to Palestinian universities, as there is no mechanism by which academics from overseas, including many Palestinian-Americans, can live and work in the West Bank for a Palestinian university. In fact, those foreign academics who do reside in the West Bank are forced to exit and re-enter with a succession of three-month tourist visas, facing an increasing risk of being denied entry by Israeli authorities upon each re-entry attempt.
What is most striking about the violation of the right to education in the West Bank via the restrictions on movement is that no such measures are in place affecting the Jewish-Israeli settlers who live in illegal Israeli enclaves in the West Bank. Almost half a million settlers enjoy government subsidies encouraging them to move to the West Bank, which include free education up to university level , and have unmitigated freedom of access to a network of Jewish-only roads in the West Bank. At the same time as Israel restricts access to Palestinian education, it has recently opened a new university in the settlement of Ariel, catering to 14,000 students including the West Bank settlers. Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s move to accredit the University has proved controversial even within Israel, with less than half of the Council for Higher Education approving the decision. Thus Israel’s education system in the West Bank is based on segregation, granting greater access to education to the illegal settlers – and even incentivizing the settlement enterprise by subsidizing the education of settler children – while choking Palestinians’ access to their own institutions.
A report conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa on the question of Israeli apartheid concluded that, ‘education is formally segregated in the OPT as part of a larger system of segregation imposed through the division of the territory’ and ‘Israel denies Palestinians the right to education through indirect measures, such as through obstacles to movement.’
Israel’s network of segregated roads and checkpoints as well as barriers to entry such as visa denials and the closure of the Gaza Strip represent gross violations of the right to education as enshrined in international law. The policy of targeting education amounts to a collective punishment of young Palestinians, negating their fundamental human rights, and ought to draw greater attention from academics and universities worldwide.