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‘Disappearing’ scholarships are just the latest violation of the Palestinian right to education

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Last month, the case of Palestinian artist Malak Mattar made international news, as the young painter, who has a global network of online fans, shared on social media that her much celebrated and well-deserved scholarship was slipping through her fingers.  For some still unclear reason, her visa to Turkey never materialized.  Mattar had placed first overall in the Gaza Strip, and second in the Occupied Territories (Gaza and the West Bank), and thus was awarded a Palestinian Ministry of Education scholarship to pursue a university education abroad.  Given the choice between Jordan, Tunisia, and Turkey, she had picked Turkey.  But when the beginning of the school year approached, and she still had not heard back from anyone about the status of her application, she contacted the Palestinian Embassy in Turkey, only to find out, to her immense disappointment, that she had not been issued a visa—most likely as result of negligence on the part of the Palestinian Authority.  Mattar reached out to her fans, asking them to share her story, in hopes that pressure could successfully be applied to the responsible party.

With no change in her status, the dejected teenager now plans to enroll in a university in Gaza, and hopes to still somehow surmount the great odds against her, and be able to pursue her dream of studying abroad, next academic year.  She plans to take university entrance tests during this academic year, as her supporters pursue scholarship possibilities for her, in Turkey as well as the United States.  Mattar’s challenges are exemplary of the decades-long violation of the Palestinian Right to Education, a basic human enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This universal human right is generally understood to mean that elementary schooling should be free and compulsory, however, Article 26 also stipulates that “Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

And while it is true that Mattar herself is exceptional in myriad ways, her situation is far from the exception.  Indeed, to anyone following educational matters in Palestine, Mattar’s case immediately brought to mind that of Amal Ashour, another top-scoring, brilliant student from Gaza, who in 2015 was also awarded a scholarship to study at a West Bank university, only to see that scholarship withdrawn one month before the start of the academic year.  In Ashour’s case, the circumstances of the withdrawal of the scholarship were not as murky as they seem to be in Mattar’s case.  Rather, it was made clear that the Palestinian Authority was complying with a new request from Israel, not to allow students from Gaza to study in West Bank universities, which Israeli officials consider “breeding grounds for militancy.”  Prior to 2015, students from Gaza could travel to study in the West Bank, and hundreds did, but the academic exception to the strict travel ban on residents of Gaza was dropped in 2015.  (Exceptions to the travel ban are made for approximately 5000 humanitarian cases per month, but education, even though it is a human right, is not considered a humanitarian case.)

Following the case of Mattar, Mondoweiss reached out to members of the Right to Education (R2E) campaign, based at Birzeit university, for some additional information.  R2E was established in the 1970s to offer legal assistance to students and faculty at Birzeit University who faced harassment by the Israeli occupation forces.  During the First Intifada, all schools in the West Bank, from kindergarten to college, were closed by the Israeli forces, faculty were arrested if caught teaching in improvised settings, and students were jailed for carrying textbooks in their backpacks. Birzeit University was closed by military edicts a total of fifteen times, the longest closure lasting four and a half years.  As a result, the Right to Education has now grown to become the largest grassroots campaign organizing for Palestinians’ access to higher education.  

Noor Daghlas, a member of R2E, suggested that Mattar, like Ashour before her, had been deprived of their scholarship as the combined result of sexism and nepotism.  When I asked him if scholarships to women tend to “disappear” more than those awarded to men, Daghlas said: “Although a friend of mine had his scholarship to Turkey ‘disappear’, I notice that this phenomenon has happened to more females that I know than guys that I know. Maybe this happens to lots of people but they don’t have the platform or trust in the world to speak out against it… but by PA standards, I do think it slides easier if it were a female because of the sexist structure our PA is built on.”

Daghlas went on to explain to me that closeness to the PA, more than grades, determines whether one gets the coveted scholarships or not: “My friends from when I passed Tawjihi, [the end of high school national exams] two of them had applied to the PA’s scholarship and were both accepted, one approved to study Medicine in Morocco and the second approved to Engineering in Algeria. Although one of my friends had excelled in his Tawjihi year, the other one not so much, at about 20% total grades behind Malak [Mattar], he was given the scholarship she earned for no explainable reason other than that his relatives are in a high position in the government. It has been rumored that instead of Malak, one of the sons of the many politicians in Gaza was given the scholarship. I know we must doubt everything, but this scenario has been played too many times for it to be not from the truth. Malak’s injustice and imprisonment is a by-product of corruption in the PA and cooperation with the Israeli government to keep the Gaza Strip disconnected from the rest of the world,” Daghlas added.

Clearly, we must hold both Israel and its sub-contractor, the Palestinian Authority, accountable for the devastation of Palestinian society. Palestinians have long known that Mahmoud Abbas does not have the interest of his people in mind, or he would not have remained in power, buoyed by Israel and the US, participating in the grotesque farce of “negotiations” for so many years, as Israel encroaches ever deeper into the West Bank, while his “Authority” cracks down on resistance.   We must also point out, however, whenever there is criticism of the academic and cultural boycott as threatening the “academic freedom” of Israelis, that an institutional boycott does not constrain their academic freedom, whereas Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip daily face severe restrictions on their freedom as well as their educational opportunities, as a result of the illegal occupation.   Today, in the Gaza Strip, Palestinians are studying by candle-light, excelling at their exams, and still unable to pursue their dreams of higher education.  And in the West Bank, in the first two weeks of September 2017, just days before they were scheduled to open, three elementary schools in Area C were demolished, affecting 132 children. And no less than 56 schools, also in Area C, currently have pending demolition or stop-work orders.  Overall, the schooling of one million Palestinian children is in jeopardy.  

As spelled out in the Fourth Geneva Convention Israel, as the occupying power, is legally obligated to secure the human rights of the Palestinians—human rights it has systematically violated for decades.  Its violation of the Right to Education not only shatters the immediate hopes of individuals, it threatens the overall well-being of an entire society, as the brightest minds are deprived of opportunities to acquire badly-needed cultural, professional, and technical knowledge they would put to use to improve their society.  As I was researching this story, I also heard about dozens of scholarships to medical school in Cuba also “disappearing.” With the health and overall humanitarian situation in Gaza bordering on genocide, an influx of recent medical graduates would be life-saving.  Indeed, as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights makes clear, education is both a human right in itself, and a sine qua no condition for achieving other human rights.  

We must continue to support Mattar, of course. She deserves her scholarship, and the opportunity to study wherever she chooses.  But we must also understand that all Palestinians are deprived of a quality education, with long-term consequences for all of Palestinian society.  And for that, while the PA is an accomplice, Israel is the guilty party.

About Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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