It’s been two years since Haneen Adi, an English literature and writing teacher at Ramallah’s Birzeit University, has left the occupied West Bank.
During the past two years she has missed her sister’s wedding, another sister’s graduation, and the death of a relative. When her father attempted to visit her, he was denied entry by Israeli authorities.
Israel has refused to renew Adi’s visa to stay and teach in the West Bank since November 2017, the middle of her first semester at Birzeit.
Since then, she has been faced with an impossible decision: overstay her previous visa in order to continue teaching, or leave the country and risk losing her job, in addition to the possibility of never being able to come back to Palestine.
Adi is not alone. She is one of dozens of international academics at Birzeit and other Palestinian universities in the occupied territory who has been denied a visa by Israel in recent years.
The policy has forced many of Adi’s international colleagues to abandon their posts at the university, uncertain if or when they can return, affecting not only their lives, but the lives of their families and students as well.
Now, Birzeit, which has ranked within the top three percent of universities worldwide, is fighting back. The highly acclaimed university, hand in hand with legal rights groups Adalah and Al-Haq, is “demanding an immediate halt to this policy targeting Palestinian academic freedom and isolating Palestinian institutions of higher learning,” the groups said in a press release on Thursday.
In a letter sent on April 30th to the Israeli interior minister, attorney general, chief military advocate general, and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the groups demanded the following:
- Lift the restrictions preventing international academics employed by Birzeit University from staying and working in the West Bank
- Refrain from imposing arbitrary restrictions on the duration of stay or extension of stay for international academics
- Order the publication of a clear and lawful procedure for issuing entry visas and work permits for international academics in the West Bank, which will enable the university to manage and maintain its academic freedom.
“Blocking our right to engage international academics is part of an ongoing effort by the Israeli occupation to marginalize Palestinian institutions of higher education,” Birzeit University President Abdullatif Abuhijleh said in a statement.
“The latest escalation in visa restrictions is just one in a longstanding and systematic Israeli policy of undermining the independence and viability of Palestinian higher education institutions.”
A frightening escalation
While foreigners working and living in the occupied territory have long faced difficulties in terms of restrictions on visas and freedom of movement, rights groups say such restrictions have significantly escalated over the past three years.
Beginning in 2016, The Right To Enter Campaign has marked a significant increase in the denial of visas and refusal of visa extensions for foreign nationals by Israeli authorities on the grounds of “changes in policies.”
The group, which has monitored the issue for years, says that the alleged new policies have yet to emerge.
“Despite repeated requests from the diplomatic community for clarification, the longstanding absence of clear, transparent, internationally lawful and consistently applied rules and procedures for foreign nationals wishing to visit, study, work or maintain a presence in the oPt persists,” Right To Enter said in February.
Adalah highlighted the case of the internationally recognized Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, which reported a 200 percent increase in visa denials over the past two academic years alone.
“In the 2017-2018 academic year, four international faculty out of 20 were denied visa extensions or entry at the border; in 2018-2019, eight international faculty out of 19 were denied visa extensions or entry,” Thursday’s press release said.
The following statistics were provided by Birzeit, Adalah, and Al-Haq to illustrate the extent to which this policy is affecting the university and its faculty:
- Between 2017 and 2019, four full-time and three part-time international lecturers at Birzeit University were compelled to leave the country and were not able to continue their teaching because Israel refused to renew their visas.
- In 2019, Israel denied entry to two international academics with Birzeit University contracts.
- Not a single international faculty member, with the exception of those directly employed by foreign government-sponsored programs, was issued a visa for the length of their 2018-2019 academic year contract.
- As of press time, six full-time international faculty members contracted for the 2018-2019 academic year are without valid visas.
- Another five full-time international faculty members – including a department chair – are overseas with no clear indication of whether they will be able to return and secure visas required for them to stay for the coming academic year.
- Over 12 departments and programs face losing faculty members in the coming academic year because of the Israeli policy.
Adalah, Al-Haq, and Birzeit University noted that Birzeit is not alone — several other Palestinian universities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have also been affected.
Citing a 2018 report from the Palesitnian Ministry of Education, the groups highlighted the fact that “more than half of the international lecturers and staff (32 out of 64) at eight universities were detrimentally affected during the previous two years by Israeli rejections of applications for new visas or visa extensions or by refusal to allow them to enter the West Bank.”
The majority of the affected staff of from the US and European member states, the groups said.
In addition to outright denials of visa applications or refusal of entry, foreigners seeking to live or work in the West Bank have faced extreme delays in processing, and arbitrarily shortened visa extensions, sometimes of periods of just two to three weeks.
If they are lucky enough to get a visa, many are restricted to the West Bank only and are limited to traveling out of the land border with Jordan, as opposed to the airport in Tel Aviv.
In some cases, the groups noted, people have been required to pay security deposits as guarantees that they will not violate the terms of their visas, sometimes in sums as large as NIS 80,000 (approx. US $23,300).
“These Israeli restrictions have severe repercussions on Birzeit, its students, and the Palestinian public at large, isolating the university from other educational institutions around the world and diminishing the quality of education it offers to the Palestinian people,” the groups said, noting that the Israeli policies were illegal under internaitonal law.
By hindering Palestinian univiersities’ ability to self-determine the type and quality of education they wish to provide to their students, the groups say Israel is in violation of Article 43 of the Hague Regulations of 1907, which says that “sovereignty of education” is an inalienable right, and must remain in the hands of the Palestinian population.
Adalah Deputy General Director Attorney Sawsan Zaher, who drafted the letter to Israeli authorities, said:
“Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – like all other peoples around the world – are entitled to exercise their right to academic freedom as part of their right to self-determination. The Israeli military occupation cannot prevent Palestinians from exercising this right.”