The right of Palestinian students to an education was the main theme of a video conference between students from the occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank on 12 November 2009, sponsored by the al-Quds Bank for Culture and Information Society and Bethlehem University. The conference was jointly facilitated by Dr. Haidar Eid, associate professor of English at Gaza’s al-Aqsa University and founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and Dr. Sami Adwan, Head of the Right to Read Campaign in Bethlehem University’s Education Department.
Dr. Eid opened the conference by describing the “medieval hermitic siege” which has been imposed upon Gaza since June 2007. He greeted his sister and nephew who were present in Bethlehem and whom he hasn’t seen for the last decade due to Israeli restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians in the occupied territories. As a result of these policies, relations between Palestinian families have been strained.
Dr. Adwan introduced the daily difficulties students face in order to reach the university and complete their studies. In addition, schools are sometimes used as military compounds by Israeli soldiers during army incursions. He called on human rights organizations to include the right to education on their agenda, especially now that so many Palestinians have been prohibited from starting or completing their studies.
One such student is Berlanti Azzam, a fourth-year business administration student at Bethlehem University. On 28 October, Azzam was stopped at a checkpoint just outside of Ramallah where she had a job interview. She waited six hours at the checkpoint without being told what was happening. Azzam was then blindfolded and handcuffed and forced to board a bus which she was told would take her to an Israeli coordinating office. Instead, she was brought straight to Gaza. Azzam only needed three more credits to complete her bachelor’s degree. Both the University of Bethlehem and the Israeli Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement (GISHA) are working together on a legal case that will allow Azzam to complete her education.
Dr. Eid believes that Israel is intentionally trying to obstruct Palestinian students from educating themselves. During Israel’s winter invasion of Gaza, libraries of al-Aqsa University and the Islamic University were both targeted and destroyed. Dr. Eid asked for books to be donated to the Free Gaza Movement who are preparing to bring books to Gaza by boat as part of their “Read Resistance” campaign.
Mosheera al-Jaish, a student from Gaza, described how the siege is directly targeting students. There is currently a shortage of textbooks in Gaza and multiple students must share the same book. There are now 800 students from Gaza who have not been allowed to complete their education abroad. Moreover, 280 educational facilities were targeted by Israel last winter, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Al-Jaish explained that “They are trying to make us illiterate so that we will not be able to defend our rights.”
Eman Sourani, an English literature major at al-Aqsa University, described the difficulties she faces as a student living under siege. She explained, “I find it very difficult to find a book I can hold in my hands.” Due to the shortages she is forced to read most of the books for her courses on the Internet. Adding to the difficulty, Sourani lost a scholarship to study abroad because of the siege. In spite of these challenges, she has found a source of empowerment by becoming active in the student campaign to boycott Israel. Sourani urged anybody who disagrees with the occupation and siege on Gaza to support the boycott of Israel.
Fadi Skeik, cofounder of the Palestinian Students’ Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel (PSCABI) and a fourth-year student at al-Quds Open University in Gaza, drew similarities between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and apartheid South Africa. In South Africa the apartheid system collapsed after the international community supported the boycott against it. The student boycott was established directly after Israel’s invasion in order to challenge the occupation in a direct, nonviolent and effective manner.
Dr. Eid explained that Israel employs different forms of control in the occupied territories. In the occupied West Bank there are 620 checkpoints which prevent Palestinians there from fulfilling basic needs like visiting the hospital, or their families or a university. In Gaza there are no checkpoints but one big “open air prison and the worlds’ largest concentration camp,” as described by Dr. Eid. Gaza’s borders are not controlled by Palestinians, but instead, Israel and Egypt.
Several students from Bethlehem University described their experiences at checkpoints as they attempt to reach the university. Hittam Erekat, who lives in Jerusalem, described how she was once strip-searched at one of the checkpoints. It was a humiliating and horrifying experience for her. Wafa Hamad, another Jerusalem resident, had a gun pointed directly at her face while at a checkpoint. A third year student at al-Quds University in Abu Dis, she was humiliated and overwhelmed by the experience. Recently al-Quds University stopped functioning after pressure by Israeli authorities which sought to change and control its curriculum. Hamad, along with all the other students, lost all the work they had achieved and she had to start her studies from scratch at Bethlehem University.
Amongst the participants in Gaza were a number of members from the Palestinian Unit, a group of musicians and artists including hip-hoppers and break dancers. Ayman Moghames, a member of the first Gaza-based rap group Palestinian Rapperz and a student in English and French literature at Gaza’s al-Azhar University, was invited to perform in Dubai and Spain. Although he received the requisite visas, Moghames was not allowed to leave Gaza. He believes that singing his songs abroad is very important, explaining that “Rap is a street language, it tells the truth and talks about what people need.” Most of his songs discuss the occupation and life under siege.
Deema Mishal, a medical student at al-Azhar University, has experienced the impact and consequences of the siege on her educational ambitions. She explained, “In Gaza we students cannot have the same opportunities like other students all over the world.” She was awarded two scholarships, one in Jerusalem and the other at Cairo University. Although she had the visas, Mishal was never allowed to leave Gaza and lost both scholarships.
Closing the video conference, Dr. Eid referred to the nearly 1,500 Palestinians killed during Israel’s invasion. He stated, “The international community has not fulfilled its duty and now it is up to the people of the world to work for justice. We need people-to-people politics and information and action to flow this way.” He added that unless citizens of the world who believe in justice join in the boycott of Israel, “the next war will be worse.”
Bianca Zammit is a human rights activist and a member of the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza.