...is more of a threat to academic freedom than a couple of lecturers being sacked from a small translation journal'
A delegation of lecturers and students visiting the occupied territories has been left in no doubt that the academic boycott of Israel is justified. Brendan Montague reports
Academics and students from the West Bank and Gaza are accusing the Israeli government of destroying the Palestinian education system by preventing them from attending universities and schools. The claim was made to a British delegation of lecturers and undergraduates to the occupied territories, whose members have spoken unanimously in favour of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
Exams set for last Friday at Bethlehem University were postponed because of curfews, which have already caused months of disruption to lectures and have meant up to one-third of the syllabus being axed. At the sharp end, students live in constant fear of being shot or of finding that their families have been killed. Others have been arrested or wounded by police while on campus. Road blocks have made it impossible for those from small villages to attend university and many students have complained of beatings and sexual harassment by Israeli Defence Force soldiers at the checkpoints.
Palestinians claim this is part of a concerted attack on education by Israel that has already resulted in the temporary closure of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, rather than an unfortunate consequence of increased security, as many Israelis suggest. The continued denial of access to education has become such an important factor in the Middle East conflict that the Israeli Human Rights Organisation B'Tselem has commissioned a report, to be published in September. And it has meant enthusiastic support among Palestinian academics for the boycott.
"If you witness what is going on in universities, you will understand why we feel we must support this," says Vera Baboun, assistant dean of students at Bethlehem University. "If you see what these courageous and valiant students do, it's unbelievable how they behave, how they try their best. If you question why the Israelis do all these things, you will understand the boycott."
Baboun also claims that the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has barred Palestinian students from her institution from getting photocopied material despite the fact that books are in short supply - an act she describes as an academic boycott. The Hebrew University refutes this claim.
Bethlehem University was established by the Catholic Church in 1978 and still receives 30 per cent of its funding directly from the Vatican. But with only one-third of students making it to last week's lessons, Baboun fears it will close within years. "It is really tragic when you do not know where you stand. Our destiny is not shaped by our hands. It is created by the Americans and the Israelis but not us, so I do not know how it is going to end."
Support for the boycott is also voiced at Birzeit University near Ramallah by former MA student and public relations officer Yasser, who, like many, prefers not to give his full name. "I have to support this because academics have to make their role known more than other people," he says. They have a vital leadership role now that Sharon's Israel has "gone over the top", he believes.
Of a population of 5,400 students from 33 villages at Birzeit, 60 are in prison and three in custody are missing. Following the curfews and road blocks, more than 180 from Gaza have abandoned their courses.
"We have made a new system of teaching through the internet called Gate. Students everywhere can log on with a password and chat with teachers and receive information. This is very good for the arts students but with engineering and science we feel it does not work so well," Yasser says.
Despite such enterprise, the future for this university is also bleak. It was closed for four years during the first intifada and many fear it will close again. Despite the constant obstacles facing Palestinian students, there is a universal determination to continue at university and graduate with good results, where possible. Many feel the curfews and checkpoints are a deliberate attack on this right.
Hiba, 20, a Kuwaiti student at Birzeit, says: "It's getting more difficult to study. Some teachers live here but others are in Ramallah and cannot come in (because of road blocks), which means we cannot take our exams."
She lives in Birzeit village near the university and says there are reports of Israeli settlers entering Palestinian villages at night and harassing residents. "At any time, the settlers can come and enter my house, so I'm afraid and cannot sleep.
"I think the Israelis are trying to stop education here. But I have never hesitated and will not give up. I will still study because education is the strongest option to fight the occupation and tell the whole world about our problems here."
Commerce student Rami Shetet, 21, says: "It is not easy to study here because the conditions are very hard. I am from Hebron and have to go back every three or four months and see my family. When I try to study I think about my family and my future and I become very sad.
"I think at this time in this land no one will find a job. I hope to work in an Arabic country and then come back and do something to help my own country. The Israelis have all the weapons and have taken the land, but this pen I am holding is my weapon and one day I am going to use it."
A first-year biology student at Bethlehem University who does not want to be named says: "My course has been postponed ten times. We still have to finish but we are unable to. When the curfew is lifted, we can do our exams, but every time I have to prepare and then the curfew is not lifted."
She says she wants to become a speech therapist but fears for the future. "They want to make things more difficult for us so in the end we'll be grateful for anything. We just want to live an ordinary life, we just want to go to university."
The testimonies of the students and staff touched many members of the British delegation. Among them is Gargi Bhattacharyya, who lectures in cultural politics and religion at Birmingham University and sits on the national executive of the Association of University Teachers.
"The West Bank and Gaza have become huge open-air prisons and that has had an effect on all aspects of life," Bhattacharyya says. In particular, she says, there has been a concerted attack on access to education for Palestinians. She supports the AUT's decision to call for an end to European Union funds to Israeli institutions. "Coming here has confirmed my view that education is the key to building a just and equal society and that this is the last thing the Israelis want."
Rob Ferguson, a Natfhe member and history lecturer at Southwark FE College, also supports the boycott. He says: "Seeing the day-to-day experiences of students and staff in Palestine has made me more determined. We're just calling for a counter-boycott because the Palestinians experience a physical boycott every day of their lives.
Although some Israeli academics have urged more pressure on the Israeli government, Ferguson accuses their institutions of "doing nothing about the effective shutdown of the Palestinian education system. There is nothing racist about this action as there is a clear difference between Zionism and Jews. I am a Jew and I'm not going to boycott myself."
National Union of Students national executive member Helen Salmon agrees. She was angered when she saw a rocket hole in the side of Bethlehem University's library. "The NUS should be supporting the boycott of Israeli goods and Israeli academia," she says. "I condemn the union's leadership for attacking the boycott and saying it is racist.
"A rocket in a university library is more of a threat to academic freedom than a couple of lecturers being sacked from a small translation journal," she adds, referring to University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology professor Mona Baker's controversial actions.
Student Pete Heddle from Portsmouth University says: "Trying to do exams is stressful in England but we face nothing like the problems they have here. The students I've spoken to seem totally dedicated to their work. But it's important for the Israelis to stop them becoming educated and confident, which is why they're doing their best to close down universities and causing so many problems for students and staff."
The delegation, now back in the UK, plans to share its experiences of student life in the West Bank and Gaza on a speaking tour as part of a campaign to encourage support for their Palestinian counterparts.