Blindness in Gaza

September 22, 1995

I am just back from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. The first time I was there was in November 1992, on a fact-finding mission on behalf of the French university presidents. The Palestinian universities were starting to operate again, after being shut down for four years by the Israelis, and the Intifada was still in force.

The Oslo agreement has now been signed, and the "peace process" is in full swing. How have times really changed?

There are now about ten institutions of higher education in the occupied territories, seven of which call themselves universities serving about 30,000 students out of a population of two million. All of them arise from some sort of private endeavour, and since there was no possibility during the occupation of being funded through the tax system, they have relied on tuition fees and outside money (Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, PLO, private donors).

The result was that in 1992 there was no "higher education system" in Palestine, no overall purpose or partial coordination, only a bunch of private institutions, each of which saw itself as an end and set its own programmes with little regard to what was being done in neighbouring institutions. The situation was even worse in Gaza, where the university split in two rival institutions, the Islamic University and Al-Azhar University.

Living conditions in the occupied territories, particularly travel restrictions, made matters even worse. Driving from Bir-Zeit University to Bethlehem University, 30 kilometres away, requires a permit to enter Israel, because it means going through east Jerusalem. Very few professors, let alone students, have this permit, and anyway roadblocks, curfews and closures are so frequent and unpredictable that even reaching one's own university in time for classes as one leaves home in the morning is never a 100 per cent certainty. Working conditions, particularly for research, are dismal, with overcrowded classrooms (particularly in Gaza), few books or periodicals (four years of closure had taken their toll), and very little laboratory equipment.

Palestinians have always prided themselves on their level of education. Until now, individual expertise was one of the very few ways they could use to achieve some kind of status in a world which is usually unsympathetic to their collective aspirations and ignorant of what is being done to them.

After the Oslo agreement, the importance of education is even greater. There can be no true autonomy if the Palestinians themselves do not have the technical skills to administer it, and these skills lie mostly in fields - law, agriculture, business, tourism - which Palestinian universities had until now been forbidden to enter.

Since education is one of the few areas which is being turned over to the Palestinian authority, it would seem that there is an opportunity to tune the system to producing those skills.

Indeed, there is now a Palestinian ministry for higher education, located in Ramallah. There is a Palestinian flag flying over the building, and the minister's car sports white and red licence plates, a recent addition to the wide array of colours that the occupation authorities have devised to identify cars on sight (yellow for Israel, blue for the West Bank, white for Gaza, red for the police, black for the army, green for cabs).

But behind those symbols, the basic problem of higher education remains: all universities are private institutions, and have more incentive to compete than to co-operate.

The problem is compounded by the fact that outside money has dried up since the Gulf war, that the Palestinian authority also is short of funds and has more pressing purposes to allocate them to, and that it is not likely that a tax collection system will be set up for a long time.

On the other hand, symbols are important, and changes do occur in the minds before they become institutionalised. There is now, among professors and students of the various universities, a general feeling of belonging to a single country, and a sense that higher education will be an important factor in shaping the future.

This by itself is sufficient to induce some level of coordination and co-operation. The mathematicians, for example, last year founded the Palestinian Society for the Mathematical Sciences and the physicists are about to follow suit. These learned societies provide a forum for discussing teaching programmes and research agendas over the whole country.

There are also changes for the better. Some of the restrictions which have laid so heavily on higher education have been lifted. Building permits which had been dormant for years have finally been granted, and as I was there all universities were expanding. The ban on teaching law has been lifted, and the University of Bir-Zeit has just opened a law school with French government support.

Still, the negative side carries the day. Everyday life is as difficult as it ever was. I have seen three soldiers close down the University of Bir-Zeit by the efficient method of setting up a roadblock at the entrance.

Travel restrictions are worse than they have ever been. In just two years, the number of Palestinians allowed to enter Israel has been divided by ten. Scientific documentation and equipment are still in desperately short supply, and very heavily taxed by Israeli customs.

These kinds of restrictions bear, not only on universities, but on business, so that the economy in the West Bank and Gaza is stalling, and cannot provide jobs for university graduates. So we have people who were led to believe that the peace process would give them a chance to build their own country, but who discover that there is really no room for them.

This of course generates a feeling of disappointment, the most striking expression of which is the growing influence of Islam on dress and behaviour. In the two universities in Gaza, men and women are now separated, which was not the case two years ago.

On my first trip to Bir-Zeit, most students would not have been conspicuous on an American campus; now about half of the women wear a scarf over their hair and brow, and some kind of gown.

All this of course has the bitter taste of missed opportunities. There was, and there still is, the possibility of opening up the occupied territories and letting the Palestinians strive for economic prosperity. This opportunity may slip away. Not only Samson is eyeless in Gaza: much blinder are those who keep him at the mill.

Ivar Ekeland is former president of the University of Paris-Dauphine.

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