Minister vows to beat siege

July 13, 2001

Munther Salah is affable and approachable but like most Palestinians he seethes with anger at his people's plight.

Dr Salah, the minister of higher education for the Palestinian Authority, was talking to The THES in an exclusive interview. He spoke of the "injustices" inflicted on his people and gave a short history of the Israeli state's "constant disruption" of higher education provision.

"In the early 1970s, we began to set up our own universities but the Israelis denied this to us," he said. "After a couple of years they gave us permission, but only because they had their own agenda. They knew that if they denied our people the chance to study abroad, they could prevent them from contacting the Palestinian leadership and monitor the groups on campus." But the policy backfired and Palestinian universities became the focus of resistance to Israel.

In response, the Israelis issued military order 854 in 1980, which gave Israel the right to appoint professors, admit students and renew annual licences to Palestinian universities. After howls of protest from Palestinian and international academics and the United Nations, the order was rescinded.

But, Dr Salah claims, Israeli meddling continues, albeit more subtly. Although if the descriptions of the day-to-day harassment Palestinian students and teachers face are accurate, such interference is subtle only by Middle Eastern standards. For years the Israelis have made it difficult for Palestinian universities to import books and equipment, making university life hard particularly for research.

Roadblocks manned by Israeli troops are a permanent feature. It is not uncommon for Palestinians to have to queue for hours before being allowed to pass. In this perpetual state of siege students are often unable to reach classes.

Palestinians have tried to get round this. "The situation is now very flexible," Dr Salah said. Any student can attend any university, while any teacher can teach at any institution. Students unable to do this are provided with textbooks and work to do at home."

But with so much disruption, there is a danger that many young Palestinians will have spent more time on the streets throwing stones at Israeli soldiers than in class. Could a whole generation of young people fail to secure an education?

Dr Salah thought not. "Students everywhere are found in the front of any struggle. Palestinian students are accustomed to this, they haven't lost their education."

And he was equally scathing about the possibility that Palestinian graduates, fed up with perpetual conflict and tired of living under an authoritarian authority, would leave for the West. He claimed Israeli sympathisers had exaggerated the problems and was adamant that Palestine's young would fulfil their potential.

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