Bullets on Campus: Israel's Assault on Palestinian Education
A Palestinian boy waves his flag in the face of Israeli soldiers during a protest against the separation barrier in Al-Masara, West Bank, April 6, 2012.
Photo Credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com
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Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.
"God Kristian, I can't even remember how many times my school closed this semester," Amanda Mansara, a Palestinian university student wrote to me in January 2014.
When Amanda and I met in the West Bank last September, she was supposed to be starting her second year at Al Quds University, but her classes were canceled. Her school was closed because the Israeli military had been firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at students on campus every day during the first week of the semester. So Amanda and I passed the hours when she should have been learning in a downtown Ramallah cafe working on a crossword, playing cards, drinking tea and smoking hookah with her friends. Days later when I saw her again, the campus was still closed. It took two full weeks before the Israeli army stopped attacking the university, but even this peace was short-lived: Just over a month later, Al Quds had to close again following a military raid on Abu Dis, the adjacent town. And less than a month after that, students commuting from Abu Dis were among 40 injured by rubber bullets from the Israeli military.
When these attacks occur, Amanda said, the Student Body Council suspends all classes and, if bullets are included, evacuates campus through the back door. Amanda and her peers do not get to make up this lost time.
"Our university has been on constant attack this semester," she said to me. "WE NEED whatever support we can get."
The troubles that Al Quds and other Palestinian universities face have never been mentioned by those who have been loudly attacking the American Studies Association and other institutions that recently voted to support the academic boycott of Israel. As reactionary legislatures in New York, Illinois and Maryland and the US House of Representatives have considered bills to deny public funding to institutions like the ASA for supporting the boycott, the need for critical support of Palestinians' academic freedom becomes paramount. These bills and university administrators' claims that the boycott limits the "academic freedom" of Israelis are distracting and disingenuous to the experiences of people on the ground in Palestine, experiences which paint a very clear picture of academic freedom under attack - from kindergarten all the way through college.
The University Under Occupation
Earlier in September 2013, I had spent an afternoon at Birzeit University meeting with Sundos Hammad, a recent graduate and the coordinator of the Right to Education Campaign (R2E). Sundos said that Birzeit has been closed by Israeli military order over 15 times throughout its history. The longest stretch lasted four-and-a-half years. Students have also faced restriction of movement and imprisonment. The occupation has compromised education for generations of Palestinians. Resisting this oppression, students at Birzeit launched R2E in 1988, which today calls for student and faculty unions and other institutions to affirm the right of Palestinian students and academics to pursue an education free from Israeli occupation. By last September, the campus was preparing for closure again - not from a military threat - but from students striking against tuition hikes.
The strikes happen regularly, as Birzeit relies on student tuition to cover up to 60 percent of its operating costs. Neither families nor the Palestinian government can afford these costs. The World Bank estimates that the occupation has cost the West Bank economy $3.4 billion, while unemployment in the West Bank is 20 percent across the territory but as high as 44 percent among youth. The Palestinian Authority, which is expected to provide a certain amount of the budget, has been hindered by reductions in foreign aid and Israel withholding Palestinian tax revenuesas political punishment. PA budget cuts reduced contributions to Birzeit from $2 million in 2008 to $120,000 last year. Universities across the West Bank and Gaza are in financial crisis.