The Geography of Occupation: Education in Conflict

From the archive (legacy material)

Basem L. Ra’ad | Al Quds University Web Site | March 2003

To understand the current hardships of Al Quds University and other Palestinian educational institutions, it is necessary to explore the geography of Israeli occupation. This geography shows the real colour of the degradation to which people are subjected and the effects of long-standing colonizing policies. One would have thought a simple, self-evident right to education should be guaranteed.
The eight universities in Gaza and the West Bank, other educational institutions and hundreds of schools are all subjected to severe restrictions in the delivery of knowledge, as a result of Israeli measures. Normal education has continued to be disrupted over the past 35 years of occupation, especially during and after the first Intifada started in1987 . Birzeit University was particularly singled out for harassment during this period because of its perceived role in intellectual leadership. Faculty and students were arbitrarily detained, the university president exiled, and the campus closed for extended periods. The measures resulted in a movement of ‘underground’ education, when faculty met students in private homes and other unofficial ‘campuses’.
Today, student and faculty attendance at all universities continues to be severely affected by the presence of Israeli checkpoints, curfews, sometimes by direct harassment, attacks and willful destruction. A single checkpoint on a West Bank road can close down teaching for many days. A study term of 15 weeks usually ends up being compressed into less than 12 weeks or extended over six or seven months. The academic and other effects are cumulative and drastic in the long-term, since few courses are taught in full. Not only is educational delivery impaired and an acute financial crisis affects all aspects of educational work. There is an unsettling sense of constant precariousness that makes any planning and any motivation difficult indeed. Priorities have shifted from an emphasis on quality to a struggle for mere survival.
Al Quds University in Jerusalem is unique in its location and the difficulties it faces, since it is the only Palestinian Arab higher education institution in this central region that is closest to the heart of the conflict. As with universities established earlier, it is an answer to the specific situation and environment. Palestinian universities were all created by the enlargement of colleges after 1967, when it became more difficult for students to continue studies at universities abroad. Occupation and restricted movement resulted in more universities than expected in a small area.
Al Quds University was founded in 1994 by the merger of several Palestinian Arab colleges in Jerusalem and suburbs. It now has10 faculties, including arts, science, medicine, health sciences and law; it serves a student population of about 6000 in2002 , and has more than 700faculty and staff. Main administration offices are located in East Jerusalem, just outside the walls of the Old City. (Last July, Israeli police stormed the offices, seized all files and computers, and welded shut the premises for several weeks. Earlier in the year, the Israeli army entered several educational offices in Ramallah and destroyed equipment at will.)
Teaching is conducted at four main campuses. Two of the campuses are in East Jerusalem, and the largest campus is in Abu Dees, a suburb a few kilometers to the east. Other faculties are in Ramallah/Al Bireh, and are similarly separated from East Jerusalem by major Israeli checkpoints and occasional ‘minor’ checkpoints in between.
These ‘checkpoints’ are more than places where the Israeli army stops people or checks identification. They have developed into real internal borders, with huge concrete blocks and barbed wire, to segregate and to stop movement required by a natural geography and real human needs.
In 1948 , Israel was declared as a state after occupying about78 % of historic Palestine, including West Jerusalem. In addition to displacing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, it destroyed hundreds of Palestinian villages and instituted apartheid-like policies and laws. Israel occupied East Jerusalem (including the Old City) and the West Bank and Gaza in1967 , but its declaration to ‘unify’ the city has not been accepted internationally. Israel expanded the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem to accommodate its building of new colonies and to confiscate more land in the West Bank. The Israeli army set up checkpoints on those self-declared boundaries of ‘Jerusalem’ and along roads that crisscross Palestinian lands to connect Israeli colonies in 1967-occupied territories and to ‘create facts on the ground’. This process has invented an unreal mythic geography. It assumes a dictatorship of language through military power to set land boundaries and to sort and grade the people of the land.
As a result, Palestinian residents of suburbs and towns outside Israel’s declared ‘Jerusalem’ cannot enter or cross these boundaries to go to Jerusalem or other neighbouring suburbs, nor are they free to move from one Palestinian town or city or village to another across checkpoints. Cities, villages and camps are totally isolated, with residents requiring Israeli permits to cross. Today, Israeli checkpoints, together with barbed wire and concrete separators, excavated ravines, trenches and mounds of earth serve as walls to impede movement and imprison the Palestinian people in more than200 non-contiguous ghettos.
A Palestinian West Bank resident of Izariyyah, a suburb to the east, just a10 -minute drive from the center of Jerusalem, is not allowed to enter East Jerusalem by the Israelis or to go to another Palestinian suburb that is only a10 -minute drive to the north of the city. These Israeli regulations apply to everyone, young and old, men, women and children, emergency medical cases, as well as students and faculty. Anyone caught attempting to cross these self-declared Israeli boundaries is arrested and punished, or may be shot.
Al Quds University’s educational structure is built on self-evident and natural connections between areas close to each other under normal conditions, but that now the Israeli occupation has turned into an impossible situation – in terms of access, services, administration, and delivery of education. The university’s organization assumes that these Palestinian areas are in close proximity (as they are), and that West Bank and Jerusalem Palestinians are the same people (despite the different colours of identity cards). On the other hand, the Israeli occupation presumes political positions and imposes military realities that disrupt communication and movement among the various Palestinian parts.
It is a cruel, suffocating geography.
Causes of Attendance Difficulties
The problem of attendance at universities predates the current Al Aqsa Intifada. It has less to do with ‘security’ than with Israeli long-standing policies. Israel has always targeted education, community developments and Palestinian civil society. It has been limiting, fragmenting and disconnecting the Palestinian areas for a long time.
Four main factors affect educational work: (1) Israeli closures and curfews; (2) Israel’s restrictions on movement everywhere in the West Bank and between the West Bank and Gaza; (3) Israel’s network of roads to its colonies/military outposts (‘settlements’) in the West Bank and Gaza; and (4) inability of students and faculty from the West Bank to enter Israel’s ‘Jerusalem’ boundaries or to cross them to go to other destinations. Since ‘Jerusalem’ is centrally located, Israel’s actions in effect disconnect the various Palestinian areas to the north, south and east.
Meanwhile, in pure apartheid fashion, Israeli authorities turn a blind eye to the cruelties of illegal colonists, allowing them freedom to rampage and destroy Palestinian farmlands, burn or cut down olive trees. Occupants in Israeli colonies in the West Bank and Gaza, their businesses and educational institutions, and the educational system in Israel, enjoy total mobility and freedom of movement. However, any sense of mobility is denied to all segments of Palestinian activity.
During my teaching at two Palestinian universities since1995 , I have not experienced a single term in which study was not disrupted by Israeli military and political actions. The problems have become merely more severe in the last two years. The difficulties are particularly acute at the two campuses of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, where the Faculty of Arts is located. About60 % of students and faculty at these two campuses have only West Bank identity cards. On good days, often25 % to30 % of students were unable to attend classes, stopped at checkpoints or arrested or otherwise prevented from reaching the campus. On bad days, more than50 % are not able to move. On days when a curfew is imposed in any of the surrounding areas, classes cannot be held at all.
The worst case was the last semester (2nd semester in 2001-2002), which started in February and was supposed to end in June. It was only completed at the end of August, without our finishing all the work properly. It was possible to continue teaching only by moving courses from the Beit Hanina campus in East Jerusalem to a high school in the town of Ram. This temporary solution increased attendance by West Bank residents but caused more difficulties for Jerusalem residents. In this academic year (which resumed at the end of October 2002), most classes have been moved to the campus in Abu Dees, resulting in overcrowding, new travel difficulties for many, and much disorientation.
Electronic and Other Solutions
It is ironic that when physical movement and communication are restricted, people find ways to overcome barriers, or at least to cope. Because the educational process has been disrupted so much, people search for new ways to continue to learn and to teach. They are not really good solutions. Students and faculty try to reach the campuses by risking their lives, using rough side roads and other ways to pass without being stopped by Israeli soldiers. They try to continue their educational activities by whatever means. It demands dedication and a kind of humiliating ingenuity; it takes a long time, is costly and dangerous.
Alternative communication means are developed. For example, many students and faculty have cell phones and access to the Internet. Rumour and word-of-mouth communication are also very important. Students form small community networks to exchange news about work, dates of examinations, checkpoint status, and so on.
But all these means of communication are informal and unreliable. This is why I have considered using electronic methods in times when classes cannot be held. I started the process last term, though it was not implemented fully because classes were stopped suddenly and some students were already unable to attend. To the extent that I collected information, the experiment allowed some solutions for students who needed to complete assignments or to take tests. We were able to agree by e-mail on assignments and readings, or to confirm arrangements by phones for tests or meetings.
Next semester, I plan to start the process on the first day of classes. (Of course, it is not at all certain when we will have the ‘first day of classes’ or when teaching will stop.) I will try to make firm electronic arrangements and record students’ e-mail and phone numbers. Those who do not have Internet access will be advised to go to Internet cafes or communicate with others close by who have access.
E-mail communication will be used as a usual link, especially to benefit those students who are unable to reach classes. In extreme times of closure or extended disruption, e-mail messages will supply all students with directions, encouragement to read, handouts, study guides, topics to discuss, possibly summaries of lectures. Each student will be asked to communicate back with questions about the material. One possible strategy is to set up ‘chat’ groups. This will be difficult to implement right away and may require arrangements on the university web site ( and additional technical training for faculty and students.
Another potential coping strategy is multiple meeting places. In extreme situations, I hope to travel to meet two or three groups of students in locations they can reach, to re-establish contact and keep courses running on track. This option, however, is not feasible for most instructors to implement because they have identification cards that limit them to the same restrictions that apply to students.
In almost all subjects, a positive and motivating classroom atmosphere is indispensable for the educational process. In the Palestinian case, alternative solutions are forced by the worst of situations – if education is to continue at all. How is it possible to deliver a minimum standard in such impossible times?
Education is crucial for Palestine at this pivotal stage in its history. What is happening today is very harmful for any positive development and for the future of young generations. Because of the existing negative conditions, all other activities related to learning and teaching are affected – financing, improvement of resources, libraries, curriculum development and community projects. Israel knows this, and so education is singled out as one of the targets to disable the progress of the Palestinian people. Even more to the point, one would ask: why should education be included in the Israeli policy of collective punishment (why should ‘collective punishment’ be allowed in the first place), especially with an institution like Al Quds University whose administration has shown willingness to ‘normalize’ and to have joint projects with institutions in Israel?
It is hoped Israeli authorities would realize that their current policies are counterproductive for any peace. If Israelis want to achieve a ‘just’ peace, they must move their government to make necessary distinctions in its various activities, to urge it to stop disinheriting, punishing and suffocating all the Palestinian people all the time. The aim should be adequate resources, quality education and equitable development opportunities for both sides, not just one.
In this regard, people everywhere have an obligation to become more aware and more active, in more than words, in ensuring equal rights for all members of the human family, including the people of Palestine. An incubus of occupation and successive colonization for many centuries (most recently Ottoman, British, Israeli) has plagued this small but important country ‘Palestine’. Here, the real solution is unusually simple: Israel must withdraw from1967 -occupied territories; disable its exclusivist policies; free the Palestinians.
But such a solution will obviously not happen without effective international pressure. What Israel is doing to Palestinian education (not to mention all areas of civil society) makes a travesty of all international standards and conventions. However, Western countries are reticent to apply the same measures against Israel they have applied against other countries that violate international laws and flaunt UN resolutions. The right of education, among other normal rights, should be ensured and facilitated by free movement of educators and students.
Meanwhile, under duress, in educational as in other human endeavours, it is imperative to exercise all initiatives to cope with difficulties, even when the solutions are not complete or totally satisfactory. We do not have the luxury of despairing but must continue to find new pathways to learning, growth and development.