ISRAEL: Clamp-down on foreign academics

Israeli authorities' refusal to let some foreign academics enter the West Bank has had a huge impact on the development of Palestinian institutions, said a British academic recently denied entry to the West Bank and forced to cancel a lecture at Birzeit University.

Foreign academics working in the West Bank have increasingly found their entry to the West Bank barred or have had "Palestinian Authority only" stamped in their passports, thereby preventing them from entering Israel.

Dr Nicola Pratt, an associate professor in the department of international politics of the Middle East at the University of Warwick, said she was recently travelling overland from Jordan to the West Bank on her way to Birzeit University, where she had been invited to give a lecture.

Once on the Israeli side of the Allenby Bridge connecting Jordan and the West Bank, Pratt said she was questioned by a plainclothes official and her luggage was scanned. She was asked about the "reason for my visit, who had invited me, who I knew in the West Bank, and whether I had previously visited Israel".

Pratt had visited Israel in the 1990s, as she told her questioners. She was asked if she spoke Arabic (which she does) and whether she had participated in demonstrations (which she had). She admitted she had participated in demonstrations in the UK but said she had "not done anything illegal".

Her research interests are Arab women and conflict in the Middle East, war and Iraq and war and the Arab-Israeli conflict. She was kept waiting at the Allenby Bridge for five hours and was asked for the phone numbers of the person who had invited her to lecture at Birzeit.

The authorities at the Allenby Bridge subsequently refused to call Birzeit. "Someone came back after five hours and told me my entry had been refused," Pratt said. She was told she would have to apply to the Ministry of the Interior if she wanted to enter Israel.

The reason given for her being denied entry was that "they couldn't verify the reason for my visit".

Salwa Duaibis of the Right to Enter Campaign, a voluntary group advocating unfettered access to the Palestinian Authority areas, said, "I don't think there was a change in policy. There is no policy. It is arbitrary as to what kind of visa a person is granted."

Duaibis said the standard procedure had been for academics entering Israel to be granted a three-month visa and to then apply to the Palestinian Interior Ministry for a one-year single-entry visa which, although only a tourist visa and not a work visa, had been allowed.

Foreign academics including those of Palestinian descent say there is no procedure by which they can legally work in the West Bank. Rima Merriman, Assistant Professor at the Arab-American University in Jenin, a privately-funded university, started work at the university two years ago after the former head of the department was denied re-entry into the West Bank. This summer, Merriman was denied re-entry herself.

"Israel is in control of the border and of the population registry. Procedures are not easy and sometimes non-existent. The Israelis are suspicious of Palestinians of Arab descent - that they might want to come back and live here," Merriman said.

It is not clear when or why the new visas or procedures were introduced. Sources at the Civil Administration office at Beth El which issues permits did not know anything about it and did not return calls seeking comment. Police sources at the Allenby Bridge said if people were barred entry from the West Bank, there had to be something in their past history to warrant it. But the sources directed further inquiries to the Interior Ministry, which in turn did not answer.

Merriman said a person applying for a job in the West Bank from abroad was able to enter the country on a three-month visa. He or she could extend the visa through the Palestinian Authority, and administrative offices in Beth El (responsible for issuing permits).

At the end of the whole procedure, the person would receive a passport with a visa valid until the end of the contract period but with a stamp saying "not permitted to work".

"We are 'allowed' to work but are illegal," Merriman said.