Denied the right to education

The insightful recent debate between Professor John Kelly and Professor David Newman about academic freedom (University World News, 26 June 2015) underestimates the magnitude of the current crisis facing the Palestinian education system. This system lies in shambles as a result of Israeli policies that have systematically undermined the integrity and quality of education in the occupied Palestinian territories, or oPt, and Gaza.

The disintegration of Palestinian education

The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack defines attacks on education as “any intentional threat or use of force – carried out for political, military, ideological, sectarian, ethnic, religious or criminal reasons – against students, teachers and educational institutions”.

Last year, the independent and non-partisan network Al-Shabaka published a report that details the different measures used by the Israelis to carry out their assault on the Palestinian educational system.

These measures include systematic restrictions on the mobility of students and faculty through an elaborate system of permanent and fly checkpoints as well as the 700 kilometre-long segregation wall, hindering their ability to attend schools, colleges and universities and take part in other academic activities in Palestine and around the world. Needless to say, this is a privilege that is granted to Israeli students without any restrictions.

In addition, these draconian measures include limiting students’ access to education due to arbitrary security considerations; banning Gaza students from attending Palestinian universities in the oPt; denying exit permits to winners of foreign scholarships and fellowships such as Fulbright and Erasmus; the destruction of university property and infrastructure; repeated campus raids, closures and military crackdowns on universities; the conversion of academic institutions into temporary prisons and detention camps; detention, interrogation, torture and murder of students and faculty; and the confiscation of student organisation material.

The magnitude of this systematic attack on Palestinian education is enormous, to the extent that the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals on education in Palestine, as the Palestinian Center for Human Rights asserts, is “currently proving unattainable as a result of the illegal policies enacted as part of Israel’s long-standing occupation”.

The global attack on education

Understanding the decline and disintegration of Palestinian education, moreover, cannot be disconnected from the history of the ongoing Nakba – the 1948 Palestinian exodus – under the Israeli apartheid policies and Zionist settler-colonial project.

This fall-out, moreover, has been exacerbated in the context of the predatory encroachment of the global capitalist economy, with the integration of Palestine as a peripheral economic zone through the Israelification of the neoliberal global capitalist system in Palestine by means of the Oslo Accords.

The intention of the concerted Israeli attack is to produce not only docile – de-nationalised – colonial subjects, who are alienated from their national identity, culture and history. More importantly, it aims at producing an unskilled labour force that can meet the demands and needs of the Israeli labour market and the global market through forcible dislocation and non-voluntary immigration.

Post-Oslo humanitarian politics

Nonetheless, no one can dispute the human tragedy in this situation. Even US President Barack Obama appealed to this human dimension of the Palestinian students’ struggle for the right to education.

Decrying the ferocious blackmail tactics that apologists for the Israeli occupation and apartheid policies use to whitewash the colonial occupation, he bemoaned the fact that any expression of “compassion or empathy towards Palestinian youth, who are dealing with checkpoints or restrictions on their ability to travel” is silenced.

His point is that the hysterical conflation of the legitimate critique of Israeli and Zionist policies with the illegitimate and irrational fear of the Jewish people in the name of anti-Semitism must be unequivocally rejected.

In the first week of June, I accompanied the delegation of Bethlehem University students to Dublin that Professor John Kelly mentioned in his commentary article.

These students spoke passionately to their Irish counterparts in student unions as well as other political figures and academics about the ways in which the Israeli occupation denies them the right to education – the restrictions on their mobility, their daily struggles with checkpoints, the apartheid separation wall, the segregated system of roads and curfew and detention.

These stories resonated with the Irish hosts not only because some of them knew enough about a similar history of struggle in Ireland. More importantly, some Irish student leaders took umbrage at the fact that Palestinian students can be denied a basic universal human right like the right to education, which is enshrined in international law.

They were shocked to know that young men and women in Palestine will not have the opportunity to pursue their education and improve their lives and move their societies forward in this neo-liberal global economy.

They were also confused over the fact that Israel cannot be held accountable, even when it continues to violate its binding obligations under international law.

It is only by securing the universal human right to education that we can hopefully bring an end to this humanitarian tragedy.

Dr Jamil Khader is professor of English and dean of research at Bethlehem University, Palestine.