Gaza Students Fight for Education Rights, International Campaign Launched at Birzeit University
How would you feel if you faced arrest every day just for trying to continue your education?
How would you feel if you were not allowed to travel 100km to attend you mother's funeral?
For Gaza students studying in the West Bank, education is being criminalized.
Between March 1996 and January 1998, no students from the Gaza Strip were permitted to travel to their universities in the West Bank. The Israeli Authorities refused to issue them permits and as a consequence 600 Gazan students are forced to live as criminals just because they want to study at the university of their choice.
Israel has never established clear regulations for the permit application process, which is excessively bureaucratic. In January 1998, a list of 100 names of Gazan students wishing to study or studying in the West Bank was selected by the Israeli government and reviewed for permits. Nineteen students were denied permits for security reasons, forty male students and forty-one female students were permitted to receive permits.
Of those who were allowed to receive permits, only forty actually obtained them. Many of the names on the list were of students who had already graduated or who had returned to Gaza. In addition, in order for the male Gazan students to receive permits, they needed to renew their magnetic identity cards which required travelling to the Erez checkpoint at the entrance to Gaza. To do this, they needed to have a permit in the first place. After two months of coordination with the Israeli-Palestinian Liaison committee, twelve male students on the list were escorted to Erez in order to renew their magnetic ID cards and receive their six month permits. However, these permits were retroactive from January which left only 4 months for the students to study. The 6 month permits received by the forty students in January 1998 have now expired and have not been renewed.
Gaza is only 100km away from the West Bank yet students from Gaza who wish to study in West Bank universities are forced to travel illegally from Gaza to Egypt, then to Jordan, then to the West Bank. Once in the West Bank they cannot return to Gaza, students have been refused permission to return for funerals of family members or special occasions such as holidays. Hundreds are studying illegally, living under the constant threat of arrest, detention and deportation to Gaza and have not seen their families for years. Many have had no choice but to abandon their studies in the face of such obstacles.
Ahmad 'Abd A-Rahman Ahmad Wadi
from Jabalya refugee camp, Gaza Strip
In 1994, I registered to study at an-Najah University. Classes were to start in October, and in September, I submitted a request to the civilian District Coordination Office in Gaza for a permit to exit Gaza. Each time I came to ask whether my request had been approved, the clerks told me to submit a new request. Over a six-month period, I submitted five requests but did not receive a permit.
I ultimately decided to go to the West Bank via Egypt. On 18 July 1996, I travelled to Rafah Crossing, but the Israelis would not let me through, saying that my passport does not appear on the copmuter. The following day, they told me there was a strike at the port and they would not let me cross. Only on the third day did I succeed in crossing. I reached Cairo on 21 July 1996, and on 22 July I flew to Amman. At the airport at Amman, they gave me a letter that I had to go to the Jordanian General Security Service, in Amman. I did not go, because I was afraid they would delay me. I stayed five days in Jordan, and on 27 July I travelled to the Allenby Bridge, and from there to Nablus.
On Saturday, 20 September 1996, I ironed my clothes and prepared for the academic year that was supposed to start the next day. My roomates, all of whom were students from Gaza, came into the apartment. They offered to help me with the ironing. I asked them why they suddenly wanted to help me iron? They did not answer and turned off the television just when there were nice songs. They put on a tape of the Koran, and then told me that the mother of one of the students who had studied with us had died. That next day, they said that the one who had died was in fact my mother...
I then realised that my mother had died on 16 September, and that I had been informed about it only on 21 September...I could not return to my family for the funeral. It is now December and I do not know when I can return to them, or how can I go back to the house where my mother will not be waiting for me.
Testimony courtesy of B'tselem
Over the last 3 years, Birzeit University has been the center of the Gaza Students Campaign for Academic Freedom. This international campaign is based at the Human Rights Action Project of Birzeit University and has networks in over 20 countries.
The campaign gathered a petition of 10,000 signatures which was presented to the Israeli embassy in London in March 1998. An official at the embassy responded to the petition by labeling Gaza students collectively as "a dangerous group".
During August, Birzeit University has been the center of activities to further the campaign for freedom of education and movement for Gazan students. The campaign office has been filled with Palestinian students and international volunteers many of them international students studying at Birzeit University's Palestine and Arabic Studies Program. One of these volunteers, Christian Henderson, told Birzeit University, "I first got interested in the situaton in Palestine after I spent three months working in Morocco and I watched the pictures that MBC [Middle East Broadcasting] showed of the situation here. Those were obviously different from the pictures we saw in Britain and this made me want to come out here and see what was going on."
The campaign is coordinated with other local universities such as an-Najah University and has received messages of support from other local and international organisations and individuals.
A workshop organized by the campaign on Friday 14 August 1998 brought together 90 Palestinians and 70 internationals to discuss the campaign goals and strategies. The workshop emphasized that the aim of the campaign was not to gain permits, but to win the right to freedom of movement for all Palestinians in their homeland. International participants found it particularly useful to meet Palestinians and discuss initiatives such as cultural events, photo exhibitions and academic conferences.
On Monday 17th August over 150 people attended a demonstration organized by the campaign at the Al Ram checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Palestinian students joined international students from Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Scotland, Australia and the USA.
Students left in two buses from Birzeit University, passing the bypass road between Ramallah and Birzeit, which is the location of regular Israeli checkpoints. These checkpoints are set up at any time of the day and effectively prevent Gaza students travelling to the university. A common question from students at the Birzeit taxi stand in Ramallah every morning is "Keef at Tariyk?" (How is the road?) - the answer determining whether they will attend university that day.
he buses arrived at Al Ram checkpoint where students waving flags chanted "Na'am lal Ta'aliym, La lal Tasareeh" (Yes to Education, No to Permits). Dr. Gabi Baramki, a representative from the Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education and the former Minister of Higher Education, Hannan Ashrawi joined the march to the checkpoint.
Gaza student, Saher Safi, said, "I lost one year from my university studies, I wanted to go to my university in the West Bank from Gaza and they didn't give me permission so I flew to Egypt then to Jordan. Now I have been here for two years and I haven't been able to see my family at all. I tell everyone, I want academic freedom! I don't want permission - I want academic freedom and freedom of movement. I want to see my homeland, I want to see my mother, I want to see my family. This is all."
"We know the government of Israel doesn't want peace. They want the land. These soldiers are here and they can go home, they can see their mothers, they can see their friends, they can live their lives and they don't think about anyone else in this world. They order, they hit , they punish, they ask about identity cards. Look at this soldier and ask him if he wants peace. Peace is not just a word."
"The Israeli practice of stopping Palestinian students from travelling freely between the West Bank and Gaza Strip is an assault on Palestinians' right to freedom of movement and education. This march is not just a protest in support of academic and human rights but also to confirm the territorial integrity and unity of Palestine and the Palestinian people." Hanan Ashrawi, former Palestinian Minister of Higher Education told the march.
"The March for Academic Freedom launches the 1998 Gaza Students Campaign and protests the arbitrary Israeli permit system which criminalizes education for Gazan students who wish to study in the West Bank. This is an international campaign with very wide-spread support as shown by the strong international presence here today. Over the years, we have seen that international pressure does make a difference in situations such as this. The focus of the campaign is to assert the right to education and freedom of movement for Palestinians through international lobbying and awareness raising. These rights are basic human rights and should not be dependent on any political negotiations." said the Birzeit Human Rights Action Project Co-ordinator Hanan Elmasu.
The march began in a peaceful manner but was violently attacked by Israeli soldiers and police who arrested 2 students from Birzeit University. The students were later released.
The culmination of the three month campaign will be an international day of action for Gazan students on 19 November, 1998 when thousands of people internationally are expected to participate in demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns and gathering petitions in support of Gaza students.