Palestinian EducationBarriers to access
Palestinian education under occupation and in exile
Education has been a source of both hope and transformation for the Palestinian people. After 1948, when a majority of Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their homeland – known as the Nakba (the catastrophe) – students and teachers played a critical role in rebuilding Palestinian society.
Palestinian schools, universities and informal institutions in exile and under occupation have contributed to sustaining Palestinian national life for a geographically fragmented people while also providing the skills for personal development and growth.
However, Palestinian educational life over the past seven decades has had to contend with the oppressive and often violent conditions of occupation and of exile. While most neighbouring Arab states provide Palestinian refugees with access to education, in some countries such as Lebanon, Palestinians are dependent on the limited services provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA )and experience restrictions as a result of their political status or financial situation.
As a report by the University and Colleges Union on higher education in Palestine describes, liberties within societies are interdependent and as a consequence, ‘the availability of economic, political, social and cultural freedoms have a bearing on pedagogical and academic freedoms’.
This has been the experience of Palestinian education, which confronts both its own unique obstacles and the wider challenges facing the Palestinian people as they seek to exercise their rights.
Access to Education
The right to education is enshrined in international law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions, which govern the conduct of war and military occupations. However, access to education is denied to Palestinians today in a number of ways.
Palestinian schools, universities and education ministry buildings are frequently the targets of military assault and demolition. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported that during Israel’s 50-day military assault on the Gaza Strip in 2014 known as ‘Operation Protective Edge’, 412 students were killed and 14 higher education institutions were damaged, some of which were ‘directly targeted during the hostilities’.
Under the closure imposed on Gaza by Israel since 2007, Palestinians have been subjected to restrictions on the entry of food, humanitarian supplies, medicine and other necessities. Restrictions on the entry of fuel and repeated military attacks on the Gaza power plant has meant that Palestinians in Gaza endure chronic electricity shortages.
Due to the harsh planning restrictions imposed on Palestinians living in ‘Area C’, which makes up 61% of the occupied West Bank, there is a severe shortage of schools and other educational infrastructure and many that are built face the threat of demolition.
In September 2017, a joint statement issued by Save the Children, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian Territories (oPt) warned of the urgent risk posed to the right of education for Palestinian children by the policy of school demolition, equipment confiscation and other practices impacting educational facilities by the occupying authorities.
Restrictions on Movement
Restrictions on movement affect access to education for Palestinians in a number of ways. The majority of the Palestinian people are refugees or live in exile, they are denied the right to return or visit their homes or the places where their families once lived. This means that a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, for instance, is prevented from studying at any Palestinian university in the occupied West Bank or Gaza.
In the West Bank, the complex system of checkpoints, barriers, the Separation Wall, and the permit regime impose obstacles to the freedom of movement of individual Palestinians living under occupation. The impact is also experienced at the national level as Palestinian educational life suffers from the radical geographic fragmentation imposed by Israel.
Since 2000, Israel has introduced bans on travel by students and academics which were further extended by the blockade that began in 2007. Today, Palestinians in Gaza are banned from pursuing their education in the West Bank, and are unable to attend the universities established for their benefit. Before 2000, 350 students from Gaza were studying at Birzeit University, today there are none.
Harassment and Arbitrary Military Detention
Palestinian students and children in the West Bank are frequently subject to arrest and arbitrary detention by the Israeli military. The Palestinian prisoner rights organisation Addameer reported on 17 November 2021 that 160 prisoners in Israeli jails were aged under 18. On average, 700 Palestinian children are prosecuted in the military court system every year, and since the year 2000 more than 12,000 have been detained.
Since August 2019, there has been an escalation in the targeting of Palestinian students for prolonged arbitrary military detention. Students are regularly detained for exercising their rights to assembly, association and expression. Following a complaint by Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights and Addameer, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found detention of three female students at Birzeit University by Israeli military authorities to have been arbitrary. Systematic arbitrary arrest and detention of Palestinian students not only impacts the students who are detained but harms the Palestinian student community as a whole. The threat of arbitrary detention creates a chilling effect that deters Palestinian students from exercising their basic civil and political rights, in addition to their right to education. Approximately 70 students from Birzeit University are currently in jail (October 2021).
As the occupying power, Israel retains full control over access to the occupied Palestinian territories and places restrictions on exit and entry. Israel refuses to grant work permits or student visas to foreign passport holders to teach or study at Palestinian universities. Students and academics carrying foreign passports are therefore reliant upon short term visitor permits, which are often delayed, issued without predictability and may be unexpectedly cancelled. Visiting academics and students are often faced with denial of entry.
In 2006 the presidents of 11 Palestinian universities published a letter addressed to members of global civil society, calling for collective action against this ‘alarming yet unannounced Israeli policy that affects our society in the West Bank and Gaza Strip at large, and education in particular’.
For Palestinian educational life in Gaza, the situation is worse since the blockade has effectively ended the entry of individual foreign passport holders while also heavily restricting the travel of Palestinian academics and students, forcing them to apply for exit permits in order to teach or study abroad. These restrictions isolate Palestinian higher education, denying universities access to international academic exchange.
In October 2016, a member of academic staff at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, Dr Adam Hanieh, was denied entry to occupied Palestine on his way to deliver classes at Birzeit University. SOAS issued a statement condemning the decision, declaring it an ‘arbitrary breach of academic freedom’.
Academic freedom and civil liberties on campus
The freedom of Palestinian universities is undermined by the potential threat of closure by Israeli authorities and expulsion of academics and students.
Between 1987 and 1992, each of the eleven Palestinian universities were forced to close for extended periods. In the case of Birzeit, the university was closed for four years with the first President of the university, Dr Hanna Nasir, exiled from 1974 until 1993.
Military raids of university campuses in the oPt remain a regular occurrence. In a 2017 incursion into Birzeit University, IDF forces entered the offices of the student council and confiscated campaigning materials.
Palestinian citizens of Israel studying in Israeli universities also experience discriminatory practices by university authorities. Palestinian student associations are often banned by universities and activities prevented.
The Impact of De-development
Due to the de-development of the Palestinian economy under occupation, Palestinian education in the oPt is heavily reliant on foreign aid. This is despite the international legal obligation of occupying powers to provide education services to the occupied population, which Israel fails to meet.
In recent years, the Palestinian Authority has faced a funding crisis as a result of cuts to foreign aid and economic deterioration as a result of occupation policies. These have led to significant reductions in public sector budgets and, in particular, salaries. Palestinian universities relying heavily on income from tuition fees have been hit by the growing inability of Palestinians to pay.
Palestinian citizens of Israel also face underfunding and restrictions on the development of the Palestinian education sector in Israel. Today more than 539,000 Palestinians refugee students residing inside and outside occupied Palestine rely upon the schools and education services provided by UNRWA.
UNRWA relies on the voluntary contributions of states. However, for many years the Agency has faced a funding crisis that poses a severe threat to the education services upon which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians rely.