Education as a Crime in the West Bank

``Police said yesterday that they had uncovered a network of illegal classes held by two West Bank universities at private high schools in East Jerusalem.'' Jerusalem Post, April 19, 1989

AS I explain to my students each year, there is no fixed, constant, or universal way of determining what actions make up the category of ``crime.'' Crimes have only one thing in common: They are actions designated as illegal by the state.

Just about every conceivable human action has at one time been ``criminalized'': what books you read; what substances you smoke or drink; what flags you fly; what clothes you wear.

So it should come as no surprise to discover that the Israeli military authorities have decided education in the occupied territories is so dangerous it must be prohibited and the police must organize raids to uncover secret teaching networks.

Nor should it be surprising that this prohibition is of the most dubious legality. It's against local Jordanian law, against the Fourth Geneva Convention, and against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And nothing in Israeli law allows the police in East Jerusalem to break up classes in private high schools.

Dr. Gabi Baramki, acting president of Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, stated that ``closure of academic institutions is a crime against the Palestinian people.'' He used the word ``crime'' not just rhetorically, but in the exact sense of violation of legality.

But neither respect for law nor sensitivity to international declarations of human rights have disturbed the Israeli government during the last 22 years, and certainly not during the intifada. The ubiquitous system of military orders justifies everything in the name of ``security.'' Schools and universities have to be closed, we are told, because they are centers of disturbance and unrest.

Some schools and universities have been centers for demonstrations, protest, and stone throwing - often in response to provocation and harassment from soldiers, settlers, or police. But this cannot justify the collective prohibition of the entire educational process. In the academic year 1987-1988, pupils in the West Bank lost 175 out of 210 school days because of forced closures. In the current year, schools have only been open for 40 days.

On Jan. 20, all West Bank schools were closed ``until further notice.'' Effectively, two complete years of schooling have been lost for some 300,000 school-aged children. A further 18,000 university students have been denied their education (including access to libraries, laboratories, or private tutorials).

Why should they all be punished? And how can kindergartens be a ``security threat'' or a gathering point for violence? And what about teachers being suspended, arrested, and harassed? Or schools being used (as they were last year) as military camps?

Schools in Gaza have been allowed to stay open for much longer periods than in the West Bank without any obvious difference in the level of ``unrest.''

Even if the argument were valid that closures are necessary to control mass assembly points, this hardly justifies the prohibition of alternative education in private homes. Teachers in the West Bank have even been prevented from distributing homework assignments for parents to give to their children. Off-campus university classes have been raided by the police or army.

None of this makes sense except as collective punishment - a deliberate attempt to suppress all efforts for Palestinian self-organization and to increase Palestinian dependency on Israel.

The uprising has simply allowed for more extreme forms of collective punishment - which will evoke no protest from the Israeli public. The Ministry of Education, the teachers unions, and the Israeli university authorities remain quiet.

Perhaps these Israeli bodies are impressed by the stigmatization of Palestinian educational institutions as ``nationalistic'' - a bizarre notion coming from one of the most nationalistic educational systems in the world, where institutions like the Hebrew University were historically associated with the movement for national revival.

The situation should surely be a little disturbing to the Jewish self-image as the ``People of the Book'' - the great bearers of culture and learning. The indefinite closure and criminalization of another people's educational system is unprecedented in contemporary history. It has not happened in South Africa, nor in third-world military dictatorships.

Surely no one can seriously believe Israel's long-term interest in finding a just and peaceful agreement with the Palestinians can better be served by exposing children to violent streets, detention centers, and prisons rather than to regular education.

But these are not the times for such rational considerations. Let's leave it to the historians and criminologists of future generations to explain what the Israeli police force was doing breaking up classes in literature, history, or mathematics. In George Orwell's ``1984,'' war is waged by the Ministry of Peace. In Israel in 1989, a military occupation is organized by the ``Civil Administration,'' and the main responsibility of the ``Office of the Director of Education, Judea and Samaria'' is to close schools and universities.

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