Israel's Assault on Palestinian Universities

ON Nov. 30, 1990, a crime was committed in the Israeli-occupied territories. This particular act of violence did not come from the reckless use of the guns that are only too evident on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza. This time, the weapon was simply a piece of paper - a military order - and the crime was carefully calculated by its perpetrator, the Israeli Minister of Defense. The victims were four Palestinian universities in the occupied territories, the 12,000 students and over 700 faculty they serve, as well as the Palestinian community under occupation, whose future depends on the abilities and education of the new generation. The new closure orders extend the closure of Birzeit University, Al Najah National University, and Hebron University in the West Bank, and the Islamic University of Gaza for another three months. These universities have been closed by a succession of military orders since January 1988.

I do not use the word ``crime'' lightly: As the US-based human rights organization Middle East Watch has pointed out, the Israeli closure of Palestinian universities is a ``form of collective punishment which is forbidden by Article 50 of the Hague Convention (1950) and Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.'' Israel's illegal ban on Palestinian higher education is, in fact, unprecedented in modern times.

Due to mounting international pressure, Israel pledged in May 1990 to ``gradually'' re-open Palestinian universities. The authorities proceeded, at a snail's pace, to re-open several small colleges composing Al Quds University, in Jerusalem, over the summer, and Bethlehem University in October, thereby allowing only a total of 1,500 students to return to their classrooms, libraries, and laboratories. Meanwhile, four graduating classes of high school seniors to date languish in an educational no-man's land, with no opportunity to pursue their education, and with the consequent frustration and hopelessness that can only add to the tension in the occupied territories.

The new closure orders vitiate Israel's pledge to re-open Palestinian universities and indicate that the Israeli government has made a calculated assessment that it can continue its illegal closure of universities because the attention of the international community is directed elsewhere.

This assessment cannot be allowed to stand. The United States, which has invoked international law in its campaign to build an international consensus on the Gulf crisis, has a particular responsibility to avoid a blatant double standard in the enforcement of international law. To date, the European Community has been the most outspoken in pressuring the Israeli government to halt its violations against education. In January 1989, for example, the European Parliament recommended that member states freeze scientific-cooperation agreements with Israel until Palestinian universities are re-opened.

It is time for the United States to use its considerable influence and unique relationship with Israel to pressure Israel to conform to the minimum standards of international law.

It is ironic that at Birzeit University, many of our faculty have not only received their graduate degrees in US universities, but in fact have been sponsored by American scholarship programs. They are now forbidden by military order from using this training - whether as a scientist in a laboratory or an English teacher in a language laboratory. Our faculty continue to try to keep the academic process alive by teaching their students without any of the necessary academic resources - I am sure it is difficult for any academic to imagine teaching a university-level class without a library, for example. This academic version of sensory deprivation is made even more bitter when Israeli spokesmen, in order to lessen criticism, cynically point out that ``teaching is going on,'' as though closure has not affected university education.

Education, as many scholars have noted, has a particularly high value among Palestinians, who see education as an asset that cannot be lost in the disruptions and displacements that have characterized recent Palestinian history. That education itself is now disrupted and at risk is more than an individual tragedy. The educated leadership the Palestinian community needs is also the leadership required for a peaceful and just solution to the bitter conflict in the Middle East. That the Israeli government has undermined the education of the new generation belies its interest in peace.

Correction: The Monitor regrets misspelling the name of the author of the Dec. 18 opinion piece on Israel's treatment of Palestinian universities. The correct spelling is Gabi Baramki.

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