Dr Kamalian Sha’ath, President of the Islamic University of Gaza, is one of many dedicated academics providing higher education in the Gaza Strip. The Islamic University was one of the sources for
the report ‘ Academia Undermined: Israeli Restrictions on Foreign National
Academics in Palestinian Higher Education Institutions Field Research by Ruhan
Nagra’ published by the ‘Right to Enter’ organisation. This report highlights
that the closure on Gaza is not only on raw materials and freedom of movement
but also an academic blockade, and that the prospects of academic enlightenment
are under equal threat in the West Bank. The report focuses on one university
in Gaza; the Islam University, as well as three in the West Bank; Birzeit,
Bethlehem and al-Quds. The report states that the closure is designed to
cripple the prospects of university education. Dr Kamalian was more than happy
to highlight the struggle he and his colleagues have been engaged in, in an
effort to further academia in the Gaza Strip.


 Since the
State of Israel tightened its closure of the Gaza Strip in 2007, prospects for
exchange with academic institutions outside Gaza have been severely restricted.
Israel currently limits the ability of international academics to take up
lecturing and research positions in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank through a number
of different approaches, from denying entry for ‘security reasons’ to issuing
visas that only permit the holder to stay for a matter of weeks. The resulting
isolation of Palestinian academics has a detrimental effect on higher education
institutions in the Gaza Strip, and prospects for good quality higher education
are steadily worn away. There are few opportunities for students to obtain a Masters
degree, and only one post-doctorate programme is available.

 

Dr Kamalian provides
an insight into how universities are attempting to overcome the obstacles posed
by the Israeli-imposed closure: “When we opened the university in 1978, the Israeli
occupation forces were still inside the Gaza Strip. The Strip was divided into
three parts, with movement between them restricted, causing us tremendous
difficulties in teaching the students. For the first few years, we taught them
in makeshift tents. Anytime we tried to build educational facilities, the
Israeli military would destroy what we had built. I remember once UNESCO wanted
to come and visit the university; out of a team of many, only one was allowed
to enter Gaza. The rest were prevented for so-called ‘security reasons’. We
have come very far since then, and I am proud of the work people here have
done, but the struggle is not over yet.”

Israel also
imposes confusing guidelines for what constitutes a ‘foreign academic’. “You
have many Palestinians who are considered ‘foreign’ so are therefore not
allowed back to their homeland to teach. For example, my brother was studying
in Egypt during the 1967  War. Because he
was not in the country at the time of the war, when he tried to return to
Palestine he was prevented from doing so and, since then, he has been
categorised as a ‘foreigner’ by the Israelis. It is ridiculous to think that
the Israelis can say who is a Palestinian and who is not. We carry Palestinian
ID cards that are given to us by the Israelis!”

“Palestine has
a wealth of educated Palestinians who were born abroad. For example, we have
few thousand doctors in Germany alone. Many have attempted to come home to take
up research positions, or even to volunteer in the surgery departments of
hospitals, and most have been denied. Palestinian academics who live abroad
have a strong desire to return home and bring their knowledge and experience
with them.”

By restricting
freedom of movement between borders, Israel is, in turn, crippling academic institutions
in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. “If mobility is needed for anything, it is
needed for education,” Dr Kamalain says. “Universities are like people. They
need interaction. They need to socialise to achieve their full potential.
Without this, they are nothing. Because of the closure, we lack what many
others take for granted – interaction with different schools of thought. It’s
as if we are on another planet! We only have one PhD programme available, studies
of the Hadith. Though we pride ourselves on the language abilities of our
students, we need someone with a post-doctorate who can teach English well. The
same goes for a variety of subjects.”

“We have found ways
to get around this” Dr Kamalain says, chuckling. “Each course has two video
conferences per term with universities around the world and these have proved to
be highly effective. However, the closure still causes us incredible
inconvenience. For example, in order to meet with my colleagues in Najah University
in the West Bank, where I used to teach, we all had to go to Italy to hold a
conference. It’s crazy to think that, instead of me being allowed to drive around
90 minutes to Nablus [where Najah National University is located], everyone had
to fly to Italy!”

The Islamic
University of Gaza has a total of 21,000 students, demonstrating the high
demand for university education. When asked what most affects the students’ opportunities
to learn, Dr Kamalian replied that both the closure and regular Israeli
offensives on the Gaza Strip have a negative impact. “However, the closure affects
us most. We and our students share a strong desire for some form of
‘internationalisation’. In academia, it is essential to encounter multiple
schools of thought, so that we can improve ourselves and our education
techniques.”

 

A photo from
the university archives showing the Islamic University of Gaza in 1978

 

University
education in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is greatly impacted during
military escalations: “All universities were closed by Israel for the entire
duration of the First Intifada. For four years, we had to hold classes in
mosques, in homes, wherever we could find the space. During the last two offensives
on Gaza, Israel has systematically targeted the civilian infrastructure of the
entire region – roads, schools, hospitals, and even our university. Our entire Science
Department was destroyed in an air strike in 2008. Research and equipment, which
it had taken us 30 years to accumulate, were destroyed in a matter of minutes.
To this day, one of the buildings is still under construction. Other
universities in Gaza had to take in the students that were affected by this.”

“Universities
in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are suffering, though in Gaza more so
because we are completely cut off. International academics are put off by
various factors; even if they somehow manage to obtain entry, they are not
allowed to come and go as they please. And the possibility of an unprovoked
attack by Israel is also a terrifying thought for many who have not grown up in
a conflict zone.”

As unemployment
levels in the Gaza Strip are at 40%, job prospects for university graduates are
also very limited. “Information Technology is by far the industry our students
have had most success in after university. However, there is no denying that unemployment
is a serious issue that needs to be addressed fast.” When asked what the future
holds for universities in Gaza if the situation does not change, Dr Kamalain
smiles: “Life will continue. The struggle will continue. We hope that Israel
will soon bow to international pressure and lift the closure, so that life may
return to normal. If not, we will have to continue as we have always done.”

Under international law, article 26 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and
article 13 of the International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
recognise the right of everyone to education. According to article 13.1 of the ICESCR, this right is
directed towards “the full development of the human personality and the
sense of its dignity”, and enables all persons to participate
effectively in society. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
(CESCR) has made it clear according to a meeting
chaired on
8 December 1999 that education is seen both as a human right
and as “an indispensable means of realizing other human rights”, and
so this is one of the longest and most important articles of the Covenant.

 

Article 12 of
the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also guarantees
that “
everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his
own, and no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own
country.” This includes the right to travel for educational purposes, be it as
a student or academic. Moreover, according to the United Nations Human Rights
Committee [General Comment No. 27], “The right of a person to enter his or her
own country recognizes the special relationship of a person to that country”.
Also according to the International Court of Justice, persons who have a
genuine and effective link to a country, such as habitual residence, cultural
identity, and family ties cannot simply be banned from returning to that
country.

The destruction of the medical, engineering and science block of the
Islamic University in 2008 constitutes a violation of Article 53 of the Fourth
Geneva Convention. Under this statute, the destruction of private property is
prohibited unless rendered absolutely necessary by military operations. 
 Furthermore,
according to the second paragraph of Article 8 (b)(i) “intentionally directing
attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects which are not military
objectives” constitute war crimes.

Finally,
the Israeli-imposed closure of the Gaza Strip amounts to a form of collective
punishment, which is a violation of article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
As it inflicts great suffering on the civilian population of Gaza, it also
amounts to a war crime, for which the Israeli political and military leadership
bear individual criminal responsibility.