Position Paper on al-Aqsa University Crisis in the Gaza Strip
The crisis of al-Aqsa Governmental University in the Gaza Strip, the major governmental university, has jeopardized the future of this academic edifice in addition to the future of over 27,000 students and over 1,000 academics and employees. This development made thousands of students avoid joining the University, which endangers the University’s future and educational reputation. The crisis has negatively affected the future of its recent graduates, as they have experienced many problems, including the obstacles when accrediting their certificates because of the accusations exchanged by both the National Unity Government’s Ministry of Education in Ramallah and the Ministry of Education in Gaza on grounds that both parties have issued decisions and instructions paralyzing the University.
The Ministry of Higher Education in Ramallah stated that measures lately taken by them, including the Minister’s decision to make the Head of the Board of Trustees assume the duties of the University President on 08 August 2016, so the University graduates would be able to accredit their certificates aimed to protect the students from the intervention of the Ministry of Education in Gaza that has issued a number of illegal measures that distorts the University’s history according to the Ministry in Ramallah. On the other hand, the Ministry in Gaza rejects the policies and decisions made by the Ministry in Ramallah, including the decision of the Education Minister in the Unity Government that raised concerns of thousands of new students, therefore, they abstained from joining the university; in addition to accusing the Ministry in Ramallah of money seizure, which would affect the operational expenditures and thus obstructs the University’s progress. The Ministry in Gaza accuses that in Ramallah of being accountable for invalidating the previous agreement under which they agreed on a number of issues in the University, including the appointment of Dr. Ali Abu Zuhri as the University President, in addition to resolving a number of financial issues related to the University expenditures and problems of the administrative and academic staff.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) issues this paper about the crisis of al-Aqsa University and the resulting violation of the Right to Higher Education based on its belief that all parties to the crisis should stop to promote the students right to higher education in a positive environment in order to: improve the educational process, protect the right of thousands of new students wishing to join the university, enhance the professional and economic stability for thousands of academics and administrative staff members, promote the University’s educational and professional roles in the society, and meet the society’s needs in preparing students with different specialties.
PCHR reminds that the International Bill of Human Rights considered the right to education as a basic human right and shall be directed to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms according to article (26-2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article (13-1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
PCHR highlights what the Palestinian legislature has already stressed about the right to education in many Palestinian laws. Article (24-3) of the Amended Palestinian Basic Law 2005 stipulates, “The law shall guarantee the independence of universities, institutes of higher education, and scientific research centers in a manner that guarantees the freedom of scientific research as well as literary, artistic and cultural creativity. The National Authority shall encourage and support such creativity.” Furthermore, article 2 of the Higher Education Law no. 11/1998 states, “Every citizen has the right to higher education”, which goes in harmony with the international human rights conventions concerning this right on condition the higher education’s competence and objective requirements were available in that person. These laws specified the goals of higher education, the powers of the Ministry and Minister of Higher Education, privacy of higher education institutions and the nature of administrating these institutions.
PCHR believes that al-Aqsa University, which is one of the governmental universities, depends in its work on the Council of Ministers’ decision no. 4/2009 related to the bylaw of Palestinian governmental universities, which regulates the academic education and maintains its independence and professionalism away from any interventions that would push the universities away from their scientific and academic goals. Accordingly, all concerned parties should work under this bylaw as a legal framework that regulates the academic life in all Palestinian governmental universities.
Facts about the Crisis
Al-Aqsa University was established in Gaza City in 1955. It was first founded as a Teachers’ Institute during the Egyptian Administration of the Gaza Strip to prepare the Gaza Strip Secondary schools’ graduates to be teachers in the elementary stage. The Institute used then to grant its students an intermediate diploma of two years. In 1991, the Institute was turned into a college that was named as the Governmental Education College in Gaza and the educational system was turned into a BA in Education, as the administration developed the academic plans and curricula. On 21 September 2001, the College was approved as a Palestinian governmental university under the name of al-Aqsa University upon a decision by the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. This happened after changes were made in the different sections and the increasing number of students and employees. The University improved regarding its facilities and capacity to take more students.
This coincided with an increase in the number of employees, mainly the academic and administrative staff, that reached about 801 permanent employees and 239 contract ones. The number of students increased up to 27,000 students throughout different faculties and sections.
Following Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the University, like any other governmental institution, was exposed to interference. As a result, the academic life, along with the students’ and employees’ unions activities were obstructed. Elections of the University student council and of the employees committee were banned. Moreover, the University witnessed more clashes between students, mainly between the Islamic Bloc of Hamas movement and the Fatah Youth Bloc. Sometimes, some of the University employees were attacked as well.
The crisis aggravated gradually since 2009 and lasted until this moment. The developments related to the crisis are as follows:
- On 07 November 2009, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Gaza Government announced the layoff of Dr. Ali Zaidan Abu Zuhri, al-Aqsa University President and appointment of a presidential council consisting of the President’s three deputies according to the University’s bylaw without making further changes regarding the employees. Dr. Mohammed Asqoul, the Minister of Education in Gaza Government, justified the decision then as a professional one that has nothing to do with politics. He explained the decision was taken upon many accumulated issues, the most important of which were Dr. Abu Zhuri’s refusal to implement the Ministry instructions and decisions and his travel abroad without a permit from the Attorney General and Ministry. It should be noted the Attorney General had issued a decision banning Dr. Abu Zuhri from traveling. However, this decision was denounced by the Ministry in Ramallah that considered the decision as takeover by Gaza Government over the University although the layoff or appointment falls within the powers of the PA President. Ramallah Government decided to close the University for a month and considered what happened as an assault on the PA’s administration. Furthermore, the University funds were transferred to a private bank account in a Palestinian bank in Ramallah and Ramallah Government suspended salaries of a number of the University employees;
- On 20 January 2010, Dr. Salam Zakariya was appointed as an acting President of the University. He remained in his position until January 2015. During that period, 265 employees were appointed, 71 of them were academics, 84 administrative employees and 110 contract employees. The salaries of these employees were paid from the University budget in Gaza, as the administration then opened a bank account in the Islamic National Bank in Gaza, which was not licensed by the Palestine Monetary This negatively affected the financial administration of the University that has become administrated by the Ministry of Education and Higher Education of both Gaza and Ramallah. Therefore, each party has seized the revenues of the University that used to depend basically on the tuition fees paid by students;
- On 21 March 2015, Dr. Kamal al-Shrafi, Director of al-Aqsa University’s Board of Trustees who was assigned by President Abbas to follow up the crisis, reached an agreement with Kamal Abu Own, representative of Hamas movement, to resolve a number of issues at the University. Accordingly, Dr. Ali Abu Zuhri became the University President. The agreement included a number of issues as follows:
- All decisions of the Board of Trustees are taken by consensus;
- Al-Aqsa University’s reference is the Ministry of Education and Higher Education taking in consideration the coordination with the competent authorities in Gaza Ministry;
- University cheques are signed by 3 persons out of 4: Director of the Board of Trustees, University President, financial director, head of the financial committee at the Board of Directors;
- Paying the salaries of employees whose salaries were suspended is based on:
- Immediately paying the salaries from the University financial allocations according to the financial service law.
- Paying the allocations of insurance and wages on monthly basis on condition that allocations of another month are paid retroactively.
- Putting an end to the employees’ salaries crisis in no later than June 2015.
- In the case of signing the agreement, the University frozen funds should be spent as the University operational and developmental expenditures;
- Correcting the status of all employees who moved from ministries to the higher education in due process. This should be achieved by the end of the scholastic term (September 2015); and
- Forming a committee by consensus, including the University President, a representative of the Board of Trustees and a representative of Gaza Ministry, to tackle the appointment of temporary contract employees.
- Four months after signing the agreement, Dr. Abu Zuhri assumed his position as the University President, but he could not fulfill his obligations, especially the financial ones, because of the obstacles he faced by the 2 parties to the political conflict. As the 2 parties to the conflict continued to seize the University funds in banks whether by Gaza Ministry of Ramallah’s. The 2 parties did not fulfill the obligation of releasing the funds, this negatively affected the performance of the employees and hindered the work of the University President. Therefore, the President resigned in early August 2015.
- In view of that, Dr. Khawla al-Shakhsheer, the Minister of Education and Higher Education, assigned Dr. Abdul Salam Abu Zayda as an acting President as he was one of the 3 persons nominated for the University presidency when Dr. Abu Zuhri was selected for that position. This decision was taken fearing for leaving the University without administration, taking in account that Abu Zayda was nominated by Gaza Ministry during the aforementioned agreement.
- Gaza Ministry of Education did not accept the decision of assigning Abu Zayda and did not allow him to take office. They instead assigned Dr. Mohammed Radwan and justified this decision by stating that Radwan was the oldest deputy as he was appointed in the University on 26 September 1992. In addition, law no. 4/2009 related to the Palestinian governmental universities bylaw stipulates in article 17, “Appointing the oldest in position to be that acting President until a new President is appointed”. Dr. Radwan was not really the oldest in position; it was found out that Dr. Nihad al-Yazji, the President’s Assistant for community development affairs, was the oldest as he was appointed in the University on 23 September 1992, i.e. three days before Dr. Radwan. Furthermore, article 17 of the same law states, “1. The deputies and assistants assist the University President in running the University affairs, whereas the instructions specific the limits of their powers. 2. The President has the right to assign one of his deputies or assistants to be the acting President during the former’s absence. 3. If the University President’s position is totally vacant, the oldest in office is the acting President until a new President is assigned in due process”;
- Mohammed Radwan took office and appointed new employees, arousing the ire of the Ministry of Education in the National Unity Government. On 16 August 2015, the Ministry addressed the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, asking him to stop the new appointments and the University’s communication with the Ministry in Ramallah;
- On 07 September 2015, the Assistant Undersecretary of the Ministry of Education in the National Unity Government sent a letter to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, giving him a week to stop the recruitment procedures in the University and threatening to cancel the University license in case of non-implementation;
- On 03 November 2015, the Assistant Undersecretary sent another letter to the Members of the Board of Trustees. He called upon them not to attend the Board’s sessions and threatened the Members who violate it with financial and administrative punishments in addition to not accrediting the new programs and exempting university students from fees;
- A number of the University employees, including 10 academics and 3 administrative employees, were surprised by their salaries being suspended upon a decision by the Ministry of Higher Education due to not complying with the Ministry’s decisions;
- The Ministry of Education in Gaza took a decision to exempt 4 Members of the Board from their positions as they complied with the instructions of the Unity Government’s Ministry and did not attend the Board’s sessions;
- On 30 December 2015, the Ministry of Higher Education in the National Unity Government exempted al-Aqsa University students from the fees. However, the Ministry of Education in Gaza failed to comply with the decision and forced the students to pay the fees;
- On 23 May 2016, the Ministry of Higher Education in the National Unity Government called upon all employees transferred to work in al-Aqsa University to go back to their previous workplaces and threatened whoever violates this with financial and administrative sanctions;
- On 04 August 2016, the Ministry of Education in the National Unity Government decided to seize salaries of two professors affiliated with Hamas Movement after they opened the new building in honor of Dr. Mohammed ‘Awad, titling him as in charge of the Higher Education in Hamas movement. The Unit Government’s Ministry justified that step by deliberately not mentioning Dr. Sabri Seidam, Minister of Higher Education;
- On 08 August 2016, Dr. Ziyad Thabet, the Undersecretary assigned by the former government in Gaza, issued a decision to expel 3 employees, describing them as representatives of Fatah Movement in the University, and transfer them to the Intermediate Studies College, which is far away from the University, for the interest of work. The three employees were identified as Dr. Ayoub al-Dalu, Dr. Mohammed Abu ‘Odah and Engineer Eyad Khalaf. This decision points out giving priority to the political aspects over the professional ones, especially that the University lacks their specialty and the other faculties do not need such specialties;
- On 09 August 2016, in response to the abovementioned decision, the Ministry of Higher Education in the National Unity Government called upon the new students not to register at al-Aqsa University for fear of not accrediting their certificates. As a result, thousands of students went to register in other universities. The Ministry emphasized not to accredit the old students’ certificates unless they are signed by the Head of Border of Trustees. On the same day, the Ministry in the National Unity Government issued a decision to assign the Head of the Border of Trustees to assume duties of the University President to find solutions;
- On 18 August 2016, the Ministry of Education in Gaza took a number of arbitrary measures through the University Administration against other employees as they suspended the work of 9 employees and referred them to an investigation committee. They suspended employees were identified as: ‘Ali Nejem, Eyad al-Harazin, Mahmoud ‘Ashour, Nizar Abu Zuhri, Mukhtar al-‘Azizah, Mahmoud Abu Samrah, Nour al-Kurd Nizar Abu Zuhri and Usamah Abu ‘Ajwah. Gaza Ministry issued a decision to replace three Members of the University Board namely, Dr. Nihad al-Yazji, Assistant of the University President for Community Development Affiars, Dr. Riyad Abu Znad, Dean of Continuing Education, and Dr. ‘Abdel Jalil Sarsour, Dean of the Arts Faculty, and assigned 3 other professors that were previously assigned by the General Personnel Council in Gaza;
Repercussions of the Aggravating University Crisis
- Repercussions of the crisis on the University employees:
The number of workers at al-Aqsa University is 1,040 employees, including 454 academics, 364 administrative employees and 239 temporary contract employees. The following table explains the distribution:
|Academics||Administrative employees||Employees arbitrarily transferred||Employees arbitrarily suspended||Turnover employees||Temporary contract employees||Suspended salaries|
|327||120||221||107||3||–||18||–||5||–||239, including 150 from Gaza||–||25|
The abovementioned table illustrates that 569 academics and administrative employees in al-Aqsa University receive their salaries from the National Unity Government. We can say that these employees lack job security in light of the continued political bickering. What aggravates this threat is the Ministry of Higher Education in the National Unity Government suspended salaries of 25 employees. Moreover, the number of employees who are either arbitrarily suspended or transferred by the Ministry of Education in Gaza was 21, raising concerns that policy established on political basis will continue away from any professional justifications and the University’s requirements. The employees also fear the transfer and replacement decisions against other employees in the University. Statistics show the number of those appointed by the Ministry of Education in Gaza reached 227 academics and administrative employees in addition to 150 temporary contract employees who have appointed since 2010 until the reporting period;
Repercussions of the Crisis on the University Students:
This crisis has put the future of around 27,000 students at stake, especially those in their final school year. Moreover, the new students fear to register in the university after the Ministry of Higher Education in Ramallah withdrew the university accreditation and the Ministry in Gaza refused the decisions issued by Ramallah in addition to not allowing the University President to practice his duties. This year, the university enrollment rates significantly decreased comparing with the previous year as the preliminary information indicates a sharp decline in registration of new students. Only 500 students registered for this year, constituting a serious indicator when compared with the annual average that ranges between 3,000 to 4000 students annually.
In light of the abovementioned developments, PCHR expresses its deep concern over the situation in the largest Palestinian governmental university. PCHR reiterates the University crisis is political par excellence and requires from both parties to the political conflict to give priority to the higher interests of students and respect the regulations and laws related to the right of each Palestinian to higher education in order to serve the community according to its developmental requirements. PCHR also emphasizes that many of the decisions issued by the Ministry of Education in Gaza violate the laws and regulations, including decision no. (4) of 2009 on the Palestinian Governmental Universities bylaw, as they explicitly violate the bylaw’s terms which regulate the academic and administrative life in the university. PCHR also holds the Ministry of Higher Education in the National Government accountable for these violations carried out in response to the Ministry’s decisions in Gaza. This ravages the future of the university, its students and academic and administrative staff and threatens the educational future of thousands of students at the university in addition to thousands of new students who refused to join the university due to the ongoing political bickering. As a result, students resorted to other universities, which are more expensive and increased the financial burden on the students and their families. It is also very strange these developments has aggravates in light of the catastrophic deterioration in the economic and social situation of the Gaza Strip population. Thus, PCHR:
- Highlights the respect to the right to education, including higher education, according to the international human rights standards, which impose legal obligations on the State of Palestine through taking all necessary measures that would enhance, protect and respect each Palestinian’s right to higher education;
- Stresses that the Ministry of Higher Education in the National Unity Government should assume its legal responsibilities, as it is considered the competent authority that has power over al-Aqsa University in the Gaza Strip. The Ministry should maintain the interests and future of its students and continue its academic life without any intervention from any other parties;
- Emphasizes that problems of the university employees, who were subject to arbitrary decisions issued by both parties to the crisis, should be solved;
- Demands neutralizing al-Aqsa University and all educational facilities and institutes from the political conflict that threatens the future of the university students, graduates and high school graduates who refuse to join it due to the current crisis;
- Emphasizes that University is administratively, academically and financially independent. Thus, all the University bank accounts should be united in one accredited account that must be used according to the law (the university legal reference).
- Calls for returning the employees’ salaries that were suspended due to political bickering as it violates the international law and standards related to the right to work;
- Calls for forming the university council according to the regulations and laws and not being dragged into the unprofessional quota system;
- Demands taking an immediate action that ensures the interest of graduates to facilitate the procedures to obtain their graduation certificates in order to start their career and enhance their participation in building a free Palestinian community;
- Calls for extending the registration period for the 2016-2017 school year and providing guarantees that would calm the students wishing to register at the university;
- Calls for maintaining the University’s independence and depending on the principles of efficiency and seniority when appointing employees at the university away from any political affiliations; and
- Stresses the importance of the universities’ and higher education institutions’ role, including academic and administrative employees in the universities. This role is represented in providing students with knowledge, experience, and necessary skills to build their future after graduation. The University’s message should rely on motivating students and promoting their critical and creative thinking according to academic and scientific approaches that enhance students’ experience and skills and promote their contribution to build a free community.