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Academic community protests crackdown on Palestinian universities


In early January the Israeli government announced that it would begin a process of closing universities in the West Bank and Gaza, alleging that they were breeding grounds for terrorists and suicide bombers. The action is among the latest taken by Israel in an escalation of conflict that is largely overshadowed by the threat of war in Iraq.

There are 12 universities, colleges and technical schools in the region, plus another 10 research centers that are either independent or affiliates with the universities. In addition to two universities in Palestinian East Jerusalem, there are universities and colleges in Bethlehem, Gaza, Hebron, Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah. The two schools in Bethlehem are under Christian sponsorship, Bethlehem University, run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, and Bethlehem Bible College, an interdenominational Christian institution.

On Jan. 15, Israeli Defense Forces enter-ed Hebron University and Hebron Polytechnic Institute, confiscated computers and closed down both universities. While an initial statement said the schools would be shut down for 14 days, an Israeli spokes-man later said the closure could be extended for 14 months or “indefinitely.” Both universities are located in the sector of Hebron known as H1, which according to international agreements is ostensibly under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, not Israel.

The Hebron closings, as well as continuing harassment of Bethlehem University, the only Catholic university in Palestine, prompted an outcry from leaders of the international academic community.

When the intent to close the universities was announced, David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, sent the Israeli government a letter protesting the planned action. “Closing the recognized institutions of higher education of the Palestinian Authority will only complicate the efforts to find a solution to the long-standing problems of the Middle East,” he wrote.

On Jan. 25, members of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, sent a letter of concern to William Burns, President Bush’s assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. The letter, signed by the presidents of eight U.S. universities sponsored by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, as well as members of Executives in Church-Related Higher Education, included a letter from Br. Vincent Malham, president of Bethlehem University. The letter from Malham, an American, chronicled the effects of Israeli closure, curfews and harassment on the university’s faculty and staff (NCR, Dec. 20 and Jan. 10).

Malham wrote: “The punitive actions which the Israeli army continues to impose on innocent Palestinians, ... the devastating effects this continuing inhumane treatment is having, are taking a terrible toll. … Malnutrition among children is growing worse; a legitimate right to education of thousands of young people is being dramatically compromised. Thousands of hours of time are wasted each day -- on those rare days when movement is permitted -- waiting to get through checkpoints. …

“We at Bethlehem University plead for the right to continue educating young Palestinians and the right of our neighbors … to be able to live, to move, to breathe free air, to work and to educate their children. Can anyone do anything to change this systematic strangulation? End the occupation!”

In an interview with NCR, Michael James, assistant executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said that member institutions have continually voiced concern for the past several years over the increasing restrictions on education in Palestine.

In March 2002, 11 leading educators and administrators who belong to Executives in Church-Related Higher Education sent a similar letter to David Ivry, Israeli ambassador to the United States, protesting the dire educational situation in the region. That letter, issued during the organization’s annual conference, strongly protested Israeli bombings of Bethlehem University, attacks on Christian schools and seminaries and collateral damage to the civilian population. In addition to Catholics, signers included Mennonites, United Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, and members of the United Church of Christ.

James said that for more than two years, the association also has been writing letters of protest to the White House and the State Department, as well as the Israeli ambassador. To date, he said, there has been no response from anyone.

“This is an extraordinary silence that is more than symbolic,” he said.

The Catholic universities’ umbrella group also wrote to numerous church leaders, James said. But the only individual who followed up was Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who headed the U.S. bishops’ committee on international relations. “He’s had his problems,” James said, “but in our case he was the only one willing to take action, and he did.”

James said that Israel’s action in Hebron is one of three tactical patterns that are evident to anyone who studies the recent history. “First, you close the university, with such uncertainty of reopening that people don’t know what to plan: Two weeks? Six weeks? Indefinite? How can administration, faculty and students plan an education around that kind of situation?” He pointed to the case of Bethlehem University, which finally graduated last summer’s class -- though with fewer students -- in January due to constant closures of the city, curfew and military incursions.

Tactic two, he said, is seal off the area, “as the Israelis just did in Bir Zeit and Ramallah. You don’t have to specifically close the universities, since the whole town is under house arrest -- that’s exactly what happened to Bethlehem University for months.”

The third tactic, James said, “is to completely occupy the institution, confiscate or destroy computers, student records, and so on, as just happened in Hebron.”

In addition to the universities, all elementary and high schools that serve Palestinian students in Hebron have also been forced to close.

In most recent developments, the Israeli army issued more restrictive house arrest on the city of Bethlehem and announced Feb. 16 that it would soon begin construction of a concrete wall, at least 25 feet high, that will bisect the city. The wall, which will divide Palestinian areas from Israeli-controlled sections of Bethlehem, will mean that close to 400 Palestinians currently living on the Israeli side will be forced to remain there in isolation; the Israeli government has said they will not be permitted to travel into nearby Jerusalem. Besides preventing normal residential movement and commerce, the wall will further impede Palestinian students and faculty from getting to classes at Bethlehem University, or any other school.

James, who heads the association with well-known educator Monika Hellwig, said the main reason for the educators’ outcry is that this is primarily a human rights issue, not a political one. “Targeting a civilian population and denying them basic human rights -- no access to education, to work, no freedom of movement, no religious freedom -- all of that is a violation of the Geneva Conventions,” he said.

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities represents 220 schools, with international membership. In addition to the U.S. members, it includes about 20 from Canada. Overseas, in addition to Bethlehem University, it represents Notre Dame University in Lebanon and Australian Catholic University in Sydney. The association is also part of a broader academic network that includes the International Federation of Catholic Universities, the Washington Higher Education Secretariat, the National Council for Independent Colleges and the American Council on Education.

What U.S. and international educators need to convey to the world, James said, is the absolute right and necessity of every person to an education if the world is going to have peace. “We’ve got to get people to recognize that by denying education to the Palestinian people … there will be no leadership for the future.

“Everyone decries the current leadership vacuum there, yet as young Palestinians are prevented from getting an education, they will be deprived of the opportunity to learn and develop the skills and experience needed to form a stable, democratic form of government,” James said. “And that’s exactly what is essential if there is ever to be peace, justice and self-determination for Palestinians as well as Israelis.”

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail is pmorrison@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003