Palestinian universities are once again under attack

And as they fight for their survival under apartheid rule, they are receiving no real solidarity from their Israeli counterparts.

Student Council elections in West Bank
Students gathered for student council elections at Birzeit University near Ramallah, the West Bank on May 17, 2022 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

Palestinian universities are under attack once again.

Later this month, the Israeli authorities are expected to put into effect a 97-page ordinance, called Procedure for Entry and Residence for Foreigners in Judea and Samaria Area (PDF), which would grant the Israeli Ministry of Defence and thus, the military, absolute power to determine how many and which foreign academics and students can visit, study or work at all 15 Palestinian universities and colleges in the West Bank.

The “procedure” limits the number of staff allowed to work for any of these 15 universities and colleges to no more than 100 “distinguished lecturers and researchers,” noting that “applications for a permit under this section will be approved if it is demonstrated, to the satisfaction of the authorised [military] official, that the lecturer contributes significantly to academic learning, to the area’s economy, or to advancing regional cooperation and peace”.

Moreover, under the new ordinance, the Israeli authorities will not only determine who can or cannot teach in Palestinian universities but will also restrict the time foreign academics can reside in the West Bank to one semester, which ensures that foreign professors will no longer be able to become permanent members of the academic staff at any of West Bank’s institutions of higher education.

Finally, the procedure will only allow up to 150 foreign students to study in the West Bank at any given moment, while restricting their stay to one semester as well.

Universities as sites of resistance

Israel’s attempt to exert total control over Palestinian universities is, of course, nothing new. But its approach to Palestinian higher education was once significantly different.

Back in the early 1970s, when Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was in its early years, the Israeli authorities provided Palestinians with permits to establish universities in the occupied territories. Security officials were under the impression that the establishment of universities could help Israel normalise the occupation and thus foster Palestinian support for Israeli rule.

This policy backfired. The universities established under occupation rapidly became sites for political organising and mobilisation for Palestinian liberation.

Furthermore, within a relatively short period, these universities produced a fairly large Palestinian professional class. The labour market in the occupied territories did not have much to offer these young graduates – Israel was almost exclusively hiring unskilled manual labourers for its construction and agricultural industries, and military authorities were blocking almost all attempts by Palestinians to establish independent industries or develop the service sector.

Not surprisingly, the lack of jobs created bitterness among unemployed and underemployed graduates. Alongside thousands of university students – who were equally concerned about their future prospects – these graduates eventually served as a primary force in bringing about the first wave of mass resistance to Israeli rule: the Intifada of 1987.

Seeing the prominent role students and graduates took on during the first Intifada, Israel swiftly learned its lesson and began imposing severe restrictions on Palestinian universities. Birzeit University, for instance, was practically closed year round from 1988 to 1992. All of the other universities also faced long-term closures.

In the decades that followed, numerous procedures have been introduced to restrict Palestinian higher education. The primary aim of these policies, ranging from limiting the movement of lecturers and students to putting restrictions on subjects that can be taught, was to undermine Palestinian economic development and the circulation of knowledge that can be used to mobilise younger generations against colonial rule.

Protecting academic freedom

Given this half-century-long history of academic restrictions, obstructions and repression, it is difficult to find anything new in the restrictions to academic freedom that Israel is due to introduce in the West Bank later this month. The “procedure” is, after all, just one more draconian policy in a long line of draconian policies targeting Palestinian higher education. And yet, there has been an interesting development since the announcement of the procedure in February.

In addition to Palestinian universities themselves, international human rights organisations, and professional associations such as the Middle East Studies Association and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (in which I serve as chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom), an Israeli university publicly voiced concern in an official capacity over an Israeli policy that would undermine the academic freedom of Palestinians.

In an arguably unprecedented move, the General Assembly of the Hebrew University sent an official letter to the Israeli military commander of the West Bank, emphasising the problematic restrictions set out in the procedure.

At first glance, the penning of this letter appears to be a step in the right direction – until now, the only support Palestinian higher education institutions received from Israeli academia came from Israeli academics organising, protesting and at times, issuing open letters criticising the state’s attacks on Palestinian academic freedom in their personal capacity.

Nevertheless, a careful reading of the letter quickly shows that this is hardly the important gesture of solidarity it first appears to be.

The general assembly insists that the military should not intervene in decisions regarding a person’s academic qualifications, but still accepts that the occupying military has the right to determine whether a lecturer, researcher or student poses a security threat and deny them access to Palestinian universities.

“There are,” it argues, “no security considerations that justify this kind of intervention because it is clear that in any case all lecturers, researchers and students need to receive an individual entry permit from security officials.”

In other words, the Hebrew University accepts the basic assumptions informing Israeli rule over Palestinians: the legitimacy of one ethnic group dominating another ethnic group, and the use of laws and official policies to sustain and enhance that domination.

The letter is tepid, at best. But it does raise an important question: why, after nearly half a century did an Israeli university suddenly decide to voice concern about repressive policies directed at Palestinian universities?

Undoubtedly, some professors from Hebrew University are sincerely alarmed about the ongoing efforts to clamp down on Palestinian higher education. However, others are probably more concerned about their own academic standing among their international peers. They are aware of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, and particularly the threat of an international boycott of Israeli academic institutions due to their complicity with Israeli apartheid. It is likely that in their eyes this letter distances Hebrew University from the government’s policies, and absolves them of any blame.

Indeed, reading the letter carefully, Hebrew University’s complaint sounds more like an effort to protect its own reputation than support Palestinian universities. While criticising a particular policy proposal, the university implies there is a possibility that academic freedom can exist under an apartheid regime. Thus, the letter does not challenge the structures of domination. Rather, it serves as a shield against those calling for an academic boycott on Israeli universities.

Today, Palestinian universities are facing yet another attack. As they work to try and preserve something that at least resembles academic life under a brutal apartheid regime, they deserve real solidarity – not attempts by privileged academic institutions to save their own reputations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.