The Geography of Occupation:
Education in Conflict
To understand the current
hardships of Al Quds University and other Palestinian educational institutions,
it is necessary to explore the geography of Israeli occupation. This geography
shows the real colour of the degradation to which people are subjected and the
effects of long-standing colonizing policies. One would have thought a simple,
self-evident right to education should be guaranteed.
universities in Gaza and the West Bank, other educational institutions and
hundreds of schools are all subjected to severe restrictions in the delivery of
knowledge, as a result of Israeli measures. Normal education has continued to be
disrupted over the past 35 years of occupation, especially during and after the
first Intifada started in 1987. Birzeit University was particularly singled out
for harassment during this period because of its perceived role in intellectual
leadership. Faculty and students were arbitrarily detained, the university
president exiled, and the campus closed for extended periods. The measures
resulted in a movement of ‘underground’ education, when faculty met students in
private homes and other unofficial ‘campuses’.
Today, student and
faculty attendance at all universities continues to be severely affected by the
presence of Israeli checkpoints, curfews, sometimes by direct harassment,
attacks and willful destruction. A single checkpoint on a West Bank road can
close down teaching for many days. A study term of 15 weeks usually ends up
being compressed into less than 12 weeks or extended over six or seven months.
The academic and other effects are cumulative and drastic in the long-term,
since few courses are taught in full. Not only is educational delivery impaired
and an acute financial crisis affects all aspects of educational work. There is
an unsettling sense of constant precariousness that makes any planning and any
motivation difficult indeed. Priorities have shifted from an emphasis on quality
to a struggle for mere survival.
Al Quds University in Jerusalem is
unique in its location and the difficulties it faces, since it is the only
Palestinian Arab higher education institution in this central region that is
closest to the heart of the conflict. As with universities established earlier,
it is an answer to the specific situation and environment. Palestinian
universities were all created by the enlargement of colleges after 1967, when it
became more difficult for students to continue studies at universities abroad.
Occupation and restricted movement resulted in more universities than expected
in a small area.
Al Quds University was founded in 1994 by the merger of
several Palestinian Arab colleges in Jerusalem and suburbs. It now has 10
faculties, including arts, science, medicine, health sciences and law; it serves
a student population of about 6000 in 2002, and has more than 700 faculty and
staff. Main administration offices are located in East Jerusalem, just outside
the walls of the Old City. (Last July, Israeli police stormed the offices,
seized all files and computers, and welded shut the premises for several weeks.
Earlier in the year, the Israeli army entered several educational offices in
Ramallah and destroyed equipment at will.)
Teaching is conducted at four
main campuses. Two of the campuses are in East Jerusalem, and the largest campus
is in Abu Dees, a suburb a few kilometers to the east. Other faculties are in
Ramallah/Al Bireh, and are similarly separated from East Jerusalem by major
Israeli checkpoints and occasional ‘minor’ checkpoints in between.
‘checkpoints’ are more than places where the Israeli army stops people or checks
identification. They have developed into real internal borders, with huge
concrete blocks and barbed wire, to segregate and to stop movement required by a
natural geography and real human needs.
In 1948, Israel was
declared as a state after occupying about 78% of historic Palestine, including
West Jerusalem. In addition to displacing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians,
it destroyed hundreds of Palestinian villages and instituted apartheid-like
policies and laws. Israel occupied East Jerusalem (including the Old City) and
the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, but its declaration to ‘unify’ the city has not
been accepted internationally. Israel expanded the municipal boundaries of
Jerusalem to accommodate its building of new colonies and to confiscate more
land in the West Bank. The Israeli army set up checkpoints on those
self-declared boundaries of ‘Jerusalem’ and along roads that crisscross
Palestinian lands to connect Israeli colonies in 1967-occupied territories and
to ‘create facts on the ground’. This process has invented an unreal mythic
geography. It assumes a dictatorship of language through military power to set
land boundaries and to sort and grade the people of the land.
result, Palestinian residents of suburbs and towns outside Israel’s declared
‘Jerusalem’ cannot enter or cross these boundaries to go to Jerusalem or other
neighbouring suburbs, nor are they free to move from one Palestinian town or
city or village to another across checkpoints. Cities, villages and camps are
totally isolated, with residents requiring Israeli permits to cross. Today,
Israeli checkpoints, together with barbed wire and concrete separators,
excavated ravines, trenches and mounds of earth serve as walls to impede
movement and imprison the Palestinian people in more than 200 non-contiguous
A Palestinian West Bank resident of Izariyyah, a suburb to the
east, just a 10-minute drive from the center of Jerusalem, is not allowed to
enter East Jerusalem by the Israelis or to go to another Palestinian suburb that
is only a 10-minute drive to the north of the city. These Israeli regulations
apply to everyone, young and old, men, women and children, emergency medical
cases, as well as students and faculty. Anyone caught attempting to cross these
self-declared Israeli boundaries is arrested and punished, or may be shot.
Al Quds University’s educational structure is built on self-evident and
natural connections between areas close to each other under normal conditions,
but that now the Israeli occupation has turned into an impossible situation – in
terms of access, services, administration, and delivery of education. The
university’s organization assumes that these Palestinian areas are in close
proximity (as they are), and that West Bank and Jerusalem Palestinians are the
same people (despite the different colours of identity cards). On the other
hand, the Israeli occupation presumes political positions and imposes military
realities that disrupt communication and movement among the various Palestinian
It is a cruel, suffocating geography.
Causes of Attendance
The problem of attendance at universities
predates the current Al Aqsa Intifada. It has less to do with ‘security’ than
with Israeli long-standing policies. Israel has always targeted education,
community developments and Palestinian civil society. It has been limiting,
fragmenting and disconnecting the Palestinian areas for a long time.
Four main factors affect educational work: (1) Israeli closures and
curfews; (2) Israel’s restrictions on movement everywhere in the West Bank and
between the West Bank and Gaza; (3) Israel’s network of roads to its
colonies/military outposts (‘settlements’) in the West Bank and Gaza; and (4)
inability of students and faculty from the West Bank to enter Israel’s
‘Jerusalem’ boundaries or to cross them to go to other destinations. Since
‘Jerusalem’ is centrally located, Israel’s actions in effect disconnect the
various Palestinian areas to the north, south and east.
pure apartheid fashion, Israeli authorities turn a blind eye to the cruelties of
illegal colonists, allowing them freedom to rampage and destroy Palestinian
farmlands, burn or cut down olive trees. Occupants in Israeli colonies in the
West Bank and Gaza, their businesses and educational institutions, and the
educational system in Israel, enjoy total mobility and freedom of movement.
However, any sense of mobility is denied to all segments of Palestinian
During my teaching at two Palestinian universities since 1995,
I have not experienced a single term in which study was not disrupted by Israeli
military and political actions. The problems have become merely more severe in
the last two years. The difficulties are particularly acute at the two campuses
of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, where the Faculty of Arts is located.
About 60% of students and faculty at these two campuses have only West Bank
identity cards. On good days, often 25% to 30% of students were unable to attend
classes, stopped at checkpoints or arrested or otherwise prevented from reaching
the campus. On bad days, more than 50% are not able to move. On days when a
curfew is imposed in any of the surrounding areas, classes cannot be held at
The worst case was the last semester (2nd semester in 2001-2002),
which started in February and was supposed to end in June. It was only completed
at the end of August, without our finishing all the work properly. It was
possible to continue teaching only by moving courses from the Beit Hanina campus
in East Jerusalem to a high school in the town of Ram. This temporary solution
increased attendance by West Bank residents but caused more difficulties for
Jerusalem residents. In this academic year (which resumed at the end of October
2002), most classes have been moved to the campus in Abu Dees, resulting in
overcrowding, new travel difficulties for many, and much disorientation.
Electronic and Other Solutions
is ironic that when physical movement and communication are restricted, people
find ways to overcome barriers, or at least to cope. Because the educational
process has been disrupted so much, people search for new ways to continue to
learn and to teach. They are not really good solutions. Students and faculty try
to reach the campuses by risking their lives, using rough side roads and other
ways to pass without being stopped by Israeli soldiers. They try to continue
their educational activities by whatever means. It demands dedication and a kind
of humiliating ingenuity; it takes a long time, is costly and dangerous.
Alternative communication means are developed. For example, many
students and faculty have cell phones and access to the Internet. Rumour and
word-of-mouth communication are also very important. Students form small
community networks to exchange news about work, dates of examinations,
checkpoint status, and so on.
But all these means of communication are
informal and unreliable. This is why I have considered using electronic methods
in times when classes cannot be held. I started the process last term, though it
was not implemented fully because classes were stopped suddenly and some
students were already unable to attend. To the extent that I collected
information, the experiment allowed some solutions for students who needed to
complete assignments or to take tests. We were able to agree by e-mail on
assignments and readings, or to confirm arrangements by phones for tests or
Next semester, I plan to start the process on the first day of
classes. (Of course, it is not at all certain when we will have the ‘first day
of classes’ or when teaching will stop.) I will try to make firm electronic
arrangements and record students’ e-mail and phone numbers. Those who do not
have Internet access will be advised to go to Internet cafes or communicate with
others close by who have access.
E-mail communication will be used as a
usual link, especially to benefit those students who are unable to reach
classes. In extreme times of closure or extended disruption, e-mail messages
will supply all students with directions, encouragement to read, handouts, study
guides, topics to discuss, possibly summaries of lectures. Each student will be
asked to communicate back with questions about the material. One possible
strategy is to set up ‘chat’ groups. This will be difficult to implement right
away and may require arrangements on the university web site () and additional technical
training for faculty and students.
Another potential coping strategy is
multiple meeting places. In extreme situations, I hope to travel to meet two or
three groups of students in locations they can reach, to re-establish contact
and keep courses running on track. This option, however, is not feasible for
most instructors to implement because they have identification cards that limit
them to the same restrictions that apply to students.
In almost all subjects,
a positive and motivating classroom atmosphere is indispensable for the
educational process. In the Palestinian case, alternative solutions are forced
by the worst of situations – if education is to continue at all. How is it
possible to deliver a minimum standard in such impossible times?
Education is crucial for Palestine at this pivotal stage in its history.
What is happening today is very harmful for any positive development and for the
future of young generations. Because of the existing negative conditions, all
other activities related to learning and teaching are affected – financing,
improvement of resources, libraries, curriculum development and community
projects. Israel knows this, and so education is singled out as one of the
targets to disable the progress of the Palestinian people. Even more to the
point, one would ask: why should education be included in the Israeli policy of
collective punishment (why should ‘collective punishment’ be allowed in the
first place), especially with an institution like Al Quds University whose
administration has shown willingness to ‘normalize’ and to have joint projects
with institutions in Israel?
It is hoped Israeli authorities would
realize that their current policies are counterproductive for any peace. If
Israelis want to achieve a ‘just’ peace, they must move their government to make
necessary distinctions in its various activities, to urge it to stop
disinheriting, punishing and suffocating all the Palestinian people all the
time. The aim should be adequate resources, quality education and equitable
development opportunities for both sides, not just one.
In this regard,
people everywhere have an obligation to become more aware and more active, in
more than words, in ensuring equal rights for all members of the human family,
including the people of Palestine. An incubus of occupation and successive
colonization for many centuries (most recently Ottoman, British, Israeli) has
plagued this small but important country ‘Palestine’. Here, the real solution is
unusually simple: Israel must withdraw from 1967-occupied territories; disable
its exclusivist policies; free the Palestinians.
But such a solution
will obviously not happen without effective international pressure. What Israel
is doing to Palestinian education (not to mention all areas of civil society)
makes a travesty of all international standards and conventions. However,
Western countries are reticent to apply the same measures against Israel they
have applied against other countries that violate international laws and flaunt
UN resolutions. The right of education, among other normal rights, should be
ensured and facilitated by free movement of educators and students.
Meanwhile, under duress, in educational as in other human endeavours, it
is imperative to exercise all initiatives to cope with difficulties, even when
the solutions are not complete or totally satisfactory. We do not have the
luxury of despairing but must continue to find new pathways to learning, growth
help in Al Quds University’s financial crisis, visit|
About the AuthorBasem L. Ra’ad is Professor of English and World Civilizations at Al-Quds
University in Jerusalem. Born in Jerusalem, he was educated in diaspora and has
published on literature, travel writing, scholarship on ancient civilizations,
place names, and identity politics. ()