This is a commentary piece i wrote in the wake of my visit to the West Bank and Jerusalem in september 2017. It is not strictly a travel-commentary, but also includes political and social commentary, but it still encompasses a lot of my experiences in Palestine. I tried to get it released in newspapers, but was unsuccesful, and as such it has only been posted on my private facebook page previously.
Posting this on 15th of May 2018, the day after the US embassy was moved to Jerusalem, and after Israeli soldiers shot and killed more than 50 unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza, demonstrating for their right to return to the areas that they were forcefully removed from 70 years ago, makes this even more appropriate and timely.
THE PALESTINIAN UNIVERSITY IN JERUSALEM;
Attack on Palestinian educational institutions as a whole.
The recent recognition from Donald Trump of Jerusalem being the capital city of Israel has brought renewed attention to this legendary city. However, multiple aspects aren’t being covered in the stories about the situation in and around Jerusalem. One of them is the educational situation in Jerusalem and the Westbank as a whole. During a recent trip to Jerusalem and the Westbank, I had the opportunity to get insight into this topic, and the challenges which the palestinian children and youth are facing every day, as they attempt to educate themselves. As portrayed in this recollection, violent force, suspicion put upon school children and direct disruption of classes is common occurrences in the palestinian educational system, perpetrated by Israeli forces. This is an important, but relatively poorly covered, topic, which deserves more recognition and awareness. It’s a topic that is likely often taken for granted. This recollection is structured around a two week trip to Westbank in September 2017, and has been written prior to Donald Trump recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
There are two universities in Jerusalem; One israeli, and one palestinian. Just one, the israeli “Hebrew University of Jerusalem”, is officially recognized by the israeli government, which has the de-facto (although illegal and against international law and resolutions) legislative and executive power in the occupied city of Jerusalem. The palestinian “Al-Quds University” [Jerusalem University], is not recognised by the israelis, and this means that the university gets raided by israeli soldiers approximately once a week. The soldiers launch tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. This has lead to numerous casualties, as well as thousands of injuries over the years. This situation has been happening since the foundation of the university, but is rarely picked up by international media. This is an obvious attack on not just unarmed students trying to study, but also an attack on the entire palestinian educational system, which is so important in securing the survival of a future palestinian state. This is also merely the top of the iceberg.
The attacks on the Al-Quds university is just one of many examples of conscious, and violent disruptions of the different levels of palestinian educational institutions. It spans wide, from kindergartens through primary school, high school and as mentioned in the above paragraph, universities. This doesn’t only happen in the occupied Jerusalem, but also in the Westbank and in the Gaza strip, even in the areas which Israel recognised as being under full palestinian control and jurisdiction (the so-called “Area A”) in the Oslo Accords.
I recently spent two weeks in the Westbank, where i witnessed with my own eyes the conditions that the palestinian people are living under. I was there with a group of 7 other motivated young adults, on a summerschool in Bethlehem through the organisation Global Contact/Action Aid Denmark.
The experiences that made the biggest impact on me, was the way in which kids and teenagers are being traumatised just by going to school. Children are met by heavily armed israeli soldiers at checkpoints on the way in and out of schools and kindergartens. Even children are being screened and checked by uniformed and fully armed soldiers – an experience which can be rather harsh even to an adult. Children can also be forced to go through settlements on the way to school, if the alternative way around the settlement is too long (which it typically is). In the settlements, the children risk being met by aggressive settlers who aren’t afraid of attacking the children, by throwing stones and trash at them, but also physical violence in the form of kicks and beatings, or verbal abuse. This has created the almost paradoxical situation that palestinian children have to be escorted through settlements by Israeli soldiers, in order to protect them from the settlers. This is however not always enough to deter attacks.
Unfortunately, I was exposed to this in person during the stay. One day the group was on a tour visiting a small village called Tuba, which is located in the southern part of the Westbank, near the big city of Hebron. Tuba is located in a barren desert-area, and it mainly consists of descendants of people who fled more lush parts of Palestine during the nakba at the end of the 1940’s. The village has around 200 inhabitants, of which around 40 are children of school-age. The village mainly sustains itself from agriculture, however little is possible in this barren landscape. To reach Tuba without going through the nearby settlements, you need to drive a long extra way along roads that makes danish gravel-roads seem like highways. The settlements on the other hand, does have high quality asphalt roads, and watering systems (the water-supply in the Westbank is controlled by Israel, and the water is only available to the Palestinians for 1-2 days during the week, while settlers have access to water all week) which makes it possible to grow bountiful amounts of crops in the otherwise harsh environment. In general the infrastructure is lightyears ahead of the counterparts in the palestinian villages and towns. The settlements are appearing like green oases in the barren landscape. The nearest school that is available to the children of Tuba is located on the other side of one of the settlements. Thus the children have to walk through the settlement to avoid the long way around it. But the settlers here have a tendency to attack and humiliate the school children passing through. Therefore the children are given a military escort through the settlement. The escort works in this way: The children, on foot, are followed by a armed military vehicle with soldiers, and if too much commotion happens, the soldiers will intervene. The soldiers does however not intervene at any aggressiveness, or immediately. Thus the escort isn’t perfect. We’re told by the adults in town that the children are also often left to wait for the soldier to take them back home again, for upwards of 3 hours. This means they have to stay outside in the scoldering heat without food and water for up to 3 hours. We also get to witness this firsthand. We are waiting for the children in the village, expecting them to appear on the horizon, along the roads in the settlement. School is over at noon every day, and the walk from school to Tuba is about 30 minutes on feet. But we’re waiting for them futilely. The children finally appears as the clock nears 2:30 P.M. at which time we have to leave the village. Thus the children became delayed by almost 2 hours, and the calm reaction and the look on the parents in the village makes it clear that this is nothing unusual. You get used to a lot of things in the Westbank.
Violent clashes are also not unheard of right outside primary schools, as a lot of places have improvised israeli military checks at the entrances to schools. In this way, small children are becoming witnesses to extreme violence, and will inexplicably also be innocent victims of the clouds of teargas that follows in the wake of these clashes. One example of something like this, which I experienced during the trip, was during a trip to the city of Hebron. The old town of Hebron is the only place in all of Palestine in which settlements are placed inside a palestinian city, and as such there’s also an extreme amount of soldiers present, even tho Hebron is one of the A areas, where israeli soldiers have no legal right to be. In fact, israelis and palestinians are living side by side in the old city, and between each building in which the ownership changes from palestinian to israeli and vice versa, is located a israeli security check point. This means that you will be stopped multiple times just by walking down the street. Furthermore, access to the areas is heavily secured, and is only possible through guarded checkpoints, and the only palestinians who are allowed to enter are those who live inside the old city. Tourists and foreigners however can enter freely.
The school and kindergarten here also got strategic checkpoints placed right in front of them, such that even small children are being put under suspicion and have to be searched and patted down before being allowed to enter their school or kindergarten. It is a truly bizarre situation to witness. Yet, this barely even scratches the surface of the injustices going on in Hebron.
Finally, as mentioned at the top of the recollection, there’s also at least one case of an entire university being consciously and directly attacked, almost once a week.
To hear more about this situation, I sat down with a student from the Al-Quds university and asked him about his experiences at the university. The young man, aged 22, is called Mohammad Al-Najjar, and he is currently studying medicine at the university.
I ask him to tell about the story of how Al-Quds university came to be, and how it ended up becoming the scene of weekly violent attack. He explains:
The Al-Quds university was founded in Jerusalem by the former palestinian leader Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat), as he wanted there to be an arabic university in Jerusalem, as there only existed a jewish one at the time. When the separationwall was constructed in the beginning of the 21st century, the wall was led around the university and so close that the soldiers always was nearby. Since then they’ve attempted to shut down the university every year. Beyond this, they attempt to disrupt classes, intimidate students to scare them away etc.
As a response to the soldiers moving closer and closer to the university with time and began intimidating the students, the locals in the area attempted to confront the soldiers by throwing stones at them, in self-defence. This was met with an aggressive response, in the shape of teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition coated in rubber. Since those time, people have stopped throwing rocks at the soldiers, but the frequency of raids has only sped up, and is now happening on an almost weekly basis.
As documentation and proof of the claims, Mohammad sends me a couple of YouTube videos recorded by the students as evidence of what appears mostly as anti-terror forces attacking the university with great strength. Beyond the videos, there’s also coverage of these raids in the arabic newspapers, and the university’s own website also features the story.
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoQuaoKqIs8&t=110s, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rd5yzbbj0Qw, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=istUtF2CvIc&, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6T20X4iur8, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OY7MsQR2Bw) (Article: http://www.maannews.com/Content.aspx?id=648111)
(The university’s own take on the story can be found here: https://www.alquds.edu/en/about-us/history.html)
When i ask Mohammad about the reactions from the city officials, Mohammed tells that the government are fully aware of what is going on, but they don’t care about and completely ignores what’s going on. This happens because the university officially doesn’t exist according to the israeli government. It is due to the name of the university – Al-Quds – which is the arabic name for Jerusalem, and by using this name, the university is trying to further an arabic agenda, or so is their explanation. There won’t be any recognition until the name of the university changes, and thus the attacks won’t stop either.
I ask Mohammad about the human consequences of the attacks, because beyond disrupting classes, it is obvious that some people must get hurt when heavy artillery are being deployed, as the case is. Mohammad tells, with an incredible calm in his voice, that during the last year, 26 people has been killed in the raids, and statistics show that during 26 raids over the last year or so, 1720 people have been injured to some degree. This statistic is relatively stable from year to year. Mohammad also informs me that the student hosts 13.000 stutdnets, and out of these, approximately 1700 are injured every year, just by attending classes and being at the university at the wrong time.
This naturally leads me to my next obvious question; Why? Why continue to study at Al-Quds university under such conditions? Is it really worth it? After All, there are multiple other universities in the Westbank, where you are not in constant threat of being attacked.
To this, Mohammad replies that it is simply because not only is Al-Quds the oldest university, but also the best university in the palestinian territories. Therefore every young palestinian must ask themselves how to prioritize quality of education against the risk of ending up in violent raids – and as he says, it isn’t new for palestinians to end up in situations like these.
Furthermore it is as simple as not wanting to give up one’s own basic rights. The university isn’t illegal according to international law and resolutions, and thus they have every right to not be attacked by the israeli forces. The students are merely standing up to the brutal intimidation tactics deployed by Israel to make people leave the university on their own volition, such that it appears that there were no outside influence involved in shutting down the university. This same tactic is also used widely around the palestinian territories to evict palestinian families from their homes or entire villages; Keep attacking, bothering and making life as uncomfortable as possible for the people until they leave on their own.
Next, i ask Mohammad about the practicalities about the attacks, starting with the duration of the attacks. To this, Mohammad replies that it varies a lot, but typically the soldiers will be present for 1-2 hours. But it doesn’t really matter, since on the days when an attack occurs, the rest of the day cannot be completed anyways, so these attacks do cause a lot of cancelled classes. The attacks doesn’t abate during exams either, and so it is not impossible that exams has be to cancelled and re-scheduled, which means that the students also loses holiday time.
Mohammad adds himself that the medicinal education he is studying for was up until recently not recognised in Jerusalem, since the government doesn’t recognise the university. But the dean of the medicinal faculty managed to make a deal with the government that they would recognise the validity of the exam papers of the medicinal faculty, on the condition that “Al-Quds University” doesn’t appear on the exam papers. So Mohammad is now capable of working in Jerusalem after he finishes his studies, if he so desires. Here it’s worth pointing out that the exam papers from Al-Quds university are recognised all over the world, it is only in Israel itself and particularly Jerusalem that the educations are worthless – with exceptions like the medicinal faculty.
Mohammad finishes with a positive story, about how some of the musical students of the university has started to attempt to downplay the attacks, and drown out the sounds, by performing spontaneous outdoors concerts on the university grounds when the attacks happens. This is a peaceful protest against the israelis. It adds a bit of musical beauty into an otherwise chaotic scene. Albeit this beauty only lasts so long before the musicians themselves must run for cover from teargas and other projectiles. Videos of these happenings can also be found on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6T20X4iur8).
In conclusion, it is obvious that there is a conscious and all encompassing attack happening on the palestinian educational system, and all means are utilised to hamper the opportunities of the young palestinians to get an education.
We should make it clear to Israel, that we won’t accept this kind of treatment of children and youths, along with the countless violations of UN-resolutions, human rights and international law.