The Geography of Occupation: Palestinian Education Today

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 particular geography is the outcome of four decades of iron-fisted Israeli colonial rule in the West Bank and Gaza. It shows the racist character of the degradation and humiliation to which the Palestinian people are subjected daily as well as the debilitating socio-economic effects of long-standing Israeli Zionist colonizing policies. It also illuminates the whole texture of Palestinian everyday life — a subject explored rarely in the North American and European mainstream media and only sporadically and superficially in the commentary and analysis of the “oppositional” Left.

In 1948, Israel was declared a state after occupying about 78 percent 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, intended to create “facts on the ground.” This process has resulted in an artificial and ugly geography based on a mythic narrative of entitlement, implemented through military power to set land boundaries and to sort and grade the people.


As a result, Palestinian residents of suburbs and towns outside Israel’s declared “Jerusalem” cannot enter or cross these boundaries to go to Jerusalem or other neighboring 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, in conjunction with the apartheid wall, block movement and imprison the Palestinian people in more than 200 non-contiguous ghettos.

For example, 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 by the Israelis to enter east Jerusalem 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.

Meanwhile, in characteristic 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, and shoot anyone at will. Occupants in Israeli colonies in the West Bank and Gaza, their businesses and educational institutions, and the educational system in Israel, enjoy total lateral mobility and freedom of movement. Such mobility is denied to every Palestinian.


All Palestinian universities were created after 1967 by the enlargement of local colleges, when it became more difficult for students to continue their studies at universities abroad. In a dialectical turn, the occupation and its official policies of restricted Palestinian movement, as well as the increased Israeli expropriation of land, led to the establishment, in small concentrated areas, of significantly more Palestinian universities.

Al Quds University was founded in 1994 by the merger of several Palestinian Arab colleges in Jerusalem and its suburbs. It now has 12 faculties, including arts, science, medicine, health sciences, and law; it serves a student population of about 9000 and has more than 800 faculty and staff. Main administration offices are located in east Jerusalem. In July 2002, Israeli police stormed its offices, seized all files and computers, and welded shut the premises for several weeks. Earlier in the year, the Israeli army had entered several educational offices in Ramallah and destroyed equipment at will.

Four main factors strangle 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) the inability of students and faculty from the West Bank to enter Israel’s “Jerusalem” boundaries or to cross them to go to other destinations.

As a result of specific Israeli measures, the eight major universities in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as other educational institutions, including hundreds of local schools, are all subjected to severe restrictions in the dissemination of knowledge and the moral and intellectual development of young people. Normal education has been continuously disrupted over the past 40 years of military occupation, in particular during and after the first Intifada of 1987-93 and now after the second Intifada (2000-02).

Birzeit University was singled out for attack during the first Intifada period because of its perceived role in guiding intellectually the progress of the Intifada. Faculty and students were arbitrarily detained, the university president exiled, and the campus closed for extended periods. The measures produced a new movement of “underground education” in which faculty met with students in private homes and other unofficial “campuses” such as clubs, churches and mosques. When the campus at Hebron University was closed for more than two years during the second Intifada, some instructors held meetings with their students in a local grocery market.

Today, student and faculty attendance at all universities is determined by the daily operation of more than 800 Israeli checkpoints throughout Occupied Palestine, the systematic imposition of arbitrary curfews and road closures, the policy of “administrative detention,” everyday racial harassment, and the willful destruction of Palestinian educational resources. A single checkpoint on a West Bank road — and Israeli checkpoints are often erected in a matter of minutes — can shut down for days and weeks the process of teaching and learning.

According to a recent study conducted by the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA), “in addition to the checkpoints there are hundreds of other structures restricting Palestinian movement in the West Bank.” PASSIA reports that, “As of August 2005 there were 49 roadblocks, 48 gates, 208 earth mounds or walls, and 12 trenches” — figures, they note, that do not even include the 17 checkpoints, 7 gates, and 77 other roadblocks in the H2 section of Hebron. Hebron, the location of Hebron University, is the most brutally patrolled Palestinian area of the West Bank.

As a result of the ongoing Israeli and U.S. economic blockade of Palestine, which has come in direct response to the outcome of the democratically-held Palestinian parliamentary elections of 2006, the restrictions on Palestinian education have been increased many notches tighter. Recently, the presidents of the major Palestinian universities issued an open letter to the world community drawing attention to the vicious nature of the current situation. They write:

Since the beginning of 2006, and especially after the parliamentary elections, many thousands of foreign passport holders of Palestinian and non-Palestinian origin living and/or working in the Occupied Palestinian Territory have suddenly been denied entry or even threatened with deportation. Israel has arrogated to itself the prerogative of allowing or refusing work permits to foreigners in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Most of these are Palestinian-born and currently hold foreign passports because their IDs have either been revoked while studying or working abroad, or their applications for family reunion rejected by the Israeli occupation authorities under various pretexts since October 2000. Yet they are citizens who have built their lives in Palestine, paying local taxes and voting in regional and national elections in their embryonic State… Diaspora Palestinians and foreigners have withstood humiliating interrogation at entry points, continuously threatened with the insecurity of not having their tourist visas or visitor’s permits renewed every three months. Most of them are a part of the local educated class whose contributions to civil society, educational institutions and the private sector have been invaluable for the construction of a viable pluralistic country and laying the foundations for a future Palestinian state.

Typically, a study term of 15 weeks ends up being either compressed into less than 12 weeks or extended over six or seven months. The academic effects are crippling because of their cumulative nature, since few courses are taught in their entirety. The resulting fragmentation of the learning process is, in fact, the hallmark of Palestinian higher education under Israeli occupation. Not only is educational delivery impaired but there is also an acute financial crisis that makes nearly impossible all aspects of educational work. A collective uneasiness, caused by the constant precariousness of educational life, makes simple planning and self-motivation on the part of both students and faculty a major challenge. Priorities have shifted from the emphasis on quality education to a struggle for mere survival.


Al Quds University in Jerusalem is unique in its location and the difficulties it faces, for it is the only Palestinian Arab higher education institution in this central region of Palestine and the closest to the heart of the conflict. It has the distinction of being the university whose campuses are now fatally severed from each other by the newly erected Israeli separation wall.

In places like Abu Dees, where Al Quds University’s central campus is located, the colonial-apartheid logic of the wall’s placement can be seen (literally) in the fact that it segregates all the facilities, including student dormitories, from any intercourse with neighboring Palestinian communities. For instance, prior to the wall, students, professors, and staff had access to the campus from several major roads. But today there are only two narrow neighborhood streets by which people coming from outside the university can reach the campus grounds, the major roads having been rendered useless by the wall’s placement in between them and the university facilities. The traffic on these two streets has become incessant, at the expense of the local residents. They must endure year-round the noise, exhaust fumes, and dangers to their safety caused by the extreme congestion, with the only relief coming during holidays. More seriously, the wall disconnects Abu Dees from the main part of nearby ‘Aizariyaeh, a town that, prior to the wall, had served as a vital link between university clientele in east Jerusalem and the main campus. Moreover, any small openings in the wall through which Jerusalem residents and foreigners could enter Abu Dees and then return have been closed, vindictively it would appear, since there is no explanation except to make life more difficult for people and to disrupt normal human relations for Palestinians.

The assault on Al Quds University followed closely the Israeli government’s decision in June 2002 to erect this physical barrier to separate Israel and the West Bank. In most areas, the barrier is comprised of a massive cement wall, eight to ten meters in height, with trenches on both sides at an average width of 60 meters. The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B’Tselem, documented recently that,

Israel has built gates along the completed sections of the Barrier, through which permit holders are allowed to pass. However, requests of many Palestinians for permits to enter their land are rejected, either on grounds of security, or on the contention that the applicant has not provided sufficient proof of ownership of the land or family relation to the landowner. Also, a permit from the Civil Administration does not guarantee that the holder will be allowed to pass through the gate: when the army declares comprehensive closures on the Occupied Territories, the permits do not apply. Furthermore, many residents have to travel long distances, usually along unpaved roads, to get to their gate.

B’Tselem correctly points out that the “major aim” of Israel’s snake-shaped apartheid wall is “to build the Barrier east of as many settlements as possible, to make it easier to annex them into Israel.… It is reasonable to assume that, as in the case of the settlements, the Separation Barrier will become a permanent fact to support Israel’s future claim to annex additional land.”

[See note below for picture of the Entrance gate of Al Quds University, Abu Dees campus.
Photo by Jonathan Scott.]

As of October 2006, the Israeli apartheid concrete wall is 362 kilometers long (over 220 miles) – a major and constant eyesore in such a small country. If completed according to plan, the wall will creep across a total of 703 square kilometers of Palestinian land and imprison inside it more than a million people. Today’s 362-kilometer wall encircles 92 Palestinian communities inhabited by about 500,000 people. Thousands of these Palestinians are students and professors. Although academic life was in peril even before 2002, it has now been reduced, because of the wall’s presence, to individual acts of sheer intellectual will.

Al Quds University’s educational structure is built on self-evident and natural connections between Palestinian villages and urban areas that under normal conditions would be accessible to each other, but the Israeli occupation has now replaced these natural links with insurmountable obstacles, in terms of access, services, administration, and delivery of education. The university’s organization assumes that the Palestinian areas are in close proximity as they in fact are, and therefore that West Bank and Jerusalem Palestinians are the same people (despite the different colors of their 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 parts. It is a cruel, suffocating geography.

The problem of attendance at universities predates the current Al Aqsa Intifada (the Second Intifada). It has little to do with “security” (the usual excuse) but is based on long-standing Israeli colonization policies, inherited and patterned on the pre-1948 British 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.

During our teaching careers at three Palestinian universities, we 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 five years. The difficulties are particularly acute at the two campuses of Al Quds University in east Jerusalem, where parts of the Faculty of Arts are located. As a result, there is little connection on campus between faculty and students in the same fields. Most of those who used to study in east Jerusalem can no longer do so. Some other students and faculty at the two Jerusalem campuses have only West Bank identity cards, though their spouses or parents may have Jerusalem identity cards, and therefore have to remain imprisoned in east Jerusalem for fear of being arrested and kept out. Even in the West Bank campus of Abu Dees, on bad days when closures in the area are severe, as many as 50 percent are not able to attend classes. On days when a curfew is imposed in any of the surrounding areas, classes cannot be held at all.

In the worst case, a semester that was started in February and was supposed to end in June did not finally end, still incompletely, until late August, and so needless to say the work was not finished properly. Also, since Israeli measures have practically resulted in the almost complete closure of the Beit Hanina campus in east Jerusalem for the purpose of teaching, classes had to be moved to other temporary places and buildings on loan. This temporary solution increased attendance by West Bank residents but caused more difficulties for Jerusalem residents. It also caused extreme dislocation, disorientation and overcrowding.

It is ironic that when physical movement and communication are restricted, people find ways to overcome barriers, to adapt. Because the educational process has been disrupted so regularly, 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, for it takes a long time and is extremely costly and dangerous.

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. For example, students often undertake by their own initiative cooperative research projects. That is, the professor assigns projects that are to be carried out individually — the normal academic procedure — yet in practice there are always students in the course who either cannot access the university library or miss class sessions in which essential material and information for the project have been provided. In response, Palestinian students have been devising elaborate methods for sharing academic knowledge and information, which involve (naturally) a lot of regular e-mailing and the rigorous use of reference materials found on academic Internet sites. Whereas in many Western capitalist societies cell phones and advanced electronic media technologies, such as video conferencing and powerpoint presentations, are treated either fetishistically (as a source of private pleasure) or as instruments for marketing, business networking, and profit-making, in Palestine they have been transformed into socially useful techniques of educational delivery and everyday communications, without which many more courses of study as well as research projects would have to be cancelled.

Yet more important than the Internet and the social use of new media technology is the formation of tight bonds between students cemented not by mutual attraction or filiation (family as well as regional ties) but rather by intellectual necessity. The high level of cooperation and affiliation (or lack of merciless individual competition) between students at the university has produced a new kind of student and likewise new types of academic investigation and intellectual inquiry. This kind of creative adaptation has been a matter of necessity and therefore cannot in any sense be considered a positive or “progressive” outcome of the occupation. The point is that the Palestinian resistance to occupation has produced at the level of higher education a change in the social relations among individual students as well as between students and educators. But as long as the occupation continues, these dialectically changing social relations cannot be organized into real and lasting alternative structures and thus will remain merely improvisational and spontaneous.


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 adversely affected: financing, improvement of resources, libraries, curriculum development, and community projects. Israel knows this, and thus education is singled out as one of the primary targets in order to disable the progress of the Palestinian people. More to the point one needs to ask: Why should education be included in the Israeli policy of collective punishment, especially with an institution like Al Quds University whose administration has shown a willingness to “normalize” relations with Israel, that is, to have joint projects with institutions in Israel?

Transparently, the Israeli government does not want to achieve a just peace, since a just peace undermines its colonizing agenda, which is to continue depriving the Palestinians of their most basic rights, especially higher education, so that they will leave Palestine and never return. Israel’s notion of peace is to have all Palestinians, including the educated class, reduced to adjuncts of the occupation where they are enclosed securely in a tiny cage and given just enough food and water to function every day.

As noted, one major way of preventing the Palestinians from gaining higher education is the installation of military checkpoints all over the land. This nullifies the potential for normal communication and for cooperative projects between the major Palestinian universities. Normally, professors would spend half the day at the university guiding their students and the other half working on research, as well as reading student assignments and preparing classes. Palestinian professors under the Occupation, however, spend most of their time at checkpoints under either the hot sun or the cold rain, waiting for a teenage Israeli soldier to allow them to pass. In this way, a single soldier controls the lives of hundreds of people: students and their families, and the professor and his academic department. The Israeli checkpoint system is a cancer consuming the defenseless education process in Palestine.

Occupation is a many-headed hydra: it works on the emotional level as well. Emotional oppression is, in fact, one of its worst consequences. Most students feel that they can stand against it by their will alone, but they suffer from having to get up every morning two hours earlier than normal, yet still being unable to get to class on time. When they finally reach the university, they arrive physically exhausted and emotionally distraught. Professors spend several hours per week meeting students in their offices to make up for lost class time – and also to heal the students’ bruised feelings while recharging their determination to not disappear.

In this aspect, Palestinian professors often act as spiritual guides to their students, even though they were never trained as such. While the occupation has turned academics into counselors, emotional support therapists, and motivators, it has made their intellectual lives nearly impossible and harshly limited. Again, this is a conscious and deliberate decision of the Israeli authorities: to entangle Palestinian academics in time-wasting efforts to overcome the multiple disasters that constitute everyday life under occupation. Consequently, instead of developing doctoral programs, which Palestinian universities currently do not offer, professors are simply trying to get to campus. Likewise, there are many vital areas of scholarly research, such as Palestinian archaeology, that cannot begin under the present situation — not until professors and their students are able to meet and travel freely in the West Bank, where most of the key archaeological sites are located. Moreover, it goes without saying that the task of attracting talented researchers to Palestinian universities is Sisyphean: once a visiting researcher arrives, he or she will be subject to many of the same restrictions of movement imposed on Palestinians.


It is to be hoped that Israeli authorities will realize 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, and especially 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 only 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. The incubus of occupation and successive colonization for many centuries (most recently by the Ottomans, the British, the Israelis) 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 higher 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 flout UN resolutions. The right of education, among other normal rights, should be ensured and facilitated by the free movement of educators and students.

NoteVisit for a picture of the wall.

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