Fearing popular protests, Israel targets universities

Once more, the West Bank is at the brink of a popular uprising as whatever semblance of a political horizon has completely faded in the last two years.

To stifle any potential movement for popular mobilization, the Israeli army is cracking down on Palestinian schools and universities as it is Palestine’s educational institutions that have always served as the catalyst for collective revolts.

News coverage of recent days focused mostly on the killing of two Israeli soldiers by a suspected Palestinian on December 12, which itself followed the killing of four Palestinians within a few hours, in the West Bank. But that was a mere episode of an ongoing Israeli campaign of harassment, arrests and violence which has been underway for months.

It is only logical that Palestinians in the West Bank will once more rise in protests - the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is expanding illegal settlements and entrenching its colonial endeavors throughout the area. This includes new Israeli government efforts at retroactively legalizing illegal Jewish settlements.

All of this is happening with the absence of any official Palestinian strategy championed by the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is more concerned with its own survival than fighting Israel's settler colonial policies.

Israel’s new strategy aims at drying up sources of Resistance by targeting leaders of student groups and shutting down schools known for protesting against Occupation and illegal settlement expansion.

Also on December 12, a large number of Israeli army vehicles raided the Palestinian al-Quds University in Abu Dis village, southeast of Occupied Jerusalem. Soldiers ransacked offices and destroyed university properties. They eventually withdrew from the campus after confiscating surveillance camera recordings.

It is likely that the Israelis are seeking information about the movement of various active student leaders on campus, which has been a stage for ongoing civil disobedience and protests.

It is likely that the Israelis are seeking information about the movement of various active student leaders on campus, which has been a stage for ongoing civil disobedience and protests

Ramzy Baroud

Repeat of raids

The scene was a repeat of similar raids on other Palestinian universities and arrests of students, either from campuses or their own homes. Last November, The Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University in the West Bank reported that since 2004 “around 800 of the university’s students have been detained at one time, among them 16 female students.”

According to the campaign, there are currently “over 60 students (who) are detained in Israeli prisons, many under administrative detention with no charges.” The statement was made following the arrest of Yahya Rabie, who heads the university student union from his home in the village of al-Mazraa al-Gharbiyeh, north of Ramallah.

Birzeit has been a stage of dramatic events in the recent past, involving undercover Israeli army units. In the most recent attack, Israeli troops, impersonating a news crew, arrested a student leader, Omar Kiswani, inside the campus. On October 15, several Palestinian students, teachers and officials, were wounded in the Israeli army attack on a school south of Nablus in the West Bank.

The students of al-Sawiya al-Lebban Mixed School were challenging an Israeli military order to shut down their school based on the fraudulent accusation of the school being a “site of popular terror and rioting.”

According to a 2016 study commissioned by the United Nations, at least 2,500 Palestinian students from 35 West Bank communities must cross through Israeli military checkpoints daily to reach their schools. About half of these students have reported being victim of army harassment and violence.

Al-Sawiya al-Lebban is located in Area C and is, therefore, under the total mercy of the Israeli military, which has no tolerance for any form of resistance, including non-violent popular protests by schoolchildren.

What is truly uplifting, however, is that, despite the Israeli military Occupation and ongoing restrictions on Palestinian freedom, the Palestinian population remains one of the most educated in the Middle East.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the literacy rate in Palestine (estimated at 96.3 percent) is one of the highest in the Middle East and the illiteracy rate (3.7 percent among individuals over the age of 15) is one of the lowest in the world.

If these statistics are not heartening enough, bearing in mind the ongoing Israeli war on Palestinian school and curricula, consider this: the besieged and war-stricken Gaza Strip has an even higher literacy rate than the West Bank, at 96.6 percent and 96 percent respectively.

Greatest weapon

Palestinians understand very well that education is their greatest weapon to obtain their long-denied freedom. Israel, too, is aware of this dichotomy, knowing that an empowered Palestinian population is far more capable of challenging Israeli dominance than a subdued one, hence, the relentless and systematic targeting of the Palestinian educational system.

Israel’s strategy in destroying the infrastructure of Palestinian universities and schools is centered on the allegation that Palestinians teach “terror” in their schools, Palestinian school books celebrate “terrorists”; schools are sites for “popular terror” and various other accusations that, per Israeli logic, compels the army to raid universities, seal off schools, demolish facilities, arrest and shoot students.

Take, for example, the recent comments made by the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, who is now leading a government campaign aimed at shutting down operations by the UN organization that caters for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

“It is time to remove UNRWA from Jerusalem,” Barkat announced recently. Without any evidence, Barkat claimed that “UNRWA is strengthening terror,” and that “the children of Jerusalem are taught under their auspices, terror, and this must be stopped.”

The link between the raid of al-Quds University, the arrests at Birzeit, the shutting down of al-Sawiya al-Lebban, the targeting of UNRWA by Israel and the US, the numerous checkpoints separating students from their schools in the West Bank and more, have more in common than Israel’s false allegation of ‘terror.’

Israeli writer, Orly Noy, summed up the Israeli logic in one sentence. “By destroying schools in Palestinian villages in Area C and elsewhere, Israel is forcing Palestinians to make a cruel choice — between their land and their children’s futures,” she wrote earlier this year.

It is this brutal logic that has guided the Israeli government strategy regarding Palestinian education for 70 years. It is a war that cannot be discussed or understood outside the larger war on Palestinian identity, freedom, and the very existence of the Palestinian people.

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

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