Palestinian students "surrounded by guns" at Israeli universities

22 February 2013

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Israeli forces arrest a Palestinian demonstrator during a protest against Israel’s bombing of Gaza at Hebrew University, 20 November 2012.

(Mahfouz Abu Turk / APA images)

The world tends to forget that there are Palestinians living in Israel. They are the natives of this land and since their villages, towns and cities are located within the “legal” borders of Israel, they are citizens. Citizens on paper, yes, but far be they from equality.

Palestinian municipalities in Israel receive substantially less funding than Jewish Israeli municipalities, putting Palestinians at the bottom of the socio-economic scale (see the Arab Association for Human Rights’ ”Fact sheet: Discrimination in Israeli law”).

Palestinians in Israel are discriminated against systematically — and this is especially true in Israeli academia.

The hard fact is that only 11 percent of undergraduate students in Israeli academic institutions are Palestinian. The proportion is even lower for postgraduate studies, according to data from the Internal Council for Higher Education. Palestinians comprise 7 percent of masters degree students, 3 percent of doctoral students and 2 percent of the academic faculty.

Moreover, a mere 22 percent of young Palestinians in Israel meet the minimum requirement for university acceptance (compared to 44 percent of Israeli Jews). And even those Palestinians who do make the requirements are less likely to be accepted to university (32 percent of Palestinians are refused, compared to 19 percent of Jews) (“Israel to launch campaign to attract more Arab students to universities,” Haaretz, 21 October 2012).

Discrimination before college

“The Arab student has already been discriminated against even before reaching the point of applying to an academic institution,” said Yara Sa’di, one of the authors of a new report by Academic Watch, which documents numerous forms of discrimination against Palestinian students in Israel.

“Arabs attend schools with poor budgets, and are taught contents that do not prepare them for the PET,” the Psychometric Entrance Test, an exam for securing places in universities.

If a Palestinian student in Israel does manage to beat the odds and enter university, he or she will not enjoy the basic rights that define academic institutions in democratic countries. Palestinian students have encountered an increasingly aggressive effort to deny them freedom of expression and restrictions on their cultural and political activities in recent years.

In addition, Israeli universities are becoming more militarized. For instance, Haifa University renewed an academic contract with the Israeli army, according to which a special track allows Israeli soldiers to obtain a masters degree in five years.

Documenting discrimination

Academic Watch is the result of a “youth empowerment” program run by the Nazareth-based Arab Culture Association.

As part of the Academic Watch project, a group of Palestinian students who attended different universities and colleges in Israel underwent legal and journalistic training. The students then established a page for Academic Watch on Facebook.

Academic Watch offers a platform to report and expose incidents where Palestinian students have suffered any form of discrimination or oppression.

The annual report for 2011-12, which was released this month, is to be the first in a series of publications. In addition to underlining blunt discrimination, the report also exposes a violation of international law in examining the case of Ariel University (“Annual summary report 2011-12,” Academic Watch, February 2013 [PDF]).

Having recently received approval by the Israeli government, Ariel is the ninth recognized Israeli university. As it is located in the fourth largest Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, it is by definition an illegal institution.

Ban on running for office

Among the incidents of discrimination faced by Palestinian students in Israel is the ban imposed on Palestinians at Safed Academic College in the Galilee from running for president of the students’ union. The ban was introduced secretly last year. When Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, submitted a query about it, the students union denied that such a ban existed.

About 60 percent of students at Safed college are Palestinians, yet a condition requiring that candidates had to have performed military or civil service in Israel effectively bars them from seeking election. Palestinian citizens of Israel are exempted from joining the army.

According to Academic Watch, this amounts to “a severe violation of their rights to be elected and to elect, in addition to their right to express their opinion by voting to a person who will represent them and their ideas and outlooks.”

In May 2012, Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, approached the student union on the issue. Additionally, a statement signed by more than 100 British student movement leaders condemned the ban.

The report also referred to how Palestinian students in Israeli universities have been prevented from showing films about the West Bank such as Jenin, Jenin and Bilin Habibti, from inviting public figures representing Palestinians in Israel to participate in student activities and from commemorating the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing which led to Israel’s establishment in 1948.

While the report is confined to incidents that occurred in 2011 and last year, Academic Watch continues to monitor discrimination since then. It has, for example, highlighted the case of Emad Shaqour, a second year undergraduate student of economics and business management in Haifa University.

When Shaqour was in need of a tutor during the 2013 academic year, he inquired about a tutorial program that pairs students who share the same native tongue. Not knowing that there was a separate office in the university for Arabic-speaking students, Shaqour entered an office dealing with tutorial issues and addressed a young woman staffing it in Hebrew. Shaqour said that the woman was very helpful until he asked for the phone numbers of tutors who spoke Arabic. It would appear that it was only at that point the woman realized he was Palestinian.

“Dangerous”

“She gave me the list of numbers saying, there are different offices for you,” he said.

When he pulled out his phone to call one of the numbers on the list she politely told him not to make the call in that place, claiming it was the wrong place for him to be. “She was trying to be politically correct but she must have felt like she did something wrong since she asked, ‘I hope I didn’t offend you?’ and I answered ‘I hope this wasn’t discrimination.’

“Even though she was very careful expressing herself, I still got the message that she was telling me [that] I am not allowed to speak Arabic in these university offices. And I know how to recognize discrimination, however polite it may sound.”

With the help of Academic Watch, Shaqour’s story received some media attention. However, when the news reached the university’s administration, he was summoned to a private meeting in the office of a university dean. The dean’s personal secretary held a copy of a press article — in English — about the incident and informed him that he shouldn’t have alerted the media.

“He told me that what I did was wrong and dangerous,” Shaqour said. “He said I should have come to them with this. But I did nothing wrong and I am not afraid.”

Last year, Haifa University removed Arabic from its official logo. So perhaps the dean’s office was correct to use the word “dangerous.” It could be be dangerous for the international academic community to know that Arabic is a language non grata at Haifa University.

“Alienation”

Yara Sa’di added: “You can’t escape the feeling of alienation when you are an Arab student in the Israeli universities. On the one hand, you are in an academic environment, but on the other hand you are surrounded with guns. It has reached a point where it’s difficult to see the contradiction. It has become the norm — uniformed soldiers carrying automatic weapons are part of the academic landscape.”

According to the Academic Watch report, the militarization of universities has become so prevalent that “student soldiers” carry weapons on campus. These “student soldiers” are the pride of Israeli academia. Along with students who join “public diplomacy” programs — known as hasbara programs in Hebrew — they are groomed to be ambassadors for Israel. They will be the ones who seek to justify and excuse Israel’s numerous violations of human rights; the university is there to teach them how to diplomatically tiptoe around war crimes and how to find loopholes in international law.

The report also reveals that “the majority of members of the administrative boards in the Israeli post-secondary institutions are reserve soldiers, members of the army personnel or Shabak [Israel’s security agency].” So it does not come as a surprise that the “student soldiers” and the future ambassadors are the beneficiaries of various scholarships, fellowships and generous financial aid.

“There is no separation of powers between the academia and the military,” Sa’di said. “When a military base is located on the ground of the Haifa University dorms, and several universities are in contact with weapon manufacturers, It becomes clear that the academia has a military agenda.”

Sawsan Khalife’ is a political activist and journalist from Shefa-Amr in the Galilee region of Palestine.