Don’t take right to education for granted

The following letter was sent to Janez Potocnik, Commissioner for Science and Research for the European Commission, on 19 January 2007 in response to his article, “A model for EU-Israel integration” published by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz on 17 January 2007:

Dear Dr Potocnik,

In your article “A model for EU-Israel integration” published in the English online version of Haaretz (17 January 2007), you argue that a closer relationship between the EU and Israel in the field of scientific and academic exchange would be of mutual interest for EU and Israeli citizens, as well as for its research communities and consumers.

Building on the successful European experience of encouraging research collaboration and financially supporting those who want to study or research abroad, you are inviting Israeli researchers to apply for and participate in the new Seventh Framework Programme that will be funded with 55 billion Euros. Indeed, Israel has proven itself to be a country with high-quality innovations and research in all branches of the sciences, including the social sciences. And since, as you write, “knowledge [should] not be limited to boundaries or beliefs”, you hope that the Seventh Framework Programme will attract more Israeli researchers to work in countries of the EU and participate in university exchanges, and vice versa.

As a citizen of the EU and junior researcher in the field of development economics, I have personally benefited from both the financial support the EU gives for higher education and the freedom and institutional support the EU grants for researchers to move within the EU and abroad. I have spent my first three years at university in Germany; my exchange year to the Middle East, my Masters programme in the UK, as well as a training placement for junior economists with an UN agency in a developing country in Southeast Asia, were partially funded with EU funds.

The freedom to pursue studies almost anywhere in the world, indeed the very right to education and independent research, is taken for granted by EU citizens. It is a freedom on which high-quality research and mutual understanding of different cultures thrives.

It is a freedom, however, that was taken away from me last year when I went to the occupied Palestinian Territories to complete my PhD fieldwork on the structure of the Palestinian economy. Since, as you must be well aware, the borders of the occupied Palestinian Territories are controlled by Israel, my route to enter the West Bank was via the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.

Despite being a EU citizen, studying at a renowned university in London, funded by three different scholarships and supported by academic letters endorsing my research, Israeli authorities interrogated me for nine hours and attempted to blackmail me by forcing me to sign a letter of “cooperation” with the Israeli security service in exchange for a visa that would allow me to complete my fieldwork. Further, despite sufficient evidence that my fieldwork would require at least six months, I was only given a visa for one month.

Notwithstanding the diplomatic support of the German embassy in Tel Aviv that endorsed my new visa application, the reluctance of Israeli authorities to provide me with an appropriate visa was all the more irritating as the letter of support explicitly stated that my research is of interest to German development policy for the occupied Palestinian Territories, and thus part of wider EU policy for the region. During my six-month stay in the West Bank, I was only granted visas for four weeks (with the exception of the last visa renewal where a visa for eight weeks was issued), each time however with no guarantee that it would be renewed once again.

To add insult to injury, the Israeli bureaucrat that issued my last visa stated that he had received directives to make me sign an “agreement” by which I would have committed myself to leaving the country as soon as my last visa runs out, and would not attempt to re-apply for “some time to come”. As the agreement was written in Hebrew, a language I don’t understand, I was able to avoid signing the letter. The whole situation left me in legal limbo for my entire stay and forced me to spend more time in Israeli ministries, seeking diplomatic support and legal advice, than I could give for conducting my own research. The mental state this left me in, as well as the constant lack of security as to whether I could meet my research goals, ruined my fieldwork plans and, in fact, made my six-month preparation to devise my fieldwork methodology in vain.

As the Right to Education Campaign of the Birzeit University and the Right to Entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territory Campaign have thoroughly documented, my treatment was neither bad luck nor an aberration but rather a long-standing policy to discourage university exchange with, fieldwork visits to and ultimately, research on the occupied Palestinian Territories. Furthermore, new visa restrictions in place since early last year have led to an increased brain drain of Palestinian professionals with foreign passports, including foreign — often European — researchers, academics and consultants working in Palestinian institutions.

There are, of course, wider moral questions at play here, such as the systematic denial of research and education of Palestinian students and academics in the occupied Palestinian Territories etc, and the question of whether the Israeli scientific community should be held responsible, or rewarded, for providing the know-how with which Israel’s occupation, now in its 40th year, is made more efficient and less visible.

While EU policy aims at fostering research exchange with Israel, and supports this with a large amount of EU tax money, Israel is actively obstructing the right to education and research of EU citizens at the same time. Both abovementioned campaigns have routinely reminded EU foreign representatives in the occupied Palestinian Territories and Brussels to protect the rights of its citizens against such Israeli measures and yet, while the EU is inviting Israeli researchers on the basis that “knowledge [should] not be limited to boundaries or beliefs”, EU citizens that want to pursue knowledge, often with the support of institutions of EU countries, that is against the wishes of the Israeli state or conditioned on entering Israeli boundaries, is outright prohibited.

This is a highly inconsistent position of the EU and against the very principles and values partnership agreements with associated countries rest on. As you will be travelling to Israel soon, I hope you will find some time to raise this issue with your Israeli counterparts.

Yours sincerely,

Sobhi Samour
PhD Candidate
Department of Economics
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square
London, WC1H 0XG

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