Hamas-Fatah feud stalls Gaza higher education

Women students wearing graduation caps and gowns sit in front of Al Aqsa University banner

Al-Aqsa University diplomas may prove worthless if Ramallah makes good on its threat to deny accreditation.

Abed Rahim Khatib APA images

Ahmad Abu Hasira has decided against joining his two older siblings at Gaza’s Al-Aqsa University, one of the biggest publicly funded Palestinian higher education facilities.

Abu Hasira, 18, was about to start at the university’s journalism school, but an ongoing crisis that has seen Al-Aqsa’s accreditation threatened by the ministry of education in Ramallah deterred him. He did not, he told The Electronic Intifada, want his education to be interrupted by politics. And he is not alone.

“It is not only me who crossed this option out. Many of my friends now went to register at Al-Azhar or the Islamic University of Gaza.”

Like his older brother and sister, who are still to graduate, Abu Hasira had been keen since high school to register at Al-Aqsa. The university is renowned for maintaining a positive learning environment with relatively low tuition fees. It is a top choice for those who want to pursue a higher education, but do not have the means to study privately.

Al-Aqsa also offers a generous package of scholarships, making it even more attractive to prospective students in the impoverished Gaza Strip.

Political feud

However, the university and its more than 26,000 students have found themselves caught up in the political feud between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas, which governs Gaza.

The problems newly escalated last year with the resignation of university president Ali Abu Zuhri, who had been in the job just four months after his most recent appointment to the post.

According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Abu Zuhri complained that he could not fulfill his duties because of the obstacles posed by the West Bank and Gaza governments, particularly concerning the release of funds.

His resignation sparked a conflict between the Ramallah, West Bank-based education ministry and its Gaza counterpart. Ramallah wanted to appoint Abdul Salam Abu Zayda, who had been previously nominated for the post. Gaza wished to appoint Mohammed Radwan, claiming him the oldest-serving deputy to the university.

Radwan took office and made new university appointments, raising ire in Ramallah, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.

Last fall, several employees found their salaries frozen after the Ramallah ministry imposed financial sanctions on the university. Soon afterward, Ramallah exempted Al-Aqsa students from paying fees, but the Gaza ministry refused to comply and continued collecting tuition.

Two professors affiliated with Hamas had their salaries seized, and employees accused of connection with Fatah were threatened with transfer to other institutions.

The conflict peaked this August, shortly before the start of the new academic year, when the Ramallah government called on students not to register at Al-Aqsa because their degrees might not be accredited.

The situation has students and teachers appalled.

Heavy price

Zuhair Abu Abed, a long-serving professor in Al-Aqsa University’s media department, told The Electronic Intifada that the university has paid a heavy price for Palestinian divisions.

“This flow of decisions is driven by political interests and not to improve the university or to contribute positively to students’ futures,” Abu Abed said.

He said the last round of bickering had devastated enrollment at the university. Only 33 students enrolled ahead of the academic year, he noted, a figure put as “dozens” by local media reports. The average annual intake over the past few years has been 5,000.

Mohammad Radwan, the Gaza government’s appointee for university chair, criticized Ramallah’s move to waive tuition.

“If they want to have a free education in the university, they have to compensate what will be lost to cover operational and administrative expenses,” Radwan told The Electronic Intifada. The university, he said, had not received any operational expenses since September 2015.

“Moreover, such a policy should be implemented generally, and come into effect at all other facilities at the same time, otherwise it is only meant to sabotage one establishment.”

Problems have also arisen in the hiring process for non-academic as well as academic staff.

It is the ministry in Gaza that interviews and selects candidates, but the ministry in Ramallah that pays salaries. This, however, has changed in the past year, when Ramallah refused to recognize and pay new hires.

“We sent a lot of inquiries to the ministry in Ramallah asking them to hold an employment process to meet the university’s needs for employees and professors, but they did not react,” Radwan said.

He said the Gaza-based education ministry then intervened to select and interview suitable candidates.

Yet the Ramallah deputy minister for education, Anwar Zakaria, said that his ministry would not recognize new hires, and called on the university to let them go.

“They took away our responsibility to hire people. They can’t then ask us to pay salaries,” Zakaria noted.

When asked why his ministry had not stepped up when the university asked for new hires, Zakaria said that his ministry was willing to do so, but only once the unauthorized new hires were dismissed.

The Ramallah ministry was not willing to comment further despite repeated attempts.

Poisonous atmosphere

Anwar al-Birawi, an assistant deputy at the Gaza-based Ministry of Education, said Ramallah’s decisions were driven by political interests.

“Our students should never feel intimidated by the latest decision from Ramallah. The education process inside the university is going smoothly and there are no violations justifying withdrawing accreditation,” the official told The Electronic Intifada.

But in such a poisoned atmosphere, students suffer.

Amal Isleem, 21, who is studying education at Al-Aqsa, said she feared it would now take her much longer to finish her last remaining year.

“I want to get my degree and leave. It would be a disaster if I obtained my degree after all this work and it was deemed invalid,” Isleem said.

Like her peers, Isleem wants to finish her education and start work. And she is frustrated.

“We are paying a heavy price for their endless differences. They have to keep us out of their disagreements. Our futures are not to be toyed with by irresponsible politicians.”

Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist based in Gaza