JERUSALEM (IPS) - After more than 25 years spent fighting for women’s rights in the occupied Gaza Strip, Andaleeb Shehadeh is now struggling for the right to complete her university education.
“This kind of studies is very important for the women who are active in women’s rights in the Gaza Strip,” the 46-year-old mother of four said. “It’s not offered in Gaza or in the rest of the Middle East.”
In 1999, Shehadeh began studying for a master’s degree in gender, law and development at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank. One year later, after having completed only half of her degree, the Israeli authorities imposed a sweeping ban on Palestinians wanting to travel from Gaza to the West Bank for education.
Shehadeh, who works as executive director of the Community Media Center in Gaza, hasn’t been able to attend classes in the West Bank ever since.
“They mention an excuse, which is that the ban is for security reasons, not for me personally, but for all students who want to go to the West Bank to study. For what security reason can students threaten Israel?”
There are nine universities in the West Bank and five in the Gaza Strip. There are approximately 30 percent more undergraduate programs and 40 percent more graduate programs offered in the West Bank than in Gaza, and several programs aren’t offered in Gaza at all, including dentistry, medical engineering, veterinary medicine, and democracy and human rights.
Aiming to divide
“They aim to divide us. They aim to separate us from the Palestinians in the West Bank. It is to prevent us having from a good education, and to strengthen their control on Gaza and Gazans,” Shehadeh added.
In late May, the Israeli high court ordered the Israeli military to re-examine its refusal to allow Shehadeh, and four other female Palestinian students from Gaza, from reaching Birzeit University in the West Bank to complete their degrees.
According to Gisha, an Israeli organization campaigning for freedom of movement, which submitted the high court petition with the Gaza-based al-Mezan Center for Human Rights on behalf of the students, this travel ban violates Israeli obligations under international law as an occupying power, and Israel’s commitment under the Oslo accords to treat Gaza and the West Bank as a unified territory.
“It seems like [Israel is] trying to prevent people from moving to the West Bank. When you’re young and you’re a student, you can meet a man or a woman and get married, and you will want to stay,” Ayelet Cohen, a Gisha representative, said. “They say that students have a ‘dangerous profile.’”
Before the outbreak of the second intifada, between July and September of 2000, it is estimated that the monthly average of entries to Israel from Gaza was more than 500,000.
Today, Israel grants approximately 3,000 exit permits each month to Palestinians passing through the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza. Most of these permits are only given to businesspeople, or for critical humanitarian reasons.
“This is our land”
In 2007, the Israeli high court recommended that Israel set up a committee to individually examine the cases of Palestinians in Gaza wishing to study in the West Bank, and grant exceptions for those students whose studies could have “positive human implications.”
To date, however, such a committee has yet to be established.
“These women are really trying to make a difference. They are working for their society all their lives and they just want to learn how to do it better,” Cohen said. “You have businessmen going from Gaza to the West Bank and to Israel all the time. If they can go from Gaza to the West Bank, how come those women can’t?”
For Andaleeb Shehadeh, while finishing her degree at Birzeit University is crucial, working for the right of younger Palestinians from Gaza to study freely in the West Bank is equally important.
“I see the opportunity to rejoin Birzeit University. I think by pressuring the Israeli government and those who prevent us from having a permit to go to the West Bank, we will make a case which will allow the young people to join universities in the West Bank,” she said.
“The young people who want to complete their undergraduate degree should have permits and be allowed to join universities in the West Bank - in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron - because this is our land. We are Palestinians, and we have the right to be there whenever we want and for whatever reason we want.”
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