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Higher education under occupation


Palestinian colleges and universities (PCUs) face the acute challenge of offering substantive educational programs while operating under the Israeli occupation.  Despite the tendency of higher education literature to take for granted a generic socio-political context, educational institutions and systems always exist in particular places with their own histories and characteristics.  These contexts undoubtedly influence the structure, character, and effectiveness of higher education systems.  Institutions of higher learning in politically unstable, territorially contested, and occupied regions operate in especially turbulent contexts (Bose, 2010; Turner & Hoba, 2015).  These institutions face unusual challenges, such as forced closures, military orders, governmental surveillance, financial harassment, denial of student matriculation, denial of foreign faculty visas, suppression of research, and even armed conflict on campus (Amit, 2015; Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, 2018; Zelkovitz, 2014).  For example, institutions of higher learning are sometimes considered legitimate targets of military or bureaucratic action in political or ethno-national conflicts (Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, 2018; Reimers & Chung, 2010) because they may be perceived as politically or nationally aligned.  Many of these challenges can arise suddenly, creating uniquely chaotic and uncertain environments in which to operate educational institutions. 

Geographic fracturing

The geographic fracturing brought on by the Oslo Accords has created substantive challenges for the coherent administration of higher education as a sector.  Oslo subdivided the West Bank into three zones, each governed by a different configuration of Palestinian and Israeli authorities.  Zone A, which is comprised of a series of non-contiguous enclaves throughout the West Bank, is governed by the Palestinian Authority.  Zones B and C, which comprise the majority of territory in the West Bank, are governed more or less by the Israeli authorities (Shafir, 2017).  Most PCUs appear to be located in Zone A, but some are located in Zones B and C, where they are subject to more direct governance by Israeli authorities. Birzeit University, for example, is located in Zone B, where it is governed by the Palestinian civil authority and Israeli military authorities.  The separation of Palestinian administered territory into isolated enclaves undoubtedly affects basic functions of PCUs from access and admissions to research activities and mail delivery.  At a larger scale, the separation of the West Bank from Gaza presents its own challenges. Until the occupation began in 1967, Gaza was administered by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan, so educational norms and systems in the two territories evolved separately (Schneider, 2018).  How do these complex and overlapping geographies, bureaucracies, and histories affect the coordination of higher education as a coherent national sector?

Control of mobility

The tight regulation of Palestinian movement throughout the West Bank, primarily mediated by ubiquitous checkpoints and identity cards (Berda, 2018; Peteet, 2017; Tawil-Souri, 2011), is likely to affect higher education institutions and functions as well.  How does this restriction of movement affect operational functioning at PCUs?  The uncertainty that results from these structures of the occupation may constrain commutes for personnel and students; limit or interrupt holiday travel to and from home; inhibit internships, tours, field trips, and other off-campus educational activities; affect deliveries of supplies and equipment; and exclude populations within certain geographies from the admissions process.

Direct action

Direct action by Israeli authorities against Palestinian colleges and universities and their personnel and students is still a reality (Scholars at Risk Network, 2018), as it was prior to the Oslo Accords (Baramki, 1987; Shahada, 1985).  Israel has imposed travel restrictions on international scholars who work for Palestinian universities virtually every year in recent decades (Scholars at Risk Network, 2018). For example, eight faculty at Birzeit University have been waiting on visas since June, 2018 (Scholars at Risk Network, 2018) and have thus been prevented from teaching their classes during the 2018-19 school year.  Furthermore, the Israeli military makes incursions into Zone A, despite the Oslo framework delegating governance of security in Zone A to the Palestinians (Scholars at Risk Network, 2018).  Indeed, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (2018) lists Palestine among the top locations worldwide for attacks on schools and targeted killings of faculty or educational staff. 

Study threads:

  • Faculty and students at the checkpoint - the experience of faculty and students commuting to school, traveling home for holidays, and traveling for off-campus education such as internships, tours, etc.

  • Higher education bureaucracy of occupation - structures and policy networks of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, the Palestinian National Authority, and the Israeli Military

  • Informal and formal education - authorized and unauthorized education, the limits of liberalized curricula in Palestinian colleges and universities, how does the family, village, and neighborhood steward and share historical and cultural knowledge, and how do these knowledges interact with formal curricula in colleges and universities?

  • Frames of purpose: globalization, internationalization, and liberalization forces flow together with resistance to occupation and nation-building as driving values.

© 2019 Benjamin E. Norquist


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