Palestinian Students Risk Lives for an Education
by Philip Metres
published in the Bloomington Independent
At 4PM on November 19th in the International Center (111 S. Jordan), Indiana University’s student chapter of the Committee for Peace in the Middle East will participate in an International Gaza Students Action Day for Academic Freedom to provide information on the plight of Gaza students. The following article tells the story of a Palestinian student at Indiana University who withstood school closings, curfew, and travel prohibitions just to get an education. The student’s name has been changed to protect her family and friends at home.
In the crowd of students and professors pressing in and out of classrooms, Manal could be from anywhere. But she’s not. She’s from Palestine. Though she begins her graduate program like any other aspiring Ph.D. at Indiana University, Manal’s road to knowledge has been at times arduous, at times terrifying. However, Manal considers herself one of “the lucky ones”—Palestinians whose lives under military occupation did not lead to limited education, poverty, hopelessness, or martyrdom. I had the opportunity to visit with her on a rainy evening, where we shared tea, baklava, and the memories that she carries with her each day.
Manal’s grandparents lived in West Jerusalem before the war in 1948, when they were forced to move to East Jerusalem, where most Palestinians in Jerusalem now live. She recalls that though her mother’s family stayed in the city, relatives who left the country lost their homes for good when the state of Israel was established. According to the laws established by the new state, many Palestinian refugees had no right to return–even as visitors–to land they had owned and tilled.
Manal’s life in Palestine, compared to other Palestinians, was a fairly privileged one; her father’s professorship in physics gave the family the opportunity to travel to the United States and later to Germany for a few years. But no one could escape the consequences of military occupation. In 1987, the Intifada began—the Palestinian popular uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While the movement galvanized the Palestinian people, the repression it evoked from the Israeli government disrupted daily life. Stores often opened only for a couple hours each day. No crowds were allowed in the streets. Curfew was enforced for weeks or months at a time, at the whim of the Israeli military. At the time, Manal’s family lived on the outskirts of Bethlehem, which proved fortuitous, as she explained: “I was kind of lucky in many ways. We lived on a main road where settlers passed by, so they couldn’t ever have a curfew on us, because that would interfere with settlers’ travel.” Public schools closed down. Even Manal’s private school shut its doors. She recalled, “I only studied two months in the sixth grade.” When I asked if her parents made her study, she laughed. “I studied by myself—my parents didn’t make me. I was so miserable out of school. My parents both worked, and they smuggled my brother to kindergarten, so I was stuck at home alone.”
Receiving an education under military occupation is difficult not only because of school closings, but because Palestinians cannot move freely. For a Palestinian, all travel is complicated. Palestinians cannot move freely between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank—the distance from Bloomington to Indianapolis—without a permit. Palestinians cannot go to Jerusalem without a permit. Palestinians cannot even go to the airport without a permit. The state of Israel, the guarantor of the permits, grants them in ways that the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem calls “improper…and arbitrary.”
Manal explained that travel is made even more complicated by the policies of identification passes. An identification pass, like a passport, designates for Palestinians where they live and where they can go. If a Palestinian is from Gaza, his identification only allows him travel in Gaza, and not to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Israel, or anywhere else without receiving a special permit. The microphysics of this policy get complicated when a person’s parents are from different regions, as in Manal’s case. She lamented, “you can’t go anywhere without permission. My mom is from Jerusalem, and has a Jerusalem I.D. When I was registered, I also received a Jerusalem I.D., so my mother and I can travel freely, even to Israel. However, my dad is from Bethlehem and has a West Bank I.D. So he needs permits. We can never go anywhere, because even if we can go, he cannot go, and what kind of traveling can you do when your father can’t go with you? My brother is 16, and he needs to get his I.D. but the Israelis refuse to issue him one, even though he has had an I.D. number since birth. Why? They say it’s because his father is from Bethlehem. And the Palestinian National Authority won’t give him a West Bank I.D. because they want to keep Arabs in Jerusalem. So my brother is stuck without an I.D. It’s a life of permits.”
If the life of permits makes it difficult for Manal’s family to plan trips or visit relatives, it did not hinder her from attending prestigious Birzeit University, located in the West Bank. For students from Gaza, however, attending Birzeit is a criminal offense. In order to explain why students from Gaza have to break the law to study at Birzeit—the finest academic institution in Palestine—one must understand a little about the history of the Gaza Strip more generally.
In 1948, many Palestinians fled their ancestral villages in present-day Israel during the war and became refugees in Gaza. They arrived in Gaza, thinking they would return in a few weeks. That never happened. Life for the refugees in Gaza was miserable; shortages of food, water, clothing and shelter made a humane life nearly impossible. Thousands of people shared a single bathroom, a single water source. People could not believe that they would never return home. After they realized that they might never go back, they began to lose hope. Soon, the refugees made temporary shelters into permanent ones.
Gaza is cut off, geographically and culturally, from the West Bank. The conditions of occupation of the Palestinians in Gaza have often led them to seek liberation. “During the Intifada,” Manal recalled, “Rabin said he wished Gaza would fall into the sea.” Just 360 square kilometers, 40% of which are Jewish settlements, Gaza holds about 1,000,000 Palestinians. Overpopulated and surrounded by natural and military fences–between the sea, Israel, and Egypt–Gaza has been described by its inhabitants as a kind of prison, surrounded by electrified fences and military checkpoints.
Manal recalled the stories of fellow Birzeit students from Gaza who had suffered under long curfews during the Intifada. One reminisced: “It was nice to have a big family, because during curfew you were quarantined to your house and at least you had someone to play with. I remember during curfew we used to play, divide ourselves into two groups, an Israeli soldier group and a Palestinian group. And we collected all the shoes in the home and threw them at each other. It was very tough, a lot of us got injured at time. We tried to make it real. Israeli soldiers hurt you a lot, and we wanted to make the soldiers hurt back. Everyone took a turn on each side. We didn’t think much about it, but really we didn’t imagine any other way to play.”
The Intifada made aspirations for higher education almost impossible. “During the Intifada, we could not plan anything,” one student from Gaza recalled. “Every day someone you knew was injured, schools were closed, and during curfews you couldn’t leave your house. Often Israeli troops would search the house and intimidate people physically.” And yet, many students from Gaza have chosen to go to Birzeit, because it is the most highly acclaimed Palestinian university, in order to further their studies. Such an endeavor is not easy, however.
Students from Gaza are regularly denied permits to study at Birzeit. When a friend of Manal’s from Gaza arrived at Birzeit, he was told that he could legally obtain a residence permit to remain in the West Bank “next week;” four years later, he graduated without seeing the day when he could obtain a permit either to stay or to visit his family in Gaza—about 40 miles away. “It was very unsafe to live there,” Manal’s colleague recalled. “When I think about it now, I can’t imagine how I lived through it. In the first year, I lived in an ancient house set in a cliff; there was fungus everywhere. We lived there because it was far from the town and if Israeli soldiers came, they might not find us and throw us in prison. We lived in the mountains, never put lights on. It was miserable. Many Gaza students wanted to rent this place. We cooked with these tiny stoves, and smoke would cover everything…. Once, the Israeli soldiers arrested all the students—American, Israeli, Palestinian—and in prison separated the Gaza students. Even now, it is not safe for Gaza students to live in the West Bank.”
Even though Gaza students initially could return to visit their families, after 1994, it became impossible when checkpoints between Gaza and the West Bank tightened. Some students are forced to undergo a costly and time-consuming journey from Gaza—crossing the border into Egypt, flying to Jordan and then flying to the West Bank—just to return to classes at Birzeit.
Between March 1996 and January 1998, over 1,500 students from Gaza registered at West Bank universities were prohibited from traveling to their place of study because of the Israeli government’s arbitrary denial of travel and residence permits. Currently, hundreds of Gaza students are studying “illegally,” living under the constant threat of arrest, detention, and deportation. In the face of such obstacles, many have abandoned their studies.
Why is it so difficult for Gaza students to get permits to study in the West Bank? According to the Birzeit website and B’Tselem, Israel has never established clear regulations for the permit application process, which is excessively bureaucratic. One answer is that Israel assumes all people from Gaza people are terrorist suspects, guilty until proven innocent. (Indeed, during an interview with the BBC in 1997, a spokesman for Benjamin Netanyahu said that “not a single Gaza student could be allowed to study in the West Bank, since the students ‘meet the profile of terrorists'”). Manal believes that “they always say [their actions are] for security reasons. But by prohibiting people from studying, you prohibit the society from growing, from developing, creating the condition for despair and ignorance.”
At the end of our conversation, I asked what Manal tells Americans who don’t know about the difficulties and struggle of the Palestinian people. Manal replied that she wanted people to know about the daily violation of the human rights of Palestinians. “I am sure we are causing some trouble to Israel, but they are causing a lot of trouble to us. For us, they are the source of trouble…. If you put someone under military rule for 27 years, you don’t expect them to stay silent. The problem is that Americans never hear what Israelis do, they only hear what Palestinians do in response, and usually incorrectly…. People also hear about “security,” but it’s not even safer for [Israelis], because if you just press and press and press on people, what safety is that? They will one day just explode.”