The Islamic University and Palestinian Polytechnic Institution, both located in Hebron, were closed by the Israeli army in mid-January. According to official government statements, this action was taken in response to the recent twin suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that left 24 people dead and more than 100 wounded. Despite the fact that Israeli authorities have reported no tangible link between individuals or student groups at these institutions and the radical group responsible for the recent Tel Aviv bombing, three more Palestinian universities including Bir Zeit and Nablus' Al-Najah, both in the West bank, stand slated for closure.
Outspoken activist and writer Ali Abunimah runs a Web site called the Electronic Intifada. The site, which is becoming a must-read for anyone interested in daily summaries of the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict from global perspectives. The articulate Abunimah characterizes the Israeli government's recent closure of the Hebron universities as symptomatic of the systemic erosion of Palestinian civil rights.
Did Israel take this same sort of action during the first Intifada?
Yes. Israel used, as a matter of policy, the closing Palestinian schools and universities. In fact, most of the Palestinian educational system was shut down for three years. If you think of three years in terms of the development of a child, that is an eternity.
What was the reaction of the Palestinian population?
One of the main features during the first Intifada was that people began organizing a clandestine educational system, holding classes in basements and homes. This too was an illegal activity and the authorities did attempt to stop people these gatherings - to stop people from simply trying to educate their children. I know this is unimaginable since the right of parents to educate their children is a fundamental constitutional right here in the U.S.
What would you say is the fundamental difference between this and the first Intifada?
In this Intifada, we've seen the brunt of the violence falling on Palestinian children. Hundreds have been killed, thousands injured, and, in many cases, this has occurred to children going to or coming home from school. They are being shot, killed, schools are being tear gassed, shelled, and bombed, or occupied. Schools are being taken over by the army and used as prisons. We've seen universities being raided, university presidents being shut out of their offices and now we're seeing entire universities shut down again. We are seeing a repeat in terms of policy that Israel has executed in the past and it is intensifying.
Initially, weren't the universities that were shut down were named as Bir Zeit and Nablus' Al-Najah, not the two in Hebron that were recently closed?
The official statement wasn't clear. They initially said that they were going to close three universities and at first they named Bir Zeit, often called the Harvard of the West Bank, and Najah University in Nablus, the largest university in the West Bank. Now in practice, both of those universities already have had a hard time functioning because of the intensifying military occupation of the area.
Because of checkpoints and the like?
Yes, but more so do to other factors. Most of the population is already under curfew. Nablus has been under permanent curfew for over nine months now, which means if you step outside your home, you risk being shot dead. And many people have been shot dead for doing just that- for violation the military curfew. The vast majority - some 75 to 80 percent of the population - in the Occupied Territories, the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem are under the age of 35. Israel recently issued a military order saying that no one under the age of 35 can travel outside of their home area. That means that the vast majority of the Palestinian population is banned from traveling. This particularly effects students and young people. They can't travel, can't leave their villages, their homes. Getting an education becomes and impossible task even if, formally speaking, the school or university they attend is still open. All Nablus universities have already been subject to these conditions.
In the case of the two closed colleges in Hebron, and using its lurid language, the authorities have claimed that these places are nests of terror.
I am looking into claims that alleged suicide bombers attended these two universities, but so far the only link I have found is the fact that one of the alleged bombers attended a tile making class at one of the universities. And this is a justification for closing the university? It's guilt by association. In any university, you have the entire population represented. Any institution is a reflection of the society its in. And in this case, the entire population is being punished and brutalized for the actions of a few. So the whole population is placed under curfew, universities are shut down, dozens of homes are demolished on a daily basis rendering entire extended families homeless every day. These are people who, for the most part, have not lifted a finger in violence but are resisting the occupation by simply trying to get on with their lives peacefully, despite the substantial obstacles placed before them . All of this is symptomatic of a very deliberate policy designed to make the entire civilian population suffer.
What, if anything, has been the reaction of the international community concerning the closing of universities? There is a debate going on in Paris regarding a statement issued by Parisian intellectuals that seems to be drawing a huge of amount of backlash.
That statement issued by the University of Paris actually preceded the shut down of the two universities in Hebron, but was responding to the intensifying campaign against Palestinian educational institutions. The fact is, Palestinian academics are not free to travel, not free to participate in conferences with their peers, not free to research and publish, not free to teach their students. Israel is preventing Palestinian academics from learning. The University of Paris decree simply questioned why the European Union continues to fund Israeli universities while Israel is busy destroying Palestinian universities. The uproar about this statement came at just about the same time as the Hebron university closures, with apologists for Israel saying that the French university is anti-academic and anti-intellectual freedom for calling on the EU to stop funding Israeli universities. But those same people had absolutely nothing to say about the fact that Israel is sending jack-booted, heavily armed troops to weld shut the doors of Palestinian universities, not to mention all the other measures we've already talked about.
Does that action, the closure of institutions of higher learning violate any specific international law?
Israel is a totalitarian, military dictatorship, absolutely the worst form of tyranny known to us, which invades every aspect of life, including education. This reality is very difficult for people in America to even imagine.The fourth Geneva Convention outlaws all of the methods of collective punishment currently utilized by the Israeli government against the Palestinian people - outlaws the banning of education, the banning of religious freedom. All of Israel's actions in the Occupied Territories clearly violate the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their policy is nothing short of a deliberate, targeted devastation of Palestinian civil society.
Did Israel ratify the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
Yes. Not only did Israel ratify it, but the United States and 15 other countries are what are called high contracting parties. Those high contracting parties have undertaken an oath and the duty, not just to abide by the Convention themselves, but to enforce them in the event of a breech. Instead of doing that, the U.S. is actually funding, facilitating andsupporting Israel in what, under mutually recognized international law, constitutes as war crimes. •