Israel Bars New Palestinian Students From its Universities, Citing Concern over Security
Anata, West Bank — Sawsan Salameh, a Palestinian from the West Bank, was thrilled to get a full scholarship from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to begin a doctorate in theoretical chemistry.
But a recent move by the Israeli Army to ban new Palestinian students from Israeli universities for security reasons is keeping her from studying at the campus, just two miles from her home. “The first time I applied for a permit I was rejected,” said Ms. Salameh, 29, a Muslim wearing a firmly fastened head scarf and a black denim skirt that skimmed the floor. “I was shocked, because I thought there must be some kind of mistake, so I kept trying. I kept hoping.” Her situation is familiar to many Palestinians whose freedom of movement has been limited in recent years because of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ms. Salameh said that after she appealed six times to the Israeli government agency that handles Palestinian affairs, she decided to turn to the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, Gisha, an Israeli group that is an advocate for Palestinian rights, submitted a petition on her behalf to the court, calling the ban illegal. “Gisha calls upon Israel not to prevent Palestinian students from studying just because they are Palestinian,” said the group’s director, Sari Bashi. “No one should be denied access to education based on his or her national identity.” The practice of reviewing student permits has been in effect since 2001, the last time any new Palestinian student was granted a permit, officials said. But before the outright ban began this summer, the army reviewed requests case by case, something it says it will not do now. Gisha is asking that individual reviews be restored.
The official ban comes before the beginning of the Israeli academic year at the end of October. But in effect it dates from the Palestinian uprising that began in the fall of 2000, when the security situation began to deteriorate, said Lt. Adam Avidan, a spokesman for civil administration in the West Bank.
Hebrew University was the scene of a suicide bombing in July 2002, when a Palestinian blew himself up in a student cafeteria, killing seven people.
The Defense Ministry said it was giving the student permit matter special attention, and Israeli officials said they needed to balance the country’s security needs with what they described as the understandable desire of Palestinians to receive an education.
Currently 14 Palestinians, all of whom received permits during or before 2001, are students at Israeli universities, Lieutenant Avidan said. They will be allowed to continue their studies. And university records suggest that a small number of students may have been allowed to trickle in beyond that number, Ms. Bashi said.
Like Ms. Salameh, most of the students came to Israel seeking doctorates because there are no doctoral programs at Palestinian universities.
Palestinians who have money or receive fellowships tend to study abroad for doctorates. But for those without financial support it is an impossible dream, and women who come from traditional Muslim homes are often forbidden by their families to live abroad alone.
No figures are available for how many Palestinians studied in Israel in past years, but Israeli officials and Palestinian rights advocates say there appear to have been a higher number before the mid-1990’s, when travel restrictions began to be imposed.
Dr. Suheil Ayesh, 43, from the Gaza Strip is among the Palestinians who received a master’s degree and a Ph.D. at Hebrew University. He is now a visiting professor of molecular biology and gene therapy there and divides his time between Jerusalem and Gaza.
He is authorized to enter Israel only by permit, which he must renew every month.
He is the only Palestinian professor teaching at an Israeli university, he said. Like many other Israeli and Palestinian academics, he is disheartened by the ban, which will make it difficult for future generations of Palestinians to do what he has been able to accomplish: get a quality education, forge ties with Israelis and contribute to a future Palestinian state. “It’s difficult and confusing,” Dr. Ayesh said. “The physical distance between us is a very small one, and cooperation can be so helpful.”
Dr. Raphael Levine, the Hebrew University chemistry professor who accepted Ms. Salameh as his student, said he understood Israel’s security concerns but was baffled by the ban. “I think it is in Israel’s interest to strengthen the Palestinian middle class, and strengthening academic institutions in Palestinian areas is one sure way of achieving that,” he said. “There is a Jewish tradition in which value is put on learning; Mr. Ben-Gurion said he wanted Israel to be a shining light to all nations,” he said, referring to Israel’s first prime minister. “You have to deliver on these things.” “Both by sentiment and cold practicality, it is not in our interest to act like this,” Dr. Levine said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he is teaching at the University of California.
Meanwhile, Ms. Salameh, a high school science teacher, continues her life in Anata. She attends meetings as an elected member of the municipal council and is working to set up the village’s first women’s center.
She longs to begin work on her doctorate and one day become a role model for other Palestinian women and girls as the first woman to be a Palestinian professor of chemistry in the West Bank.
She compared her quest to chemistry. “You have to look for a long time to get answers,” she said. “It is not a direct process. You have to be patient, and therefore I will be patient. I won’t give up.”