The Israeli authorities increasingly are refusing to issue work permits for foreign academics who work in Palestinian universities in the occupied West Bank, education officials and human rights organizations say. Some 32 foreign and Palestinian professors and lecturers with foreign passports working at eight Palestinian universities have been subjected to Israeli restrictions on visas to enter or stay in the Palestinian territories, according to a study published last year by the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education.
Professors, university officials and human rights activists have protested that Israel’s seemingly arbitrary actions over the past three years are aimed at harming Palestinian academic life.
“Blocking our right to engage international academics is part of an ongoing effort by the Israeli occupation to marginalize Palestinian institutions of higher education,” Birzeit University’s president, Abdullatif Abuhijleh, said in a statement issued by the university and two human-rights organizations. “The latest escalation in visa restrictions is just one in a longstanding and systematic Israeli policy of undermining the independence and viability of Palestinian higher-education institutions,” he added.
There are about 50 licensed higher-education institutions in the West Bank and Gaza, including universities and colleges, with more than 216,000 students.
Rana Barakat, an assistant professor of history and contemporary Arab studies at Birzeit University who holds U.S. citizenship, believes that the Israeli restrictions are deliberately harmful to academic institutions. “This is one of the many measures used by the Israelis to further marginalize the Palestinian education life,” she said. “This is a clear violation of academic freedom and a means of further hampering the work of the university.”
Barakat received a fellowship to serve as an Arcapita visiting professor at Columbia University, in New York, in the second semester of 2019, but this opportunity turned into a dilemma. She has been seeking to extend her residency visa in Palestine for the past 18 months, so far without luck.
“I am afraid that I will not be allowed to return to Birzeit University if I leave before I can extend my current residency visa,” she said, noting that the Israeli authorities refused to extend her visa without giving any reasons.
Barakat is not alone in facing such treatment. Her colleague Roger Heacock, a professor of history at Birzeit for 35 years, and his wife, Laura Wick, a health researcher, had to leave the country last year. After the couple traveled on a short trip abroad while having valid work visas, the Israeli immigration officers gave them tourist visas, valid for only three weeks, upon their return. They were told that the visas could be renewed at the Israeli military coordination office in Ramallah. However, that never happened and the couple’s request was not answered.
They left, Heacock said, because their stay was illegal, which would make it easier for the Israeli authorities to accuse them of violating procedures. “These measures are aimed at obstructing the work of Palestinian universities and preventing their progress and success,” he said.
Seemingly Arbitrary Decisions
Israeli officials say there has been no change in the procedures for entry into the Palestinian territories. “Officially, we don’t have any change in our policy,” a security force spokeswoman said in a telephone interview.
“Every case is checked individually,” she added. “We heard from journalists that a lawyer had sent a letter to the administration [Co-ordination of Government Activities in the Territories] complaining that foreign academics don’t get visas. We didn’t get that letter.”
The spokeswoman explained that foreign academics “need to show their contract with the university, and as long as there isn’t any issue, they get a visa. There isn’t a new policy.”
However, human rights groups say there has been a sharp rise in the number of academics who have been prevented from renewing their stay or returning from abroad.
According to the Right to Enter campaign, which has monitored entry and visa procedures for foreign nationals for more than a decade, there has been a marked escalation in visa rejections and a tightening of restrictions since at least mid-2016. Restrictions include the denial of entry to the West Bank, rejection of visa extension applications, delays in applications for visa extensions beyond the expiration of those visas, and arbitrary decisions to issue short-term visas only, sometimes ranging from two to three months only.
For example, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, which is affiliated with Birzeit University and has multiple sites around the occupied Palestinian territories, reported a 200 percent increase in visa rejections over the past two academic years alone, the university said in a news article.
In the 2017–18 academic year, four out of 20 international faculty members were denied visa extensions or entry visas, and in 2018–19, eight out of 19 international faculty members were refused entry visas.
During the same period, four foreign full-time lecturers at Birzeit University and three part-time lecturers were forced to leave the country after the Israeli authorities refused to renew their visas.
This year, Israel denied entry visas to two foreign academics who had contracts with Birzeit University, the university said. No foreign faculty members, except those directly employed in programs sponsored by foreign governments, have been issued visas covering the entire duration of their contracts with the university during the 2018–19 academic year.
The Israeli authorities’ refusal to renew work permits and the absence of clear procedures for issuing entry and residency visas cause many academics to hesitate to work in Palestinian universities. They do not have guarantees that they can travel to the Palestinian universities that they contract with, to reside in the Palestinian territories for the duration of their academic contracts, or to return if they travel abroad for academic or personal reasons.
For example, six foreign lecturers at Birzeit are still working full-time without valid visas after they were hired to teach during the 2018–19 academic year, the university said. Five others, including a head of a department, are outside the country and don’t know if they will be able to return and obtain the visas they need to stay in the country during the next academic year.
Steps to Confrontation
Birzeit University and the human rights organizations Adalah and Al-Haq are seeking to stop the arbitrary policy of the Israeli authorities against foreign academics and Palestinians with foreign nationalities. Late in April, these institutions sent a letter to a number of Israeli officials demanding that Israel lift the restrictions preventing international academics employed by Birzeit University from staying and working in the West Bank.
The letter also called on the Israeli authorities to “refrain from imposing arbitrary restrictions on the stay of these foreign academics or the extension of their stay” and to publish “a clear and lawful procedure for issuing entry visas and work permits for international academics in the West Bank, similar to the procedure that exists for Israeli institutions of higher education that seek to hire foreign lecturers or researchers.”
In a summary of its arguments, the letter “demands that Birzeit University be allowed to employ foreign academics from abroad, without impediment or restriction, in order to enable the university to independently exercise its academic freedom and conduct higher education in a proper and orderly way.”
“Like all other peoples around the world, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have the right to exercise their right to academic freedom and quality education in the context of their right to self-determination,” said Sawsan Zaher, deputy director general of Adalah. “Israel’s long-term military occupation cannot prevent Palestinians from exercising this right.”
Birzeit and the two human rights groups also seek to communicate with representatives of foreign countries and representatives of humanitarian, legal and academic organizations to present the case and take legal action.
“The university has the right to bring in foreign professors and students, and the right to obtain visas for them like the case for university workers around the world,” said Ghassan al-Khatib, a Birzeit University professor who is in charge of following up on the case. “The prevention of Palestinian universities to benefit from academics negatively affects the quality of education,” he added, pointing out that some disciplines, such as teaching foreign languages like Chinese, Spanish and German, cannot rely solely on local expertise.
Still, there seems to be no prospect of change coming soon.
“It is clear that the Israelis are taking these measures as part of their conflict with the Palestinians, where they hinder all forms of development,” said Heacock. “I think the Israeli settlement project in the West Bank is the driving force behind these harsh policies: preventing others from living in the Israeli area.”
Amit Gilutz, a spokesman for the Israeli human-rights organization B’Tselem, also criticized the denial of entry visas to professors at Birzeit University as “exemplary of the extent to which Israel controls every aspect of life in the occupied territories, and how it uses its control to fragment Palestinian society and erode its institutions.” He added: “One should consider such incidents the next time Israel boasts its so-called ‘vibrant democracy’ and the alleged academic freedom that it entails.”
Edward Fox contributed to this article.