International organisations are stepping up pressure against Israeli restrictions that would hurt Palestinian universities by limiting their ability to recruit foreign professors and students.
The Israeli directive, issued in February, was scheduled to go in force this month, but Israel has delayed putting it into effect until July in response to objections raised by an Israeli human-rights organisation, The Jerusalem Post reported.
The Israeli group, HaMoked, has threatened legal action against the restrictions. But Israel has also come under pressure from other organisations that advocate for education rights and academic freedom, including Scholars at Risk and the Middle East Studies Association of North America.
“SAR is deeply concerned that the directive, if put in place, will substantially harm the Palestinian and international academic communities.”Robert Quinn Executive director of Scholars at Risk
Scholars at Risk, an international network of institutions and individuals whose mission is to protect scholars and promote academic freedom, expressed its concern over the restrictions in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
“The Israeli government directive will severely restrict international scholars’ and students’ travel to and work in the West Bank,” said the letter, which was dated April 27 and signed by the organisation’s executive director, Robert Quinn.
Scholars at Risk is deeply concerned that the directive “will substantially harm the Palestinian and international academic communities,” he wrote.
The letter cited several specific restrictions in the directive as cause for concern. Among them are a plan to set a quota on the number of foreign faculty and students who could study and conduct research long-term at universities in the West Bank.
The letter also protested a proposal to limit permits for independent research to scholars who already have a doctorate and are older than 25. This would arbitrarily eliminate opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students who are not affiliated with universities in the West Bank to conduct independent research there, it said.
Quinn described these and other provisions of the directive “vague, overbroad, and incomplete.”
In particular, he expressed concern over the lack of clarity concerning the role of a unit within Israel’s Defense Ministry that would be in charge of enforcing the directive, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT.
For example, the directive gives COGAT authority to review foreign lecturers’ and researchers’ permit applications, Quinn wrote. But it “does not indicate the qualifications of COGAT officials to assess scholars’ work” and does not specify the process or timing of COGAT’s reviews.
“The burdensome requirements and restrictions imposed by the directive endanger international relationships and academic work that are crucial to the scientific, political, economic, and social progress of Palestinian universities.”Daniel Munier Senior program officer for advocacy at Scholars at Risk
Provisions such as these, Quinn wrote, “raise serious concerns that applicants may be reviewed in an opaque and potentially arbitrary and inconsistent manner and that Palestinian higher education institutions will be severely impaired in their ability to recruit scholars.”
A Reminder to Israel
Daniel Munier, senior program officer for advocacy at Scholars at Risk, also criticised “the burdensome requirements and restrictions imposed by the directive,” saying they “endanger international relationships and academic work that are crucial to the scientific, political, economic, and social progress that universities bring about.”
In an email to Al-Fanar Media, Munier said: “We write to express our solidarity with members of the Palestinian higher education community, letting them know that we stand with them and will not let attacks and pressures on academic freedom like this go unnoticed.”
The organisation’s letter is a reminder to Israel that it is obligated under international law “to refrain from actions or policies that restrict academic freedom and the right to education,” Munier said.
In the letter, Quinn mentioned several ways in which the directive might harm Palestinian higher education.
Scholars currently employed at Palestinian universities would be at risk of being forced to depart, he wrote, “upending courses and research projects that implicate hundreds, if not thousands, of local students and scholars.”
Palestinian universities would likely struggle to fill those vacancies, he said, further disrupting teaching and research.
A Strong Condemnation from MESA
The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) also protested the Israeli directive in a letter to Prime Minister Bennett and other Israeli officials.
“We condemn this proposed policy in the strongest terms as a clear escalation of the persistent efforts of your government to deny Palestinians the right to education.”Eve Troutt Powell President of the Middle East Studies Association of North America
“The policy vests the Israeli military with the unilateral power to select and exclude international faculty, academic researchers, and students who wish to teach, study, and conduct research at Palestinian universities,” Eve Troutt Powell, MESA’s president, wrote on behalf of the association’s Committee on Academic Freedom.
She added that MESA regards this as “both an attempt to isolate Palestinian scholars and students from the international scholarly community and a form of censorship aimed at constraining the freedom of speech and association of international academics and students by denying them access to and engagement with Palestinian scholars and students, as well as professional and educational opportunities at Palestinian universities.”
She continued: “We condemn this proposed policy in the strongest terms as a clear escalation of the persistent efforts of your government to deny Palestinians the right to education.”
Palestine’s Paths of Resistance
Palestinian educators welcomed the international expressions of support.
“The academic community, especially in Europe and the United States, is sympathetic to the Palestinian universities affected by the decision,” Ghassan Khatib, vice president for advancement at Birzeit University, wrote to Al-Fanar Media. “I think that their solidarity and statements help a lot.”
The Palestinian academic community is working to resist the Israeli restrictions in three ways, Khatib said. Gaining statements of solidarity from international organisations that put pressure on Israel is one of them.
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A second path of resistance “is to conduct diplomatic contacts with representatives of European countries, especially those whose nationals are professors at the university,” Khatib added.
“The third is through a legal path to refuting the decision,” he said. “This is handled by Adalah, an institution concerned with legal issues for Arabs in Israel.”