The first weeks in September welcomes the beginning of semester for students around the world. After your summer vacation, you may be wondering whether the sacrifices you make to go to university- waking up early, attending boring lectures, missing out on chilling with your friends- is all really that worth it (especially with ever-rising tuition fees, and a more competitive labor market).
Last year I travelled to the West Bank. After just over a month of living and doing an internship at Alternative Tourism Group, I attended the first ever University Level International Model United Nations Conference in Palestine. Students from Al-Quds University (University of Jerusalem) got together students from around the world to discuss the big questions facing the international community. On the morning of the second day of some of the most engaging MUN sessions I have ever experienced, much of our committee was late. After about 15 minutes, the international and local delegates, all dressed in their finest formal attire, bundles into committee session. Their eyes were bloodshot and streaming, they were gasping for breath, and all, evidently traumatized by the experience, were fraught with shock.
What I later learnt was that some IDF soldiers had blocked our committee from entering Al-Quds university campus, before firing tear gas on them. It was only then that I began to notice many things across the campus which I had ignored since then. The most visually and intellectually oppressive is the partition wall. A a 5-meter cement python, obstinately constricting all students and professors at Al-Quds campus in Abu Dies. If the horizon oppresses, then look to the sky for the freedom. Not for at this university, where students are under 24-hour supervision by an Israeli surveillance blimp that resembles an aerial panopticon. All this just within the university campus.
Another time, travelling to from Bethlehem to Hebron University, got talking to a group of 4 female students all heading to their morning lectures. As we cruised along in our shared taxi, we passed illegal Israeli settlements, and local Palestinian communities successively. The former were almost always guarded by a dozen or so IDF soldiers, and the latter signaled by huge red signs propagating the misinformation that the local Palestinians are dangerous. I asked thee young lady I was sitting next to (who was just beginning her final year in chemistry) how long it takes to travel to university every day- a journey of no more than 25 km. At best, it takes around 45 minutes, but can last hours, depending on whether the IDF decide to put up a temporary checkpoint. As Foucault famously argued, it is not the continued physical presence of brute force that is oppresses, but the ever present possibility of one’s day-to-day life being disrupted by unexpected acts of force.
Another way the occupation affects students is the difficulty maintaining upholding attendance rate. Checkpoints are the least of worries. You could lose sleep on nights where IDF soldiers are combing the town making arrests. You could be arrested, and tossed between Israeli and Palestinian prisons for merely affiliating with a political party or expressing your political opinions. Psychologically, the trauma school are children exposed through recurrent acts of oppression, fear, and violence, is often permanent. Last year we visited a summer school in Jenin refugee camp. Despite us being welcomed with such joyous acts as 30 students singing and clapping in unison, teachers informed us that many students have behavioral issues, and are debilitatingly fearful of loud noises. Their grades may deteriorate and their behavior, relationships, and world view are forever changed. Soldiers may also publicly beat rude students on the way to school or university in order to dominate, humiliate, and scare them out of the country. The secret services often try to recruit school and university students, using them as spies for any perceived political activities in the area. They are lured with things like money, sex, or threats not to let their parents get a permit to pray in Jerusalem. They use the spies for a while, but resort to extortion and expose them if they do not bring enough information.
Educational traveling opportunities are more expensive and tiresome. If they want to travel abroad, Palestinians living in the West Bank must enter Jordan across the Allenby Bridge. Many young men are held up for hours being interrogated by the secret services about their political views and activities. This deters students from physically participating in international events.
Not many people know that there are even universities in the West Bank. Why would people worry about educating themselves in a war zone? Surely there are more important things to worry about that studying some academic subject in such a situation. In fact, Palestinians place great value on education, not only for their intellectual and spiritual development, but also to resist the occupation. Palestine in fact has some of the highest rates of education in the entire region. With a diaspora estimated at around 6 million, many Palestinians regard education as an internationally-recognized asset. During my time in Beit Sahour, a small town on the outskirts of Bethlehem, many people I met had lived abroad, and had highly-educated family relations across the world. Although going into diaspora had been forced upon them 60 years ago, Palestinians still value education as a means to make the most out of this situation.
Why should we care about the lives of students in the West Bank? First, appreciation. In Europe, especially with the increasing financial burden placed on students, going to university may seem burdensome. Reflecting on Palestinian student life shows how strongly the empowering potential of higher education can overcome the obstacles the occupation has on West Bank students. Second, solidarity. Students have an incredible power to unite across disciplines, social groups, and international borders. An increased understanding of the struggles experienced by Palestinian students, and their achievements despite these struggles is one of the strongest ways to seek justice for over 60 years of occupation. Student solidarity means reaching out to Palestinian student bodies and universities when organizing conferences. Having Palestinian student delegations at events such as the Jessup international Moot Court Competition, or international MUN conferences means recognizing the equality of Palestinian students with all other students around the world.