The denial of unhindered access to education is one of the untold stories of the suffering of Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank.
While thousands of students in higher education are delayed in attending lectures, or miss them altogether due to Israel’s military checkpoints in the West Bank, their counterparts in Gaza are unable to register or travel to the same universities. In some cases, Gaza students have had their studies put on hold for more than 12 years because they have been denied access to the West Bank.
Berlanti Azzam, 25, was held in October 2009 at the Container military checkpoint in Bethlehem for 6 hours before being blindfolded and “deported” to the Gaza Strip through the Erez Crossing. The only reason given by the Israeli officer responsible is that she is from Gaza. It was a huge shock because she was within two months of graduating when she was taken away.
Fatima al-Sharif, a master’s degree student, was refused when she applied for permission to leave Gaza to go to her university in the occupied West Bank. Despite many petitions to the Israeli Supreme Court by human rights organisations, many other students from Gaza have been either deported or denied permits to enrol at West Bank universities, or finish courses that they have already started. To-date, all such petitions have been ignored by the court.
Human Rights activists say that the Israelis do not have valid reasons to justify banning students. “They always attribute their action to the existence of a comprehensive travel ban,” alleged Gisha, the Israeli Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement.
Since 2000, Israel has prevented students from Gaza from studying in the West Bank, claiming that they fit a “risk profile”. In 2007, the Israeli government followed the recommendations of the Supreme Court to give permission to some students to travel, but the granting of permission has been fairly arbitrary.
Recently, however, Gisha and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Al Mezan, submitted a joint petition to the Israeli Supreme Court asking for the military to be questioned over its justification for the ban on Gaza students travelling to and studying in the West Bank. On this occasion, the Supreme Court took action and asked the state to update the court, within 45 days, on whether or not it will reverse its blanket refusal to allow Master’s degree students to go from Gaza to the West Bank.
“The court’s decision,” said Al Mezan Director General Issam Younis, “is an encouraging step towards ending the arbitrary and collective punishment of students from the Gaza Strip, and enabling them to have access to Palestinian universities in the West Bank.”
Human Rights activists say that the comprehensive travel ban violates Israeli obligations as an occupying power under international law, as well as Israel’s commitment as a signatory of the Oslo Accords to respect the integrity of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as a single territorial unit.
Even though the right to education is a basic human right, this has been denied to many Palestinian students by Israeli policies in yet another example of Israel’s violation of international laws and conventions.