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Academics appeal for West Bank education rights

Polly Curtis
Tuesday July 30, 2002

An international group of distinguished academics - including the philosopher Jacques Derrida and Hilary and Steven Rose - have signed up to an appeal to support students' right to education at Birzeit University on the West Bank.

The appeal comes after the university was, for the first time in its history, entered by Israeli forces on Saturday.

According to the university's head of external relations, three Israeli Army vehicles entered the gates on Saturday in what, she said, amounted to a "clear violation" of international law.

"By chance the university president was nearby as the troops entered. He stood in front of the jeep to stop them getting to the administration building, there was a severe exchange and then they left. He asked if they had military orders, he was sure that they hadn't.

"This has never happened before. We don't know whether it was on the soldiers own accord or not, but it was a clear violation," Riham Barghouti told

She added there was concern within the university that the visit was a warning of things to come. The university is taking the issue up with international organisations, including UNESCO, which deal with violations to human rights and academic freedoms.

Since March 2001, roadblocks have severely restricted the movement of staff and students in and out of the university. Since April this year, curfews in Ramallah, eight miles away from the university's campus, have caused further disruptions. Ms Barghouti explained that the university had been taking special measures to ensure its 5,000 students and 700 staff complete the semester's work - already two months overdue - despite the curfew and road blocks.

Students and staff are increasingly living on campus, and distance learning is being developed for those with internet access.

"Birzeit has limited resources but this has become the priority, without it [internet access] the university would collapse," Ms Barghouti said. She added that the distance learning and development of internet communications as an emergency measure was also adding to the long term development of the university's IT capacity.

The road from Ramallah leads to the University and 27 small villages. University insiders are convinced that the sole purpose of the roadblocks is to disrupt the workings of the university. Last October students demonstrating at a roadblock were shot at with rubber bullets by Israeli soldiers.

A distinguished list of academics, writers and artists this month signed an appeal for support of academic freedom at the university. The effect of the curfew and road blocks put the "future of the university at grave risk", according to the appeal.

"We believe that these measures, resulting in the virtual strangulation of a major Palestinian institution, violate international humanitarian law, including provisions against collective punishment and guarantees for the protection of civilian populations under military occupation, students' right to education, academic freedom, and the fundamental rights of human beings to live in dignity and freedom," it concludes.

It calls for immediate action from the Israelis to "restore the right of education to Birzeit University students" by removing road blocks and curfews, and for the international community to "assume its responsibility under humanitarian law by taking real and concrete steps to provide protection to the Palestinian civilian population".

The appeal is signed by 32 academics and artists from 12 countries, including Steven and Hilary Rose, who were at the centre of the debate over an academic boycott in the UK.

Ms Barghouti said of the appeal: "It's of utmost importance to have international support. It's important that everyone has the right to education, but it also creates an alternate image of who we are and what we're trying to do as Palestinians and academics."

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09.07.2002: Students attack Israel boycott
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25.06.2002: Israelis under fire

22.07.2002: The gesture politics of an Israel boycott
17.07.2002: Watch who you call Nazis
09.07.2002: Leader: Contact with Israel is the better way
19.07.2002: No return
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05.03.2002: And still we rise

Talk about it
Have your say on the academic boycott

23.07.2002: 'One-sided and unworthy of serious attention'
23.07.2002: 'We will not do business as usual with a racist state'
17.07.2002: More splits over the academic boycott of Israel
11.07.2002: Ethics and academic boycotts
09.07.2002: Divisions on the boycott
Useful links
Right to education campaign

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UP Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002