How Apartheid Israel stifles Palestinian education and scientific research

David Kattenburg

Mondoweiss  /  October 8, 2021

“Doing science in Palestine is something like a miracle, if you manage to do science.”

An educated citizenry and advanced scientific research capacity are key drivers of sovereign national development.

No one knows this better than “Start-Up” Israel. According to one recent estimate, Israel has the third most educated population in the world (behind Canada and Japan).

As for the five million Palestinians living under permanent belligerent Israeli rule and presumptive apartheid, Israel honors this truth in the breach — systematically impeding Palestinian access to education, and the ability of Palestinian scientists to carry out research.

It’s a policy with deep roots. In a recent Ha’aretz piece, Adam Raz, from the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, cites a pair of recently declassified documents. “The Arab sector must be kept as low as possible, so that nothing will happen,” said police commissioner Yosef Nachmias, at a February 1960 meeting of Israeli security chiefs.

“As long as they’re half-educated, I’m not worried,” said Shin Bet chief Amos Manor. Traditional “Arab” social structures needed to be supported, Manor elaborated, in order to “[slow] the pace of progress and development.”

At the same time, Manor pointed out, “Revolutions are fomented not by the proletariat, but by a fattened intelligentsia.” With this in mind, he advised that “all the laws must be applied, even if they are not pleasant,” and that “illegal means should be considered [by the authorities] only when there is no choice, and even then – only on condition: that there are good results.”

Manor was likely referring to Israeli domestic laws that could be used to oppress Palestinian intellectuals. He may also have had international law in mind, that would need to be flaunted. As a UN member state, Israel was obliged to abide by provisions of the 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteeing the right to education.

“Everyone has the right to education,” Article 26 of the Universal Declaration states. “Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

Six years after Manor’s comments, Israel was among the first to initial the International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights, formally acceding to the Covenant in 1991. Following its 1967 conquest of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, however, Israel took the position that the Covenant did not apply there. They lie outside sovereign Israeli territory, Israel argued, all the while extending Covenant rights to Jewish settlers in the West Bank. (Israel takes the same position on the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights).

What are those Covenant rights? Article 13(1) of the Covenant states: “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education.” Article 13(2)(c) states: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means…” And, Article 15(3) states: “The State Parties to the present Covenant undertake to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity.”

The UN committee responsible for administering the Covenant has taken Israel to task for its refusal to extend Covenant rights to Palestinians. In its November 2019 “Concluding Observations” on Israel’s 4th Periodic Report, the Committee expressed concern about the “restricted access of [Palestinian] students to education,” the “frequent demolition of school buildings and the confiscation of school premises,” “armed or non-armed searches of Palestinian schools, and the “frequent incidence of harassment of or threats against students and teachers by security forces or Israeli settlers at checkpoints or along roads, which particularly impedes female students.”

The UN committee also expressed concern about “the blanket ban on education in the West Bank imposed since 2014 on students from the Gaza Strip,” and “the serious impact of [Israel’s] dual-use list on the ability of students in the Gaza Strip to enjoy their right to education, particularly in the fields of science and engineering”

These comments are echoed by Palestinian scientists. A recent, dramatic case in point: Professor Imad Barghouthi, an astrophysicist at Al-Quds University, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis. Dr. Barghouthi has been arrested three times by Israeli security police. On the most recent occasion, on July 16, 2020, Israeli authorities charged Barghouthi with “incitement” for his Facebook posts.

Following 52 days of imprisonment, an Israeli judge ruled that Barghouthi’s social media posts did not constitute incitement. So, Israeli police opted for “administrative detention” instead, a routine way to jail Palestinians indefinitely, without charge. Barghouthi spent ten and a half months in jail, inside Israel, in breach of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Al-Quds students suffered in Dr. Imad’s absence. No one else could teach his courses in electromagnetism, nuclear and molecular physics, electrodynamics, statistical mechanics, photodynamics or plasma physics. Denied Internet access, Barghouthi used an old Nokia mobile device to communicate with his students, directing them to cite this paper, solve that equation or contact such and such researcher.

Barghouthi was finally released in November 2020, charged $15,000 bail and warned not to post on Facebook again.

Following his release, in an interview with S4P member Mario Martone, Barghouthi commented on the challenges of doing science under military occupation.

There are many Palestinian universities, but few breakthroughs or publications, Barghouthi said. Obtaining equipment and textbooks is a huge challenge. Above all, Palestinian science suffers from a lack of human diversity. In Europe and North America, researchers and their students gather from all over world. In contrast, leaving the West Bank, and especially Gaza, can be an insurmountable obstacle. And, of course, “Israelis don’t like it if an academic is also politically active,” Barghouthi said.

Yousef Najajreh is Associate Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the Faculty of Pharmacy at Al-Quds University, in Abu Dis, on the edge of East Jerusalem, specializing in novel anti-cancer therapeutics. His research is top-drawer, involving the identification of allosteric enzyme inhibitors, platinum-based anticancer compounds and nanoparticulate delivery systems.

Yousef would be even more innovative if he were outside Palestine. How can one run a medicinal chemistry lab without advanced instruments for NMR, X-ray diffraction, tissue culture or chromatography, or essential organic reagents and biologics, Najajreh asks?

On a visit to the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne, Najajreh marveled at the half dozen NMRs lined up side by side in a hallway, and closets full of organic reagents. While the Palestinian Authority can be faulted for its lack of a research strategy or budget (forty per cent of the PA’s annual budget is devoted to providing “security” to Israel), Israel bears the ultimate blame, says Najajreh. Lab equipment and reagents that are available must be obtained from Israeli agents for international providers, or from Palestinian agents for Israeli agents. “Dual-use” items (some as simple as glycerol) are banned. And, researchers like Najajreh who don’t have a Jerusalem entry permit to pick up an order from an Israeli agent (who can’t or won’t come to Abu Dis) must ask an intermediary to go fetch the item. 

Then there’s the human dimension. Three-month visas for visiting professors or students are out of synch with Palestine’s 16-month semester. And anyone sympathetic to the Palestinian cause gets banned at Ben Gurion airport or the Allenby Bridge from Jordan. Even within Jerusalem (Israel’s “eternal and undivided capital”), Al-Quds students and faculty have huge difficulties moving between Abu Dis and East Jerusalem campuses in Beit Hanina or Wadi Joz.

Conversely, Jerusalemite instructors, administrators and students heading home from Abu Dis campus are routinely obliged to get off the bus for “security” checks. To top it off, Israeli soldiers and border police routinely invade Abu Dis campus, firing teargas and dragging off students. 

In a Zoom conversation with the author, Yousef Najajreh had this to say:

“[In a European or North American research lab you] have this synthetic chemistry group interacting with the biology group, with a computational chemistry group, with an artificial intelligence guy … with someone working on animal models … a circle of research. That I cannot do … No matter what circle I want to do, there are some gaps.”

 “Being a professor does not mean anything to the lady sitting on the Allenby Bridge. Or the soldier or the border police … If they want to interrogate you, they will interrogate you; if they want to let you back, they let you back; they can stop a professor like Imad Barghouthi at the crossing, and [jail him] because he is politically active … And I’ve been searched several times, taking off everything; my belt, my shoes, like any Palestinian … Being a university professor does not give you any privilege.”  

 “Sometimes they get angry, sometimes they suspect you of certain things … The reality is that you are going to your university, and every day you go back home you are searched, and you have to show your ID to someone else who is actually your occupier … I do want to see that American who will go to his own university, and on the way home he has to show, I don’t know what, every time his ID, to get searched; to take off the bus, to take into the bus … In the end, it is harassing.”

 “What is easy in Palestine? Doing what is easy? Driving on the road is not easy. Going to the supermarket is not easy. No, doing science in Palestine is something like a miracle, if you manage to do science.”

 “The whole environment is hindering your progress”.

 “The way the whole system is working is actually driving you crazy.”

Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, a biologist, describes himself as a “Bedouin in cyberspace” and “a villager at home.” Qumsiyeh is the founder and volunteer director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History and Palestine Institute of Biodiversity and Sustainability, affiliated with Bethlehem University. Together with partner Jessie Chang and other staff, Qumsiyeh studies Palestinian biodiversity, cultural heritage and permaculture. Their popular education programs focus on school children and marginalized communities. In an email, Mazin Qumsiyeh offered these thoughts on science in Palestine:

“Israel is the occupying/colonizing power and is not interested in allowing any normal life for local people including economic progress based on science.”

 “Real scientific research advances knowledge that benefits humans … Native/indigenous knowledge promotes local interests and thus is fought against by those interested in controlling the land and the natural resources.”

 “We have no freedom; for example, to import scientific equipment and material. Even books rarely pass through if ordered. Everything goes through Israeli customs and checks in ways to hinder.”

 “Scientific colleagues can be denied entry (most have to lie at border and say they are tourists). Only collaborating scientists (those who normalize and collaborate with Israelis) get special consideration.”

 “Zionism from its inception waged a war on the culture and on education and essentially all spheres of life of Palestinians because it was interested in having the land without the people. Thus, destruction of people and any pillar of support for the indigenous people was a key activity for colonizers … Direct attacks on any cultural activities and even dismantling centers and institutions that preserve culture.

 “We have very different agendas. We implement our agendas (youth empowerment, etc.), despite the challenges of occupation. They uproot and we replant (both actual and metaphoric)”

 This is a slightly altered version of something published in the September 2021 newsletter of Scientists for Palestine