Israel continues to refuse to issue work permits for international academics working at Palestinian universities in the occupied West Bank and is escalating a harsh visa policy that is forcing them to abandon their students and leave the country. Murky and arbitrary Israeli regulations leave international lecturers and their families in constant uncertainty and subject to deportation at any time.
Now, a Palestinian university in the West Bank, together with two Palestinian human rights groups, is taking legal action. After three consecutive academic years during which Israel has intensified its efforts to force international lecturers to leave the country, Birzeit University, Al-Haq, and Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, are demanding an immediate halt to this policy targeting Palestinian academic freedom and isolating Palestinian institutions of higher learning. Birzeit University – despite operating under Israeli military occupation – must be guaranteed the ability to exercise its right to freedom of education.
In a letter sent on April 30, 2019 to Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Israeli Chief Military Advocate General Sharon Afek, and the Israeli military’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Kamil Abu Rokon, Birzeit University, Al-Haq, and Adalah demanded that Israel lift the restrictions preventing international academics employed by Birzeit University from staying and working in the West Bank; refrain from imposing arbitrary restrictions on the duration of stay or extension of stay for international academics; and order the publication of a clear and lawful procedure for issuing entry visas and work permits for international academics in the West Bank, which will enable the university to manage and maintain its academic freedom.
The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, an affiliate of the Board of Trustees of Birzeit University, reported a 200% increase in visa denials over the past two academic years alone: In the 2017-2018 academic year, four international faculty out of 20 were denied visa extensions or entry at the border; in 2018-2019, eight international faculty out of 19 were denied visa extensions or entry.
Between 2017 and 2019, four full-time and three part-time international lecturers at Birzeit University were compelled to leave the country and were not able to continue their teaching because Israel refused to renew their visas. In 2019, Israel denied entry to two international academics with Birzeit University contracts. Not a single international faculty member, with the exception of those directly employed by foreign government-sponsored programs, was issued a visa for the length of their 2018-2019 academic year contract. Another six full-time international faculty members contracted for the 2018-2019 academic year are without valid visas; another five – including a department chair – are overseas with no clear indications of whether they will be able to return and secure visas required them to stay for the coming academic year. Over 12 departments and programs face losing faculty members in the coming academic year because of the Israeli policy.
Birzeit University President Abdullatif Abuhijleh said, “Blocking our right to engage international academics is part of an ongoing effort by the Israeli occupation to marginalize Palestinian institutions of higher education. The latest escalation in visa restrictions is just one in a longstanding and systematic Israeli policy of undermining the independence and viability of Palestinian higher education institutions.” Birzeit University is not alone: universities across the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, are being affected by the Israeli policy.
The Israeli policy toward international academics violates both Israeli and international law. It violates universities’ freedom to expand the areas of research and studies it offers to Palestinian and international students alike. Adalah Deputy General Director, Attorney Sawsan Zaher, who drafted the letter to Israeli authorities, said: “Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – like all other peoples around the world – are entitled to exercise their right to academic freedom as part of their right to self-determination. The Israeli military occupation cannot prevent Palestinians from exercising this right. Indeed, according to the interpretation applied to Article 43 of the Hague Regulations of 1907, sovereignty of education does not change hands – it is inalienable – and must remain in the hands of the occupied Palestinian population.”