Mohammad’s story isn’t necessarily heartbreaking. He is a 19-year old, outstanding student from Gaza who wants to study mechatronics (an emerging discipline that combines mechanical engineering with computer science and other fields) so he can join his father’s business. Until now there hasn’t been a mechatronics program in the Gaza Strip. Al Azhar University opened a pilot program this year, but Mohammad prefers to study at Birzeit University in the West Bank, in a program that already has an established reputation. The Israeli army’s district coordination office (DCO) for Gaza rejected Mohammed’s application to study in the West Bank. It has nothing to do with Mohammed himself. He is not accused or suspected of committing security offenses. It’s not personal, it’s just that no students from Gaza are allowed to travel to the West Bank to study.

Again, this is not a heartbreaking story, just another small dream crushed by movement restrictions. Israel’s security establishment has been preventing students from Gaza from studying in the West Bank since the year 2000, in a blanket ban. The students are not asked to undergo individual security checks; they are considered a security threat simply because they are students.

This isn’t an exaggeration. In 2005, Gisha petitioned the High Court of Justice (HCJ) on behalf of students from Gaza who wished to study occupational therapy in the West Bank. Gisha asked that the DCO run individual security checks on the students’ applications. The state opposed the request, claiming that students are collectively considered a risk group and that West Bank universities serve as “greenhouses for growing terrorists”. The HCJ rejected the petition in 2007, but it did recommend that a mechanism be established to individually examine such requests. Despite this recommendation, no student from the Gaza Strip has been allowed to study in the West Bank, apart from three who were allowed to exit in 2010 as an exception to the rule and at the request of the US. We repeat: so far – four years since the HCJ recommendation and 11 years since the ban on student travel was put in place – only three students have received permission to study in the West Bank.

The ban has a chilling effect. As time goes by, fewer and fewer students ask for a permit to study in the West Bank, simply because they know they won’t get it.

Al Azhar University
The sweeping ban on movement doesn’t just hurt individuals, it hurts Palestinian society as a whole. Picture: Al Azhar University

A blow to Palestinian society

The sweeping ban on movement doesn’t just hurt individuals, it hurts Palestinian society as a whole. Since the higher education system is more developed in the West Bank, cutting it off from the Gaza impairs the advancement of education and socioeconomic development in general in the Strip.

There are nine universities in the West Bank, as opposed to five in Gaza. The West Bank also has dozens of colleges. West Bank universities offer a much wider variety of programs including degrees in occupational therapy, medical engineering, veterinary medicine, and democracy and human rights, which are not available in the Strip. In fact, in 2010, the number of undergraduate programs and internships offered in the West Bank was 23% higher than the number offered in the Gaza Strip. It was 60% higher for graduate programs. At Gaza universities there is also a shortage of books, facilities and lab equipment and the student to teacher ratio in the Gaza Strip is twice that of the West Bank.

In addition to the lack of advanced studies, Gaza is short on skilled professionals: it has physicians who have not had sufficient training and a shortage of occupational therapists and dentists. For example, the Gaza Strip has no university-affiliated hospital and students are unable to complete their medical residency properly. Similarly, in the field of rehabilitation, while Gaza residents desperately need access to accredited therapists, Israel refuses to allow Gaza students to travel to the West Bank for training in occupational therapy.

And so, even as some Israeli politicians berate the Palestinian education system for teaching hatred, only a few have taken action against the ban on student travel to the West Bank to enroll in subjects like gender studies or human rights and democracy. After all, all Palestinian students are a “security threat”. And a shortage of physicians, human rights activists or engineers doesn’t threaten security at all.

To clarify, Israel has a right, even an obligation, to protect its citizens, but it is difficult to see how the current policy serves to ensure security. It is particularly puzzling considering the fact that Israel allows 70 to 100 merchants to enter its territory from Gaza every day. Though the scant number of permits given for the business sector do not meet its needs, it does prove that a similar mechanism for individual security checks could be put in place for students.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently stated in an interview that Palestinian economic development is vital for ending the conflict. Since the connection between quality higher education and economic development is self-evident, one might hope that the same logic would lead the foreign minister and the rest of the government to allow students from Gaza to study in the West Bank.