Minister Condemns Undermining Palestinian Narrative at US Universities

dialogueIn an interview with Palestine Square last week, Palestinian Education Minister, Dr. Sabri Saidam, condemned tactics by US academic institutions “undermining the Palestinian narrative or paying lip service to the occupation.” The minister was in Washington DC at the head of a delegation of 19 Palestinian university representatives to take part in a recently established US-Palestinian Higher Education Dialogue, organized by the State Department and the US Consulate in Jerusalem. “This initiative is a result of longstanding cooperation between Palestinian and American academic institutions,” Saidam explained.

In recent years, the suppression of Palestine solidarity voices on American campuses has become alarmingly widespread, triggering protests and calls for the protection of academic freedom. A recent case involved the suspension of a student-led course on Palestine at the University of California Berkeley. “The crackdown is a nation-wide phenomenon,” according to Palestine Legal, an organization dedicated to protecting the First Amendment rights of Palestine solidarity activists. According to their latest records, from January 1, 2014 through June 30, 2016, there were 563 incidents of censorship, punishment, or other burdening of advocacy for Palestinian rights across the US, 90% of which targeted students or scholars.

Asked whether Israeli violations of Palestinian academic institutions were discussed, the minister responded by describing the dialogue as chiefly “technical.” The conversation focused on establishing sustainable partnerships, as well as education management and the role of the private sector in an effort to advance mutual relations with American institutions and address the difficult reality of Palestinian universities, including Israeli violations, he went on. “We all know that Israel will continue to prevent the flow of academic oxygen at our universities,” the minister told Palestine Square.

Earlier this year, Israeli forces raided both Al-Quds and Birzeit universities, confiscating students’ computers and curricular materials, and vandalizing offices. Similarly, the Palestine Technical University at Kadoorie was raided by Israeli forces just over a year ago. “The Israeli army is attacking universities within the scope of a systematic scheme to eradicate Palestinian identity,” Saidam said at the time.

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Most recently, Israel began to impede academic access in Palestine. On September 13 Israeli authorities denied entry and deported Dr. Adam Hanieh, a senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, who was invited by Birzeit University to deliver a series of lectures. A statement released by Birzeit said “this act of denial of entry and deportation by the Israeli state and its agencies is part of a systematic policy of denial of entry to international academics.” A SOAS statement called to question this Israeli practice as “an arbitrary breach of academic freedom,” noting that this was not the first time members of the British school have been denied entry.

Meager Contributions?

The 2-day meeting in Washington culminated in the announcement of three grants. Some $342,000 was allocated to the development of an IT program at Al-Najah University; another $352,000 was earmarked for Atlas Corps, a US-based organization, to provide young Palestinians with internship opportunities; and lastly a grant for AMIDEAST, an international education non-profit, to bolster digital literacy in Palestinian classrooms. Since 2010, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has contributed about $13.5 million to the Palestinian higher education sector.

Nevertheless, Saidam expressed concern over a general decline in US aid and its use to influence political outcomes, noting that “American aid to Palestine does not compare with the support Israel receives.” Such concerns are highlighted by the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding between the US and Israel for $38 billion in military assistance alone.

Still, the minister was keen to emphasize that, regardless of its technical nature, neither the dialogue nor the aid “derogates from our political positions.” He pointed out that this initiative demonstrates “a promising effort,” and that “the US would have to match its financial assistance with commensurate political positions.”