Al-Quds University is maintaining a joint Israeli-Palestinian master`s degree program with Haifa, Hebrew and Tel Aviv universities, despite a decision taken by its own University Council in February 2009 to distance itself from Israeli academic institutions.
`[The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, PACBI] views this joint Palestinian-Israeli academic project as a clear violation of the Palestinian criteria for the academic boycott of Israel, which are widely supported by Palestinian civil society,` Omar Barghouti, a founding member of PACBI and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, told The Electronic Intifada.
`PACBI also believes that the timing of this announcement can only confirm the suspicion that it is intended to relieve Israel`s increasing isolation -- after its criminal attack on the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotilla,` Barghouti explained.
Supported by the UN`s agency for education and culture, UNESCO and the Italian Development Cooperation (DGCS) in Jerusalem, the program in question is the third round of a joint master`s degree that would allow 20 Israeli and Palestinian students to study in Italy and learn about `cooperation, humanitarianism, peace and cultural preservation.` It is coordinated by Rome`s La Sapienza University.
This program is the result of the Declaration of Principles of Palestinian-Israeli International Cooperation in Scientific and Academic Affairs, which was signed in May 2004 by the Rector of the University of Rome La Sapienza and the Rectors and Presidents of five Israeli universities (Haifa University, Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Weizmann Institute of Science) and four Palestinian institutions (Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, Bethlehem University, Hebron University and the Palestine Polytechnic Institute) (download the Declaration of Principles [PDF]).
According to Hasan Dweik, Al-Quds University`s executive vice-president, shortly after the declaration was signed in 2004, all other Palestinian universities withdrew their cooperation in line with the academic boycott.
`At this time, we said that we, as Al-Quds University, would take the responsibility of running this course,` Dweik told The Electronic Intifada, from the university`s campus in Beit Hanina, occupied East Jerusalem.
`Now, and after the Israeli attack on Gaza [in winter 2008-09], my university took a position that we should stop and re-evaluate our cooperation projects with Israel because the horrible thing that took place in Gaza cannot pass like that. We said, `We need to stop and boycott the Israeli academic institutions,` not because we wanted to boycott them but because we wanted to give a message to the Israeli public and to the international community,` Dweik said.
Indeed, on 2 February 2009, Al-Quds` University Board voted to cut all forms of academic cooperation with Israeli academic institutions.
The board explained that the Israeli attack on Gaza, during which more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed (including more than 300 children), combined with settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the intensification of restrictions in the rest of the West Bank, fueled the decision to gradually phase out the programs.
`It`s just basically to put some pressure on NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and academic institutions both in Israel, the United States and Europe, to pressurize Israel to bring about peace in our area. This was our intention,` Dweik said.
Still, he explained that while Al-Quds University will no longer enter into new academic initiatives with Israeli universities, it would not restrict extensions or the continuation of existing projects, such as the joint master`s program in Rome.
`Any program that started a few years ago will continue. It will not stop,` Dweik said, adding that the university chose not to impose a complete boycott on its faculty and staff because it wants to preserve `academic freedom.`
According to Barghouti, however, the academic freedom argument does not hold water. Instead, he said that joint Israeli-Palestinian academic programs legitimize Israeli colonial policies.
`Joint projects help provide Israeli universities with a crucial fig leaf to undermine the boycott. We often read a recurring theme in Israeli criticism of British and other academic unions that support the boycott: `Why are you trying to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians? If Palestinian academics themselves are cooperating with the Israeli academy, why do you want to boycott it instead of promoting joint collaborations and the free flow of ideas?`` Barghouti stated.
`This was the exact same -- flawed and distinctly deceptive -- logic used by South African apartheid in rebuking international boycotters, particularly in the academic and cultural fields.`
A history of collaboration
The official Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was launched in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank in April 2004.
Since that time, nearly 60 Palestinian civil society organizations have signed onto the PACBI boycott initiative, including the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions and the General Union of Palestinian Women, among others.
The Palestinian Council for Higher Education, a group established in 1977 with the mandate of coordinating between, and representing, Palestinian higher-learning institutions, has also repeatedly reaffirmed that it is against cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian academic institutions.
Still, in May 2005, Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh continued to ignore the growing call for an academic boycott, as he and Hebrew University of Jerusalem President Menachem Magidor released a joint statement denouncing the British Association of University Teachers` (AUT) decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
`Cognizant of the moral leadership universities should provide, especially in already turbulent political contexts, we ... have agreed to insist on continuing to work together in the pursuit of knowledge, for the benefit of our peoples and the promotion of peace and justice in the Middle East,` the statement read.
The statement added: `Our disaffection with, and condemnation of acts of academic boycotts and discrimination against scholars and institutions, is predicated on the principles of academic freedom, human rights and equality between nations and among individuals.`
According to Anan Quzmar, the Coordinator of Birzeit University`s Right to Education Campaign, which demands `the right to education and unimpeded access for all Palestinians to their educational institutions,` all forms of cooperation with Israeli academic institutions should be severed.
`We simply cannot support Palestinian universities working with Israeli institutions under any circumstances while those same institutions either endorse of fail to condemn the ongoing denial of Palestinians` basic human rights,` Quzmar said.
He added that Palestinian students are strongly in favor of the academic boycott, and are working on campaigns to gain international support.
`Recently a statement against any form of normalization was signed by all student councils in universities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and all major Palestine student and youth organizations around the world,` Quzmar said.
`Palestinian students have long supported an academic boycott on Israeli academic institutions and stood against any collaboration between Palestinian academic institutions and Israeli ones. I would go as far as saying that the academic boycott is the most widely supported form of boycott in the Palestinian society.`
Complicity in the occupation
According to a report released by the Alternative Information Center in October 2009 titled `Academic Boycott of Israel and the Complicity of Israeli Academic Institutions in Occupation of Palestinian Territories,` `Israeli academic institutions have not opted to take a neutral, apolitical position toward the Israeli occupation but to fully support the Israeli security forces and policies toward the Palestinians, despite the serious suspicions of crimes and atrocities hovering over them.`
The report found that all main Israeli universities are involved in supporting the occupation through various means.
For instance, the three universities involved with the joint master`s program with Al-Quds University -- Tel Aviv, Haifa and Hebrew University -- have sponsored various academic programs for Israeli military reserves, granted scholarships to students who served in the Israeli attack on Gaza and maintain ties to leading Israeli weapons manufacturers. Indeed, a report released by a student group at London`s School of Oriental and African Studies demonstrated Tel Aviv University`s `deep investment in the facilitation and prosecution (at both the material and conceptual level) of what amount to war crimes` (`Study: Tel Aviv University part and parcel of the Israeli occupation,` SOAS Palestine Society, 9 July 2009).
Dweik told The Electronic Intifada that Al-Quds University is presently involved with about ten joint Israeli-Palestinian projects, and that university faculty members, researchers and administrators will meet to re-evaluate these existing projects every two to three months.
This review will include the Israeli-Palestinian Master`s program in Italy, which Dweik said will almost certainly go ahead despite the destructive influence he readily admitted such projects have on the lives of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
`If you look at all the environment now, it does not help at all having cooperation with the Israelis,` he said. `I think the Israelis use [joint academic programs] in the media to say that things are normal and we are cooperating. I think it helps them internationally.`
According to Quzmar, all Palestinian universities must take a stand against joint academic initiatives, especially when it is clear how such projects legitimize Israel`s systematic violations of Palestinian rights.
`Palestinian universities and students are suffering every single day from the abuses of an absurd occupation,` he said. `To object to the collaboration with those who support this occupation is a very small step and simple step, especially that such collaboration can be so dangerous in allowing Israeli academia the opportunity to whitewash its support to the very same occupation Palestinian academia suffers under.`
Originally from Montreal, Jillian Kestler-D`Amours is a human rights activist and multimedia journalist currently based in occupied East Jerusalem.