I first visited Israel more than three decades ago in 1971. A carefree 21 year-old, I worked as a volunteer for a couple of months on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, right on the border with Lebanon.
Today, I can still vividly recall landing at what was then called Lod airport with a group of other volunteers and being driven north for several hours through the clear starry night.
As we approached our destination there was a change of speed and a sense of getting higher and higher. We had to hold on to the sides of the lorry as it revved and manoeuvred round the bumpy U-bends.
Around midnight we stopped on the border road with Lebanon and I could hear voices talking in Hebrew, shouting orders.
Glaring lights outlined armed soldiers milling around a parked tank and other military vehicles were silhouetted against the pitch-black. “There’s a curfew,” someone explained. “It starts at seven o’clock in the evening. So the military will have to escort us along the road to the kibbutz.” I had never been in a society controlled by the military before; it felt strange and mildly alarming.
Throughout the whole time that I was there working alongside young kibbutzniks picking peaches within yards of the wire fence that marked the Lebanese border, I never once thought to ask why we needed soldiers standing guard at the corners of the field. I gasp now at my early politically naivety, though I could never in a million years have foreseen how my family would later become so caught up in one of the world’s most complex and intractable conflicts.
Thirty-two years later my son, Tom, was the same age when, as a photo-journalist wanting to make a difference, he travelled down to Rafah after the killing of peace activist, Rachel Corrie and UN project Manager, Iain Hook, a few weeks earlier.
I can imagine my curious son after having met with a family two days before and learning of the shooting of two civilian Palestinians joining a Palestinian demonstration against IDF violence. That day three children came under fire from an Israeli position and Tom ran forward to carry a little boy to safety. As he returned for the two remaining girls he was shot in the head and died following 9 months in a coma.
In the wake of Tom’s death, Jocelyn Hurndall has devoted herself to the cause of Palestinian education
As happens after such life-changing moments, a line was drawn. The span of my life was abruptly dislocated and past, present and future no longer seemed to bear any relation to each other. In the months that followed our small family was to take on Israel’s most powerful institution, the Israeli Defence Forces, in a search for the facts about the shooting of our son.
Although I have since been re-stringing my life the feeling of disorientation lasted until I at last found a way of piecing the fragments together in a job. A particular job. In April 2008 I became Development Director of Friends of Birzeit University, which has been supporting education in the West Bank since 1978. As a former teacher and Head of Learning Support, I am acutely aware of the right of young Palestinians to education, which is being severely jeopardised at a time when the creation of future leaders has never been more vital.
In my new position, my past interest in education inclusion has merged with a cause from which I am now inseparable.
At the beginning of June, I visited the University to see for myself the effects of the Occupation on the lives of ordinary students and staff. Since Tom was shot I have crossed many checkpoints but this was different. There was no hint of tension as the Palestinian taxi driver drove me alongside the 16-foot high concrete slabs forming the backdrop to the approach to Ramallah and all seemed quiet as we passed smoothly through the ‘upgraded’ Qalandiya checkpoint from Jerusalem into the West Bank. The wall on the ‘Israeli’ side has been overlaid with attractive brickwork and night-lighting and the crossing was so seamless that I only realized we’d passed through because of the sudden disintegration of the road surface and the swirl of dust in the air.
I had anticipated the bored, uninterested looks and occasional unprovoked harassment of the young Israeli soldiers. In the past, my British passport and the circumstances of my visits to Gaza had afforded no protection, but I knew any harassment I faced now would be nothing in comparison to the intimidation experienced by the students I was soon to meet.
Previously I had been concerned with the rules of engagement, now I was entering another sphere of human rights – the right to education.
This was a time for gathering facts and I was interested to learn from Rajai Zidat, the Scholarships Officer, of recent student detentions and harassment. I discovered that in December 2007 Fadi Ahmad, the Head of Birzeit University’s Student Council, had been charged with belonging to and ‘holding a position of responsibility’ in an ‘illegal organization’. He is currently in Ofer prison and will be incarcerated for at least a year on what appears to be a legalistic means to punish young Palestinians engaged in political activity.
Between January and March alone, one employee and eight students were arrested, including Fadi’s replacement, Abdullah Owais, who is being held on similar grounds but is still awaiting trial.
The process of Administrative Detention is a system of imprisonment without charge. Secret evidence from Israeli intelligence is shown to the military judge and used to justify incarceration for a period up to six months, on a renewable basis. The reasons given are not communicated to the student or his lawyer and one Birzeit undergraduate has been held in Administrative Detention for three years.
Many students, regardless of whether they’re involved in student activities, undergo arbitrary questioning and if they object they are harassed at checkpoints, denied work permits and exposed to house invasions. A shocking 30 per cent of the student population living in Birzeit village are subjected to such ‘interviews’.
And it is not only the students who are suffering. I met with the warm Dr Liza Taraki, Dean of Graduate Studies, who described to me the hardships experienced by lecturers and their lack of professional development, which is resulting in a brain drain.
What she told me endorsed all I had learnt about the state of Israel’s de facto control over which students and teachers can access the University. Since the beginning of 2006, many thousands of Palestinians with foreign passports and other foreign nationals have been denied entry to visit, work or study in the OPTs or are being threatened with deportation. Israel holds responsibility for these areas under the Geneva conventions, but flouts agreements of reciprocity in diplomacy and immigration rules with other states.
The university is struggling to thrive against all odds and when I met its president, Dr Nabil Kassis, I was struck by his dignity, calmness and quiet conviction. Here was someone who was fully aware of the conflict between students’ right to education on the one hand and the prohibitions brought about by the Occupation on the other – and the need for international intervention.
During our meeting, there was a commotion outside and as he reached to close the window he said, “A student was shot last year. This week the students are remembering him. Everyone is affected when such tragedies happen.”
The University usually receives around USD$1.5m from the Palestinian Authority (PA) every year as part of the normal package given to all universities proportional to their size. However, during the economic blockade of the Hamas government after the Parliamentary elections in 2006, the PA could only transfer a mere drop of these funds, leaving the University short of USD$1.2m.
As a former teacher it was hard to take on board the fact that staff salaries were halved for two months, 3,000 students were unable to pay fees and went on strike, and the annual budget was severely affected. As Dr Kassis observed, “It’s contrary to everything you expect in the academic world. You expect the possibility of open-mindedness and this goes to the core of the principle of academic freedom”.
On my final day, I attended a morning of impressive professional training of the Schools Counsellors, who give excellent practical and psychological support to many students at Birzeit who have suffered from harassment and poverty and as my first visit to the University came to an end, I felt more strongly than ever that the three areas that should never be politicised – health, education and the civilian judiciary system – had indeed become deeply entangled.
Tom’s courage brought me here. We learn much from risk-takers and personal tragedy can bring great creativity – but how many risk-takers will there need to be before the international community is provoked into upholding international law with regard to the education rights of young Palestinians?