Friday, October 07, 2016

Palestinian Universities on the Frontline

Palestinian Universities on the Frontline

By Sam Bahour

On display at the Bethlehem Museum, the abacusis a simple, but yet piercing piece of art reflecting what Palestinian kids aregoing through under military occupation. Palestinian Artist Rana Bishara fromTarshiha in the Western Galilee. (October, 2016) Printed with permission ofartist.

Palestinian universities are fighting an uphill battle on two fronts, one being the Israeli military occupation, and more recently, the other being the Palestinian government. Although each poses two very different sets of challenges, one outcome is clear. If immediate and decisive intervention is not forthcoming, the structural damage that will set back entire generations of Palestinian students will haunt Palestine’s developmental capabilities for many years to come. That is, if the damage has not already been inflicted. 

Prolonged Israeli military occupation of Palestine (West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip) has caused a staggering amount of damage to the Palestinian society at large. Much of this damage is visible to the naked eye, such as land grabs, settlements, walls, fences, checkpoints, demolished airports, and bombed-out buildings, just to name a few. However, the more serious and long-term damage is hidden from view. I call it the administratively applied part of the Israeli military occupation. These invisible aspects of the occupation comprise issues such as the infamous permit system, the limiting and prohibiting of access to the electromagnetic spectrum, confiscation of water resources, severely limiting Palestinians’ access to water, and importation restrictions. The list is long.

These are the elements of occupation you cannot capture in a photo. One of the key elements Israel has routinely sought to attack is Palestine’s education system. The Israeli fixation on blocking Palestinian education is not new.

When Israel was yet in its formative years, it introduced an office of the advisor to the [Israeli] prime minister on Arab affairs. As quoted in Atty. Sabri Jiryis’ landmark book, “The Arabs in Israel” (1976), one of the most racist persons to hold this position was Uri Lubrani (1960-1963). Lubrani stated in a lecture, “It very probably would be better if there were no Arab university students. It probably would be easier to govern them if they continued to work as wood cutters and waiters.” It seems this desire has not faded away.

Earlier this month, Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, a Palestinian research group which recently became affiliated with Birzeit University, held its 22nd Annual Conference titled, “The Complex Challenges Facing Palestinian Universities: Is There a Way Out?” The conference was held at Birzeit University on September 30 and October 1, 2016. The Muwatin Conference came on the heels of a provocative student strike at Birzeit University, which witnessed a handful of students forcibly chain closed the gates of the university, totally paralyzing the university for nearly a month and delaying the start of the school year. There is no indication that the situation has stabilized to prohibit the students (or teachers’/workers’ unions) from undertaking future disruptive labor action. The backdrop of this strike made the Muwatin Conference even more timely.

The conference brought together an impressive audience of senior academics, education administrators, including several current and past university presidents, private sector concerns, and Palestinian government officials, including the current Minister of Education and Higher Education, Dr. Sabri Saidam, as well as several ex-ministers. The panels hosted some of the top Palestinian thinkers on higher education.

One panel, Higher Education: Continuation or Start Over?, offered an historical overview of the young Palestinian higher education sector. Another panel, Where Does Higher Education Stand in Palestine?, grappled with the need to educate for the sake of education, as well as to educate to serve a productive labor market, one that is extremely distressed by prolonged occupation. Other panels were titled Self-Restricting Constraints on Higher Education, University Economics and Country Economics, Higher Education Under Occupation, The Regulatory Framework for Higher Education, and Higher Education and State Building. Having listened attentively to them all, the overarching messages were loud and clear: our higher education system remains in the crosshairs of the Israeli occupation, and the Palestinian government, with its deep financial constraints and lack of legislative oversight, is unable to stop the imminent damage on its own.

From the Israeli side, the damage to the higher education sector is systemic. Physical targeting of university facilities, as was the case at the Islamic University in the Gaza Strip, and frequent incursions on to campuses, as was recently the case at the Palestine Technical University (Kadoorie) located in Tulkarm and Birzeit University near Ramallah, have brought material damage and disruption to university operations. Additionally, the heavy restrictions Israel has placed on Palestinians’ movement and access have forced universities to be established near the students, bringing the total number of universities to 15 for a population of 4.8 million with over 220,000 university students, with three new private universities in the pipeline. This forced geographic fragmenting of our community is not only draining material resources, but it is cannibalizing the shrinking pool of qualified university professors, especially those holding PhDs. Just last month, Israel denied entry into the country to UK-based scholar Dr. Adam Hanieh, who was invited by the Ph.D. Program in the Social Sciences at Birzeit University to deliver a series of lectures at the university. He is not the first case of an academic being denied access. The number of Israeli restrictions and disruptions is too long to list here.

On the side of the Palestinian government, the criticism was pointed. The inability of the government to meet its financial commitments to universities was highlighted by almost every panelist, especially given the over 40 percent budget allocation that goes toward security. Another alarming issue brought up by many was the issue that the Palestinian security forces have “infiltrated” the universities and are seen as hindering the academic freedoms students expect. This criticism was exacerbated by the fact that, as of late, the Palestinian security forces have arrested and interrogated many student activists.

The Muwatin Conference distributed a booklet titled, “Higher Education in Palestine…Beyond the Figures!!!” I think the three explanation points in the booklet’s title speak for themselves. Nevertheless, reading the set of statistics presented, from the rising unemployment rates, to the declining interest in sciences, to the inability of the labor market to absorb the nearly 40,000 annual graduates, it becomes apparent that the situation is reaching a tipping point and the spillover, when it occurs, will not remain confined behind campus walls.

It was refreshing, albeit depressing, to hear the case made by Dr. Samia Botmeh, Assistant Professor of Economics at Birzeit University, about the negative effect that neo-liberalism is having on Palestine’s higher education system. She made a convincing argument that higher education cannot merely be reduced to providing job skills to serve a market (something she called the “productization” of education), but rather must be viewed from a much broader societal vantage point where a higher education is instilling a set of values and skills to produce a life-long learner who has the ability to assume his or her role in society, be it in serving a business, engaging a philosophical dilemma, producing music, or being a homemaker.

One missing aspect of the conference that I have interest in was how to utilize our diaspora, academics and non-academics, to support the higher education of Palestinians, as well as Palestinian higher education institutes. A week before the conference, my consulting firm launched a Linkedin Group, Academic Network for Palestine (ANPs), to start to collect in one location those Palestinian academics and non-Palestinian academics who are in solidarity with Palestine to discuss ways to support the sector.

Ironically, as I was writing this article, my 11th-grade daughter, Nadine, came to me with her laptop in hand. She enthusiastically wanted me to watch something. It was this, THE PEOPLE VS THE SCHOOL SYSTEM, a YouTube clip by American rapper, spoken word artist, music video director and rights activist from St Louis, Missouri, Richard Williams, better known by his stage name Prince EA. Nadine’s timing was spot on.

Palestine’s challenge is huge. As this video clip by Prince EA so eloquently articulates, we must deal with the same mega-challenges that the entire world is dealing with, the only difference is we must do so while the oppressive boot of Israeli military occupation is pressing on our necks. Ignoring desperately needed reforms and freedoms in Palestine’s education system levies a heavy price on students and the society at large. As Palestinian educators struggle to survive, our Israeli occupier is laughing all the way to the next settlement hilltop.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman. He does business consulting as Applied Information Management (AIM) and is the Chairman of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy. He served as a Board of Trustee member at Birzeit University from 2004 to 2010. He writes frequently on Palestinian affairs and blogs at


Arabic at Al-Fanar Media 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

[ePalestine] TWIP: The Ghost of Palestine's Diaspora (By Sam Bahour)

This Week in Palestine

The Ghost of Palestine's Diaspora

By Sam Bahour

"BEWARE! Palestine has a hidden weapon of mass development: Its diaspora community. There is only one slight problem. We are unable to locate it."

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

[ePalestine] Cleveland Plain Dealer: Donald Trump backers also trying to get vote out in Israeli settlement

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Donald Trump backers also trying to get vote out in Israeli settlement

By Sam Bahour

"I ask Trump the same question I ask Israelis: If it's not a military occupation, what is it? If it's an occupation, then it is past time we start holding Israel accountable as an occupying power and speak of when the occupation will end. If it's not an occupation, then should I tell my neighbors, who are originally from Haifa, to prepare to go home? If Israel is imposing upon us one state, then we Palestinians insist that it be one state with equal rights for all and not a continuation of the apartheid policies we now endure." ~Sam Bahour

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Monday, September 26, 2016

[ePalestine] Haaretz: Don't Call Us 'Israeli Arabs': Palestinians in Israel Speak Out (By Sam Bahour)

Haaretz - Sep 26, 2016

Don't Call Us 'Israeli Arabs': Palestinians in Israel Speak Out

"Palestinian citizens of Israel are its Achilles' heel; they refuse to become Zionists, refuse to leave Israel, and refuse to vanish into thin air. And, increasingly, they are refusing to remain silent."



Don't Call Us 'Israeli Arabs': Palestinians in Israel Speak Out
Palestinian citizens of Israel are its Achilles’ heel; they refuse to become Zionists, refuse to leave Israel, and refuse to vanish into thin air. And, increasingly, they are refusing to remain silent.

Sam Bahour Sep 26, 2016 3:20 PM

Arab Israeli protesters march to commemorate Nakba Day, Rahat, Israel, May 12, 2016.Ahmad Gharabli, AFP

When Israel’s founding fathers removed by force the native Palestinian Arab population living where they intended to establish their state, they murdered or displaced more than 80% of that population.

This act of ethnic cleansing — to borrow one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly found phrases — was given a name in Arabic: the Nakba, or catastrophe. The Palestinian Muslims, Druze and Christians who remained in what became Israel have been, and are today, approximately 20% of the population. These are indigenous Palestinians and their descendants, who have had Israeli citizenship imposed upon them.

'48ers, Palestinian Arabs, 'insiders' – just not 'Israeli Arabs'

For over half a century, Israel has preferred the designation Israeli Arabs, focusing on their Israeliness and attempting to obliterate any trace of Palestinian from their identity. Among Palestinians in exile or the West Bank, they’re referred to as ‘48ers, referring to the year of the Nakba, or as those living “on the inside,” meaning inside the 1949 armistice line, better known as the Green Line. Now, a new cohort of Palestinian thinkers inside Israel writing 68 years after the Nakba reaffirm that they are not just Arabs, but Palestinian Arabs, and that while they may be “in Israel,” they are not Israel’s: they are their own masters.

These Palestinian citizens of Israel are its Achilles’ heel; they refuse to become Zionists, refuse to leave Israel, and refuse to vanish into thin air. And, increasingly, they are refusing to remain a silent, or passive, player.

This increasingly assertive minority in Israel spoke out in a new think tank report published this month by The Palestinian Arab Citizens in Israel hosted by the Oxford Research Group and supported by the I'LAM Arab Center for Media Freedom Development and Research in Nazareth and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. [Full disclosure: While completely independent, this project is also a sister project of the Palestine Strategy Group, of which I’m a secretariat member.]

Four futures for Palestinians in Israel, from chaos to a binational state

The report is unequivocal about the need for the state of Israel to wholly accept these Palestinian citizens as full and equal citizens. Israeli Jewish citizens who think they have quashed any impetus for collective action by their Palestinian neighbors in Israel would be well advised to read, not just this report in its entirety, but also the biographies of those responsible for its production. Some of the sharpest political and academic minds in Israel are exposing the historical misjudgments and internal contradictions in the Israeli state and offering a way out, if anyone is interested in pursuing it.

The report highlights three possible scenarios – four futures for the Palestinian citizens of Israel and their relationship with the State of Israel.

Scenario 1 assumes the continuation of the status quo
, which could proceed along two different paths: Israel could embark on attempting to better the quality of life of its Palestinian citizens, as individuals, without addressing the core political or collective issues, or could simply attempt to perpetuate the status quo, without the emergence of a Palestinian state, a combination that would inevitably become less status quo and more a continuous downward spiral.

Scenario 2 envisions chaos on Israel’s borders as regional Islamic fundamentalism in bordering states spills over into Israel, provoking redeployment of the Israeli military and greater potential instability.

Scenario 3 assumes the creation of an independent Palestinian state (as defined by the UN General Assembly Resolution passed on November 29, 2012) living side by side with Israel.

Thousands of people participated in a march to commemorate 'Nakba Day' near the ruins of the village Al-Lajoon near Megiddo in northern Israel, Tuesday April 24, 2007. Tomer Neuberg / Jini

And scenario 4 projects Israel’s transition into a binational state, in effect a one-state solution, but with a very different social contract with Jewish Israelis: one that ensures constitutional equality between Jews and Arabs and re-envisions all of the state’s trappings, such as the flag, national anthem, etc.

Recognizing the collective rights of Palestinians in Israel

But in parallel to these high-level strategic scenarios, Palestinian citizens in Israel need tangible goals.

In the short-medium term (five- to ten-years) framing the aspirations of the collective, building and upgrading the institutional infrastructure of the legitimate minority status of Palestinians in Israel based on pluralism, democracy and equality. Specifically, the umbrella representative organizations – the Higher Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel and the National Committee of the Heads of Arab Localities – should be reformed and new associations should be considered.

A ten- to twenty-year horizon focuses on individual rights and equal opportunities in addition to the attainment of recognition as a collective. This includes efforts to revitalize existing representative bodies and create new ones to work toward achieving formal recognition at all levels of government with the aim of securing first-class citizenship rights and economic and development rights, as well as addressing the various state planning bodies.

And finally looking forward twenty to forty years: the achievement of a historic reconciliation between the two peoples in historical Palestine as part of reconciliation between the Jewish community and the Palestinians alone, or also with the peoples and countries of the wider region.

Palestinians: Accept pluralism. Israelis: Right historical injustice

Such charting of a joint future is difficult to envision today because of the vast ideological diversity with the Palestinian community, with some calling for no separation between religion and state and others calling for total separation. This major disparity in ideologies is a clear potential weakness: the report calls for the universal acceptance of pluralism as the necessary foundation on which to build, with all stakeholders accepted as part of a shared future. The report notes likewise that the need for the state to be a state for all its citizens must be a given in any future scenario.

It is true that ending the nearly 50-year-old Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, although imperative, will not bring total peace to Israel. What could finally accord Israel a normal place among nations, for the first time ever, is for it to come to terms with its history of injustice.

That means acknowledging its role in the creation of the Palestinian refugee community, taking restorative efforts to right that wrong, and finally accepting its Palestinian citizens as full and equal civic partners in theory and in practice.

Sam Bahour is a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network; Chairman of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy; Co-editor of HOMELAND: Oral History of Palestine and Palestinians (Olive Branch Press). He blogs at @SamBahour

Sam Bahour
Haaretz Contributor


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Friday, September 09, 2016

A Palestinian Stalwart Rests

A Palestinian Stalwart Rests
By Sam Bahour

Jaber El-Wanni
Some people don’t deserve the harshness life imposes upon them. Jaber El-Wanni was one of those persons.

This summer, when I last visited him in his home to bid him farewell before heading back to Palestine, I was speechless. How do you tell someone goodbye when you both know it will be the last time you will ever see each other? The fragile giant of a man that barely resembled the Jaber I chose to remember, slowly got out of his recliner and, as always, took the initiative. He said, “Well, if I don’t see you again, please take good care of yourself.” My pitiful answer was all I could muster, replying to him that I’ll see him again soon, maybe around Christmas. We both knew better.

After a long and difficult battle with cancer, Jaber El-Wanni, passed away at home in Youngstown, Ohio on September 8, 2016 surrounded by family and friends. He suffered months on end for sure, but you would not know it by sitting and talking with him. He lived the last period of his life with the same dignity that he lived the rest of his life. A man of high intelligence and keen intellect, Jaber was not one to live in empty slogans, but rather approached life’s challenges with an analytical mind that operated in a world of facts and reality. Whether the discussion was about history, politics, current events, cinema, or music, Jaber would have insight and value to add to the conversation.

Jaber was born in Marda, a Palestinian town located in the Salfit Governorate in the northern West Bank, 18 kilometers Southwest of Nablus. He left Marda to pursue his studies in the US and successfully did so in California and Michigan, earning a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in economics. He was a leader in the US branch of the PLO’s General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS), which is how I first met him.

Throughout the 1980s, his work led him to spend significant time in South America promoting the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence. When his work frequently brought him to Youngstown, Ohio, we became more than friends. The couch in my small apartment’s living room on Roosevelt Drive became a place he started to call his second home. We bought memberships at the Scandinavian Health Spa in Boardman and challenged each other to go work out whenever he was in Youngstown, me heading straight for the pool and Jaber dragging me to the weights and aerobics first. A stickler for details, he would call from places like Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador checking up on this and that, a few times rattling off in Spanish before I could remind him to change frequencies so I could understand. Jaber never got bogged down by things he could not directly affect, he just calculated what could be done at any given moment, and moved on. A virtue we would all be well-advised to strive for.

Jaber at a graduation party in Youngstown, Ohio (June, 2016)
Jaber knew that our personal lives are not just sideshows, but needed the same attention as the larger struggles of life. He was one of the very few people I was able to engage with about personal matters. We each contemplated with the other where marriage would take us, where to live, how to absorb the seismic changes happening in the Palestinian national movement, how best to manage our work lives, among so much more. He married Salam Jabarin and they had two boys, Khalid and Ghassan. Jaber and Salam finally decided to settle in Youngstown, Ohio and started building their business later in life than most. Working as a team, Jaber and Salam were able to make the progress others who had a few decades head start made. While building a family, home and several successful businesses, Jaber was adamant not to forget his lifelong commitment to his community. He was an active member of the Arab-American Community Center of Youngstown and the Youngstown Grocers’ Association, holding multiple leadership positions at both, including president.

Jaber’s standing joke was how could life be fair when I, the Youngstown native, am living in Palestine, and he, the Palestine native, is living in Youngstown. After decades of being unable to even visit Palestine, Jaber decided it was time to attempt to come home for a visit. A little nervous, but as practical as always, Jaber made the trip to the Ben Gurion Airport (better known to Palestinians as Lod Airport, before its name was changed in 1973) in 2008. He was permitted to enter by the Israeli authorities and made his way to his birthplace. He was in his glories. He spent the visit like a child in Disneyland, wanting to experience it all. We went on many day trips. One trip in particular, was when I took Jaber to visit Jerusalem. He kept trying to make sense of a landscape that was now foreign to him. Nevertheless, some parts of Jerusalem will never change and as we got closer to the Old City he was able to anchor his memory in a few well-known spots. Upon driving out of Jerusalem back to Ramallah a car pulled up beside us and the driver started frantically waving. It was a friend of ours, a woman that Jaber worked with back in California during his student days. He was tickled that after so many years, he could still find someone to recognize him in Jerusalem.

That first trip was followed by several others. After a serious health issue, Jaber’s health was finally stabilized. So, a few years ago Jaber and Salam came on a visit and decided to purchase an apartment in Ramallah; he wanted to create a platform for a future retirement. Just last year the apartment was completed and they came back and furnished it, only to learn upon getting back to the US that Jaber’s cancer was back and spreading. He was told to prepare for the inevitable. My father accompanied Jaber when he got this devastating news. And in perfect Jaber style, my father said he stayed focus on what could be done. He entered a year of shuttling back and forth to the Cleveland Clinic and local Youngstown medical facilities for intense chemotherapy treatments, which took their cruel toll. When my father was his driver on these trips to Cleveland he would call me in Palestine when Jaber was getting his treatments to let me know how he was doing. My dad’s message was always the same, “Your friend is one strong man.”

Jaber’s last months and days were full of pain. This past summer he asked his wife to drive him to Michigan to see his old friends, one who has his own serious health issue. Jaber had a hard time but made the trip and bid all of his friends there a final farewell. Back at home in Youngstown, Jaber’s living room became witness to a constant flow of friends, all wanting to help wherever possible, but there was not much anyone could do. My sister, Leila, made sure Jaber had a stash of her famous biscottis, which he loved. Jaber sat with everyone who visited, albeit quiet and clearly unwell. Every so often he would faintly interject his insights, still sharp, on the topics being discussed. If there was ever a poster made for a person who passed away with full dignity, Jaber’s photo would be on it.

Rest in peace Jaber; rest my brother, we will take it from here. You did your part and so much more.

~ Sam Bahour blogs at and may be reached at

Top Photo: Jaber at his son Khalid’s gradation party, 2007.