Israel ‘Blocks International Academics’ in West Bank, Gaza

Two NGOs have accused Israel of preventing international academics from working at universities in Occupied Palestinian Territory by preventing them from entering the country and refusing to renew visas for those with teaching contracts in the West Bank and Gaza.

The NGOs, Adalah and Al-Haq, have launched a campaign with Birzeit University to end the “escalating discriminatory Israeli policy”. Adalah (which translates as Justice) is the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and Al-Haq is an independent Palestinian human rights organization.

They say the increasingly harsh visa regime is forcing international academics to abandon their students and leave the country.

“Murky and arbitrary Israeli regulations leave international lecturers and their families in constant uncertainty and subject to deportation at any time,” the NGOs say.

They allege that over the past two years visa restrictions imposed on international academics include denial of entry to the West Bank, refusal of visa extensions, delays in processing visa extension applications beyond the period in which the visa is valid, arbitrary granting of visas for short periods that sometimes range from only two weeks to three months, restricting visas to the West Bank only and permitting entry and exit only via the Allenby Bridge crossing rather than via Ben Gurion Airport, requiring applicants to deposit large sums as guarantees – sometimes as much as ILS80,000 (US $23,000).

With Birzeit University, a leading Palestinian university in the West Bank, they say they are taking legal action to reverse what they describe as Israel’s intensified efforts over the past three years to “force international lecturers to leave the country.”

They are demanding that Israel:

  • Lift restrictions preventing international academics employed by Birzeit University from staying and working in the West Bank.
  • Refrain from imposing arbitrary restrictions on the duration of stay or extension of stay for international academics.
  • Order the publication of a clear and lawful procedure for issuing entry visas and work permits for international academics in the West Bank, “which will enable the university to manage and maintain its academic freedom.”

Although only the Israeli authorities can provide the full figures, the NGOs say a range of sources has confirmed an increasing refusal to renew visa extensions and other conditions.

University World News has lodged a request for comment from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs but has not received a response so far.

‘Clear Escalation’

The Right to Enter Campaign, which has monitored the issue of entry and visa procedures for foreign nationals for more than a decade, has reported a clear escalation in refusals on visa extension applications and tightening of restrictions since at least mid-2016.

The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, an affiliate of the board of trustees of Birzeit University, reported a 200% increase in visa denials over the past two years. In 2017-18 four international faculty out of 20 were denied visa extensions or entry at the border, while in 2018-19 eight international faculty out of 19 were denied visa extensions or entry.

The NGOs highlighted the findings of a February 2018 Palestinian ministry of education study, which revealed that more than half of the international lecturers and staff (32 out of 64) at eight universities in Occupied Palestinian Territory were detrimentally affected during the previous two years by Israeli rejections of applications for new visas or visa extensions or by refusal to allow them to enter the West Bank.

These academics – many of them Palestinians holding foreign passports – included citizens of Germany, France, India, Jordan, the Netherlands and the United States, with the majority from the US and European Union member states, the NGOs reported.

Between 2017 and 2019, four full-time and three part-time international lecturers at Birzeit University were compelled to leave the country and were not able to continue their teaching because Israel refused to renew their visas. In 2019, Israel denied entry to two international academics with Birzeit University contracts.

“Not a single international faculty member, with the exception of those directly employed by foreign government-sponsored programmes, was issued a visa for the length of their 2018-19 academic year contract,” the NGOs say.

Currently, six full-time international faculty members contracted for the 2018-19 academic year are without valid visas; another five – including a department chair – are overseas with no clear indications of whether they will be able to return and secure the visas required for them to stay for the coming academic year.

“More than 12 departments and programmes face losing faculty members in the coming academic year because of the Israeli policy,” the NGOs added.

The department chair, the chair of the faculty of arts, who has not been named, is an EU citizen married to a Palestinian and has young children, and was told by the Israeli authorities in late 2017 to resign if she wanted her visa extended, the NGOs reported.

Since then she has been prohibited from travelling via Ben Gurion Airport. She travelled over Allenby Bridge three times midway through the 2018-19 academic term in order to renew her visa, with no certainty about whether or not she would be able to return; and was required to pay a ILS30,000 deposit and sign a paper saying she would not pursue a visa extension from inside the country in order to enter the country.

In early June 2019, she was denied entry when she left the country to avoid overstaying her visa and was thus obliged to rely on colleagues to administer her final exams.

Threatened with Deportation

Similarly, Dr Rania Jawad, an assistant professor of English literature, has been threatened with deportation since 2017, the NGOs reported. She holds a PhD and MA from New York University, and a BA from Boston College and specialises in theatre and performance studies. She is married to a Palestinian academic and has two small children.

According to the NGOs, Dr Jawad was told by an Israeli official that her visa extension would be granted only if she provided documentation that she had resigned from her position at Birzeit University – the official informed her that if she was granted a visa extension on the grounds of her marriage to a West Bank ID holder, this means that she is not permitted to work.

Birzeit University President Abdullatif Abuhijleh said: “Blocking our right to engage international academics is part of an ongoing effort by the Israeli occupation to marginalise Palestinian institutions of higher education. The latest escalation in visa restrictions is just one in a longstanding and systematic Israeli policy of undermining the independence and viability of Palestinian higher education institutions.”

Birzeit is the top-ranked Palestinian university in the QS World University Rankings 2019 and one of the top 50 ranked universities in the Arab region, according to the 2019 QS Arab Region University Rankings. But the NGOs says Israel is impeding its ability to function as a university that meets international standards, with a good proportion of international faculty and students.